NEW DELHI — Pradeep Fuloriya points at the track marks showing where, five years ago, a bulldozer nearly succeeded in flattening the Hindu shrine that he cares for beside a leafy road in the heart of New Delhi.
"It could move no further," the 27-year-old priest boasts as he recalls how crowds of devotees forced the machine to retreat from the Shiv Shakti Mochan Temple.
The illegally-built shrine, constructed in 1968 around a banyan tree, was meant to be demolished on official orders but after the protests it was allowed to remain, as long as it did not encroach on any more public space.
"The temple is expanding along with the tree's growth. We can't help that," Fuloriya says at the temple dedicated to lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction.
Municipal bulldozers returned in July after a canopy was used to extend the temple, in what the authorities saw as another defiant act of encroachment.
Once again devotees braved police water cannon to send the wreckers packing. "It's god's wish that the temple is safe and sound," Fuloriya says.
The row over the temple exemplifies many disputes in India over the use of public land for religious sites.
Parks, streets, railway stations and schools are dotted with illegal shrines, and now the government is pushing laws through the courts to end further encroachment.
In September, the Supreme Court slapped a blanket ban on fresh construction of places of worship on state property after strong pressure from the national government.
"Criminals, the land mafia and anti-social elements exploit religious sentiments of the people to grab public land through the construction of such places of worship," the government said in a petition to the court.
"A large chunk of land thus remains under illegal occupation."
The court ordered India's 28 states to send monthly reports on fresh encroachment, but most regional administrations said the request was impossible to fulfil.
Another problematic temple in Delhi is a dilapidated site to an unknown Hindu deity that is affecting construction of the city's new metro system.
"The structure in New Ashok Nagar (district) has been abandoned for years but if we try to demolish it, hundreds will turn up and clamour for damages," an official from the Delhi Metro company said on condition he was not named.
Kolkata city's main airport handles more than 320 flights a day but its plan to expand a runway has hit trouble because of a 119-year-old Islamic shrine.
Six people died in Hindu-Muslim riots in 2006 that erupted in the western city of Baroda after municipal engineers there demolished the wall of a Muslim mausoleum.
There are hundreds of thousands of religious sites across India built on public land, and Delhi's municipal spokesman Deep Mathur conceded that demolition of illegal structures is a tricky challenge.
"Given the sensitivity of the issue, these structures cannot be just pulled down and so the Delhi administration has a special committee on religious affairs which decides which can be demolished or re-located," Mathur said.
The Delhi Urban Arts Commission, set up in 1973 to preserve the capital's aesthetic quality and urban environmental design, has hailed the Supreme Court's recent efforts to prevent further encroachments.
"It is already a disaster but a bigger disaster can be prevented if we intervene now," commission secretary Navneet Kumar told AFP.
Kumar blamed the shrine building spree on sectarian rivalries between India's various religious denominations, including the majority Hindus.
"Land-grabbing is one aspect, but the problem comes because Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and others all say 'we are equally important and we should have equal rights,'" Kumar added.
"And so it goes on," said Kumar, who recently helped block plans of Delhi's Hindu nationalist municipal councillors to install a 140-foot (43-metre) statue of lord Krishna in an overcrowded working-class district of the city.
A prominent landscape architect from Delhi's policy-making panel, who declined to be identified because of his minority religious status, said the shrine-building binge must end.
"Putting up two stones or occupying a piece of land in the name of religion is a blatant crime, and it must halt -- because such land belongs to all citizens and not just some groups and sects," he said.
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