A deserted Taj Mahal awaits visitors, and revival

The impact on livelihoods that depend on tourism is evident everywhere in COVID-19-struck Agra

The monument to love and its environs are deserted. Parking lots are empty; ticket counters are shut; State police personnel lounge around the closed gates to the Taj Mahal, fiddling with their masks or mobile phones with little else to do.

Agra city is open now, but as you drive towards the Taj itself, the desolation is evident. Some shopkeepers stand outside the Meena Bazaar, complaining how they had been ruined, while the odd auto rickshaw brings the odd pilgrim to Hazrat Syed Jalal Shah Bukhari’s dargah just outside the Taj.

Unmasked Babloo, who drives an e-rickshaw, says he has no work. “Earlier, I used to make ₹600-800 a day, now I am lucky to get ₹50-60 from local passengers,” he said.

Iqbal, an auto driver, is on the same boat as Babloo. If there’s no work, why does he bring his vehicle out on the streets? “What to do sitting at home? Today, I brought some passengers to the dargah. That seems to be it for the day. Our situation is very bad,” he said.

Rajiv Saxena, vice-president of the Tourism Guild of Agra, estimated that the city had lost about ₹5,000 crore on account of the two lockdowns since end-March 2020.

Nationally, the Confederation of Indian Industry estimated in September 2020 that the Indian tourism and travel industry was set to lose ₹5 lakh crore on account of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Five lakh people are directly or indirectly employed by tourism in the city, Mr. Saxena told The Hindu. “Tour guides, for instance, are not able to pay the school fees for their children,” he said.

“There has been no mapping of people’s requirements on the part of the administration,” Mr. Saxena said, adding ruefully that tourism did not make politicians win elections.

Agra District Magistrate Prabhu Narain Singh claimed that the city was hoping the Taj Mahal would open up when the current closure deadline set by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) expired on June 14. The Taj, along with other ASI-protected monuments, has been shut since April 15. In 2020, these were closed from March 16 to July 16.

“After June 14, they [the ASI] might open the Taj. The decision to close came from the ASI, the decision to open will also come from them,” Mr. Singh said. On Friday, Agra reported only 200 COVID-19 cases.

As of Friday, Agra district, which has a population of about 50 lakh, roughly equally divided between the urban and rural spreads, had reported 424 COVID-19 deaths overall. “As on March 20, the number of deaths reported was 174,” Mr. Singh revealed.

Rahul Rathore, who manages the only electric crematorium in the city, claimed that between 50-55 bodies were cremated at the facility every day between April 13 and May 5. “We had to introduce a token system as we have four furnaces in the facility,” he stated.

Banners at the now-deserted crematorium, which is also close to the Taj Mahal, point to the all-pervading fear that gripped relatives and friends bringing the bodies of loved ones. They said a sum of ₹1,000 would be charged for lifting COVID-19-positive bodies and placing them inside the furnace. Otherwise, Mr. Rathore said, the funeral service was free.

Outside the Taj, the silence is broken by a bunch of well-built men who want to take a peek at Shahjahan’s memorial for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, unaware that it has been closed from April 15 this year.

Mithilesh Kumar and his associates are policemen in civvies from Haryana, who are returning to Jind after paying a visit to Jharkhand on work. “We thought we could see the Taj while coming back. But it’s closed — we didn’t know that,” Mr. Kumar said.

For Agra, the reopening of the Taj and the return of the domestic tourist is an obvious priority. Hari Sukumar, vice president of Jaypee Palace Hotel, said his hotel was booked to capacity on the Diwali weekend in 2020. Most hotel guests were people who drove into Agra from the National Capital Region.

Mr. Sukumar is hopeful that destination weddings and offices keen to have team gatherings will offer a new lease of life to the tottering tourism industry as it must wait for the return of the foreign tourist.

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