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To Agra — With Love, Longing, and Limerence — From Paris

As long as foreign guests can do their photo-ops at the Taj, the government doesn’t care that Agra is going to hell.

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The Yamuna cruise in Agra starts just behind Sikandra, the beautiful red sandstone tomb of Emperor Akbar. The grand finale of the cruise—the famous Taj Mahal—is downstream. We were four on the electric boat that moved slowly, giving us ample time to take in the exceptional views: the left bank dotted with lush Mughal gardens and beautiful monuments and the old city and fort stacked to the right. As we reached the edge of the fort, the river meandered sharply towards the Taj. We disembarked at the Mehtab Bagh or the Moonlight Garden as it was called in the Mughal times. Across the river, its white marble glowing pink in the evening light, stood the stunning monument to love, the Taj.

Except that it didn’t. This cruise wasn’t real. Those who have visited Agra will know that it can only be a dream.

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Snapshot
  • About a decade ago, my father organised a boat ride for the state tourism minister They had barely moved a few metres when the boat got stuck in the silt.

  • Most schemes for the city of Agra are like the tourism minister’s boat—stuck even before they take off.

  • Of more than 1.6 crore international tourists that come to India annually, less than eight lakhs make it to Agra, Taj ticket sales show.

  • Agra doesn’t rate too well when it comes to the tourist experience.

  • A big anti-pollution drive in 2001 led to several industry shutdowns in the area demarcated as the “Taj Trapezium Zone” (10,400 sq km around the monument). Today, the city’s industry continues to reel under increasing restrictions and the absence of clear guidelines.

  • Bureaucratic rut and poor governance keep the city going around in chaotic circles.

What Ails Taj Mahal? Short Answer—Yamuna

About a decade ago, my father, who toils all year round with a citizen’s group to find new ways to solve the city’s problems, organised a boat ride for the state tourism minister. The minister would see the stunning river view of the Taj, and he’d be asked to take action for a cleaner Yamuna. The boat was decorated with colourful flags, and the small group took off with much flourish. They had barely moved a few metres when the boat got stuck in the silt. The plan had to be aborted.

Ministers come and go, and the citizens of Agra keep battling, but the city’s Hydra-headed problems don’t get resolved. The Yamuna riverbed is choking with pollutants and untreated sludge. The dense growth of algae and the phosphorus in the swampy parts of the river bed breed insects that leave their green excrement on the Taj, giving it a sickly tint. Hot winds sweep the arid banks and carry particles into the air, corroding the monument’s surface. A brimming river would not only solve these issues but also add moisture to the wooden-planked wells in the monument’s curiously designed foundation.

A few years ago, a desilting machine had arrived, but before it could do any considerable cleaning, it was sent off to Lucknow. This year, a check dam was announced but several governmental departments have still not given it no objection certificates. Over the last three decades, a barrage was inaugurated three times and finally shelved over disputes regarding whether it should be built on the upper or lower stream.

Tourists' Love-Hate Relationship with Agra

Most schemes for the city of Agra are like the tourism minister’s boat—stuck even before they take off. A city with a heritage as rich as Agra deserves to be treated as a cultural asset. It should be an international tourist hub. Sadly, Agra’s Muslim heritage isn’t a priority for the Uttar Pradesh government, which is more focused on developing “Hindu tourism” in places like Mathura and Vrindavan close to Agra. As long as foreign celebrities and state guests can do their photo-ops at the Taj, the central government doesn’t care that the city is going to hell.

Of more than 1.6 crore international tourists that come to India annually, less than eight lakhs make it to Agra, Taj ticket sales show. The stream of domestic tourists is steady at around 70-80 lakhs, but no matter where they come from, tourists don’t stay long in Agra.

This is not great for local stakeholders. Few people know that in addition to the Taj, there is much more to see in Agra. Suppose you don’t count all 265 monuments of national importance listed by the Archaeological Survey of India in the Agra Circle spread over several districts. In that case, you’d still have three World Heritage Sites and at least 18 lesser-known monuments worth visiting.

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Agra is Not Just About Taj Mahal, It's Also About People

Many now know of the Mehtab Bagh across the river from the Taj as tourism authorities have made some efforts to promote it—something they still haven’t done for many other monuments. Few have discovered rare gems such as the Chini-ka-Rauza, one of the earliest structures in India to be decorated extensively with glazed porcelain tiles. Other monuments worth visiting are Mariam’s tomb, Babar’s Ram Bagh, and the Roman Catholic cemetery, each with their own fascinating stories.

Most other lesser monuments, as they are called, are endangered by encroachments—illegal constructions, parking lots for trucks, and even cow sheds. Gross violations of the Monuments Protection Act, 1958, often go unchecked by the Agra Development Authority as encroachers wield political power.

For tourists who try to stay longer in Agra, there are hardly any nightlife options. An extraordinary opportunity presents itself five nights per month when you can visit the Taj in the moonlight—on the full moon night and two days before or after. However, tickets are not available on the same day, not more than 50 people can visit, they can stay for just thirty minutes, and they can’t go close to the main monument.

Agra doesn’t rate too well when it comes to the tourist experience. People are constantly chasing tourists for money. Many complain of harassment and even fraud. The more affluent locals want stricter policing to prevent “locusts of touts” from giving Agra a bad name. That’s hardly a humane response and reeks apathy towards the city’s poor for whom tourists with spending power also present an opportunity. Besides, you can’t create a sanitised tourist experience by cutting off visitors from the city’s realities.

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Industry and Environment Equally Wrecked in Agra

A project called “UP Pro-Poor Tourism Development” worth more than 370 crore rupees was planned in 2017 to increase tourism-related benefits for local communities in Agra and Braj regions. The World Bank (70%) and the Uttar Pradesh State Government (30%) signed a loan agreement. However, the project results are yet to be seen in Agra. Besides, with just 22% allotted for “support to local economic development,” it’s unclear how much the scheme will really do for the poor.

A big anti-pollution drive in 2001 led to several industry shutdowns in the area demarcated as the “Taj Trapezium Zone” (10,400 sq km around the monument). Today, the city’s industry continues to reel under increasing restrictions and the absence of clear guidelines.

What could quickly pump life into Agra’s tourism industry is a civil terminal at the existing airport with both domestic and international arrivals. Currently, access to the airport is through the Air Force area (Kheria) and security measures create complications for civil traffic.

The Supreme Court has already given a green flag for a new terminal outside the Air Force zone. All facilities for an international airport are in place. However, in a Right to Information response in May, the Airports Authority of India claimed that the environment clearance is currently blocked in a pending court case and the 400 crore rupees scheme is “dropped for the moment”.

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Building infrastructure and maintaining cleanliness have been challenges for decades. Today, Agra’s weary citizens look forward to seeing the new two-line metro rail inaugurated in 2024. However, there are reports that distance limits for construction are being breached under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 2010. If not all, at least a majority of the city’s problems have attainable solutions. However, bureaucratic rut and poor governance keep the city going around in chaotic circles.

(Noopur Tiwari is an independent journalist based in Paris and the founder of the feminist platform “Smashboard”. She tweets @NoopurTiwari. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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