Taj Mahal mall plan a sellout, say critics
Amrit Dhillon in New Delhi
A symbol of eternal love, the Taj Mahal, could soon have a massive shopping complex looming up behind it, threatening to ruin the backdrop to one of India's most famed tourist attractions.
The government of Uttar Pradesh plans to build a shopping mall that would include restaurants and an amusement park for children on the banks of the Yamuna river that runs behind the Taj. The idea is to promote tourism by offering other attractions to supplement the ethereal charms of the Taj.
Federal Tourism Minister Jagmohan, has said he is appalled at the prospect of a concrete structure coming up so close to the 17th century Mughal monument. He has written to Uttar Pradesh's Chief Minister, Mayawati, saying no work should be undertaken that ruins the Taj's surroundings.
But work has already started. Last November, about 800 labourers began building an embankment on the river that stretches from Agra Fort to the Taj. This will become a Heritage Corridor, linking several tourist sites. Work stopped for a few days this week when Indian newspapers were full of stories about the plan but resumed on Wednesday.
Conservationists are incensed. 'This is a huge scandal. After all, what does a shopping mall consist of except restaurants, discos, cabarets? Are our historic monuments going to have such things set up right beside them?' activist M.C. Mehta said.
In recent years, conservationists have been active in protecting the Taj from various dangers - by limiting the number of visitors allowed inside at any given time and petitioning the Supreme Court to close the small factories in Agra that were belching out fumes, making the tomb turn a faint yellow.
Environmentalists have filed a petition in the courts asking for the project to be stopped.
Defending the shopping mall plan, a state government bureaucrat said the Supreme Court had ordered them to remove the hawkers and kiosks that stood at the entrance to the Taj Mahal complex: 'We are just trying to relocate them somewhere and that is the site that was identified,' he said.