It’s a little before noon and the harsh sun is beating down on Raj Ghat, the sprawling 44-acre walled enclosure in the heart of the Capital that houses the Mahatma Gandhi memorial. A group of visitors is ambling past the metal detector at the entrance paying little attention to the instructions on a board nearby: “Edibles and tobacco products are not allowed inside.”
“People often throw food and tobacco packets. So, we have banned certain edible items,” says a senior official of the Rajghat Samadhi Committee (RSC), which is responsible for the maintenance, preservation and administration of the memorial. The Central Public Works Department is in charge of the electrical, horticultural and civil divisions while the Central Industrial Security Force guards the three gates. A private agency is also responsible for the security.
The High Court has repeatedly pulled up Raj Ghat authorities for the poor upkeep of the memorial. On August 6, the court said it was “very saddening that the memorial, which is considered a temple, is being treated in such a way”. During earlier hearings, it had expressed displeasure at the “pathetic state of affairs” and rebuked authorities for the condition of the two toilets at Raj Ghat.
An RSC official, however, insists the team “has been on its toes”. “On most weekdays we get around 10,000 tourists, which goes up to 20,000 on weekends. We have over 20 safai sevaks. They sweep, scrub and wash the place every day, including the toilets,” he says.
There are other memorials in the vicinity of Raj Ghat, including those of former prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. However, the Gandhi memorial, a simple black marble slab that marks the place where he was cremated a day after his assassination on January 30, 1948, is the most popular.
The visitors today are a mixed bunch — from a newly married couple from Belgium to a group of priests from Karnataka. Most of them gather before the memorial and pose for photographs.
“I have often heard about Raj Ghat… The place is very similar to the Valley’s Shalimar Bagh,” says Altaf Hussain, who is here from Poonch in Jammu and Kashmir.
“I have heard so much about Mahatma Gandhi from my childhood. He has been my role model,” says Belgian Kurt Lammens, who is visiting Delhi with his wife Elsvints.
A few metres away, two gardeners are watering rows of potted plants which will soon be placed across the premises. “It has been a busy morning since some dignitaries came visiting. We have been at work since 6 am,” says nursery supervisor Kanchi Singh, who has been posted at Raj Ghat for 30 years. “We have 40 permanent gardeners and another 25-30 contractual workers,” says Singh, a native of Aligarh.
At the latest hearing, the court had said that trees planted by dignitaries at Raj Ghat were “dead”. An RSC official says they are actually discouraging the practice of planting trees because “we cannot allow this place to turn into a jungle”.
“Since 1948, visiting dignitaries have planted nearly 200 trees. But that must be done in a planned manner,” says the official.
Around 2.30 pm, some of the visitors head to the canteen for lunch — there are North and South Indian thalis and Chinese dishes at prices ranging from Rs 15 to Rs 90.
Dipping her patty into tomato sauce, Bhagwati Naresh from Mehsana in Gujarat says, “I had seen Raj Ghat only on TV earlier… Today I can see it for real.” She is part of a large group on their way back from the Char Dham Yatra in Uttarakhand.
A little distance away, at the book shop, Kanta Yadav is waiting for customers. “Earlier, we could put up shelves outside the store. But now, as per the RSC’s instructions, we have kept everything inside. It has affected sales,” says Yadav, a store employee, adding, “The books that are given as gifts to the dignitaries are always bought from our store.”
There is more activity at the newly set up ‘Interpretation Room’, where visitors can choose from four options — audio of Mahatma Gandhi’s speeches, videos, facts and quizzes — on three touchscreens. “At times, we have so many guests that a few have to squat on the floor,” says Veena Kalra, who is in charge of the centre.
Some people wander about at the Kasturba Gandhi Souvenir Store. “The khadi clothes here come from the Mahatma Gandhi Seva Ashram in Morena, Madhya Pradesh, and the charkhas are from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. The Mahatma busts are by sculptor Ram V Sutar,” says Naval Kishor, who has been working at Raj Ghat for 36 years.
Around 6 pm, three women with their faces covered with dupattas begin sweeping the area and collecting garbage. “The biggest challenge is to keep the toilets clean. When the interstate buses ply, scores of people line up in front of the toilets and we get no time to clean them,” says Rujida Khatoon, a safai sevak.
An hour later, most of the visitors and staff disperse, leaving only the security guards. Tomorrow, another 10,000 will arrive.