Until March 17 this year, the one-kilometre-long road known as Tajganj, which stretches between the Taj Mahal and the Shilpgram car parking would be swarming with people. As crowds of mobile camera-wielding tourists made their way towards India’s most popular attraction, they would be accosted by guides, photographers and hawkers. Owners of souvenir shops would stand by the road, soliciting customers, and every café promised the best rooftop view of the white marble monument which has serenely watched over the city for 400 years.
The scene was very different on September 21, when the Taj Mahal reopened after six months of being closed because of COVID-19. Normally, the Taj gets between 20,000 and 30,000 visitors a day. Now, the number is capped at 5,000. International flights haven’t resumed, so foreign tourists — who contribute a significant chunk to the revenue — are absent, while the migrant workers employed at various establishments haven’t returned.
Things have changed in Agra over the 188 days that the Taj was closed. The city has about 650 hotels, 3,500 guides and over a thousand photographers, not to mention the rickshawpullers and tonga-wallahs, shops selling miniature replicas of the Taj, Agra’s famous petha and juttis, and cafés and homestays. More than half of the city’s population is financially dependent, directly or indirectly, on the Taj Mahal. Over four lakh people in Agra (where, in the 2011 census, the total population was 15.9 lakhs) earn from tourism, says secretary of the Agra Tourist Welfare Chamber, Vishal Sharma. According to Sharma, the closure due to the pandemic has resulted in losses amounting to over Rs 2,000 crore. When the Taj Mahal shuts down, so does Agra.
The handful of tourist guides near the barricades on the day of the reopening are disappointed that the only visitors are locals and mediapersons. “For us, the Taj will open the day foreigners start coming,” remarks Mubeen Khan, 37. It is telling that where one would normally hear snatches of conversations in many languages — Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Spanish — all that can be heard now is Hindi, spoken in dejected tones. Foreign tourists are unlikely to return until April 2021 at least, says Manu PV, secretary of the Association of Tourism Trade Organisations India. Many small businesses would have gone under by then.
Vasant Kumar Swarnkar, superintending archaeologist at the Archaeological Survey of India’s Agra Circle, says, “The economy of the city has suffered by 30 per cent. It has had a ripple effect on neighbouring towns and villages from where people had come to Agra for livelihood — the taxi drivers, hotel staff, hawkers, and even the artisans who used to work day and night to create marble replicas of the Taj.”
Rohit Arora, 32, who has been working as a photographer at the Taj Mahal for 10 years, says that he has earned nothing during the last six months. Earlier, he made about Rs 25,000 a month. “I have been thinking of switching to some permanent job, but the Taj draws me back. I hope it sustains me, too,” he says.
Further away, at Noori Darwaza — the hub of the petha industry where more than 700 cottage units employing 25,000 people — most shops remain shut. Gopal Sharma, owner of New Panchhi Petha, says, “We are just preparing sweets for local consumption or for despatch to Allahabad through railways. Earlier, when the Taj was open, we couldn’t keep count of the quintals we sold. Now, we are just preparing a quintal at a time and still waiting for it to sell out.” Most of the cafés wear a desolate air; visitors are few, and much of their staff is yet to return. Ram Prasad from Barabanki, who works at the sought-after Taj View Rooftop café as a server, says, “Even if people come to see the Taj, I don’t think anyone will be comfortable to sit and eat with abandon.” Before walking away, Prasad pulls out a torn empty wallet, and pleads for some money. All he wants, he says, is some tea and biscuits so that he can finally eat something.
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