Wah Taj: To keep drawing foreigners, CM Yogi Adityanath forced to put Taj Mahal snub to rest
Uttar Pradesh BJP legislator Sangeet Som’s controversial statement calling Taj Mahal “a blot on India’s history which needed to be rewritten” sent a wave of concern among prospective tourists and tour operators.
After the strong local sentiment against Som’s remark, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath was forced to describe Taj Mahal as “the pride of India”. He is now scheduled to visit Taj Mahal on 26 October to launch the pro-poor development projects in Agra.
“We told tourism department officials in Agra that the statement created a negative sentiment among tourists. Our worry was probably conveyed to the Centre which is why Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and tourism minister Rita Bahuguna Joshi did some damage control,” said Rajiv Saxena, the secretary of Tourism Guild of Agra said.
A tourist hub
After Som’s statement, says Ramesh Vadhva of Hotels and Restaurant Owners’ Association, there have been many queries from prospective tourists about whether it is safe to visit Agra.
To underline the importance of the Taj Mahal, Vadhwa simply points to the revenue that it pulls in. This year, the monument and the Agra Fort earned revenue of Rs 18.75 crore and Rs 12.5 crore respectively for the hoteliers and restaurateurs.
Saxena also emphasises on how important the Taj Mahal is as a money maker. "Being a destination for leisure tourism, any hint of a disturbance here keeps tourists away,” Saxena said, adding that the government must realise that foreigners, who are “the most important segment of tourists coming to Agra, bring in direct foreign investment.”
The change of tune, “most likely after a nudge from Delhi”, was to avoid the adverse fallout of Som’s statement in Gujarat Assembly elections where the BJP appears to be on slippery grounds, says Prof SK Dwivedi, the head of the Political Science department of Lucknow University who is considered close to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Taking Agra to new heights
Under the pro-poor development programme, the World Bank had approved the creation of heritage walks in Agra. “These are World Bank-aided projects, the detailed project report of which was prepared and approved by Akhilesh Yadav government,” said an official in Lucknow.
The World Bank was to provide aid worth Rs 1,800 crores for the development of tourism in not just Agra, but also in Mathura (Agra-Braj corridor) and for the Buddh circuit.
The state government said that tourism and development projects worth Rs 176 crore are already underway at Agra and Rs 370 crore has been allocated to improve tourist facilities around the monument, which is among the Unesco heritage sites.
The official at Lucknow said that the previous government had allocated Rs 500 crore for the project which has now been “brought down to Rs 370 crore".
Any attempt to rake up a controversy around Taj Mahal would not only hit the tourism industry, but also hurt the government’s pro-poor plank. The DPR for the project said that it was in alignment with the 12th Plan that “recognizes pro-poor tourism as a means of poverty reduction.”
Rajeev Saxena explained the job creation potential of tourism in Agra saying that at least “four people are involved in catering to one tourist, so you can imagine the potential of tourism.”
The DPR states that the state government was “seeking financial support from the World Bank to do three things; unlock the tourism potential of the state; improve the living conditions of the poor in the city (Agra) by provisioning of basic services and infrastructure and contributing to the creation of jobs and opportunities for livelihoods by directly including the poor in the sector; and protect the State’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage by including people in the process of tourism.”
Adityanath’s earlier statement that he would not be averse to the idea of renaming the heritage monument as Tejo Mahalay after a Hindu temple, which, some BJP and Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders claim, the Taj Mahal originally was, also goes against the World Bank’s objective. Hence, the change of heart.
In a written reply in the Lok Sabha in 2016, Union tourism minister Mahesh Sharma had stated that Taj Mahal earned Rs 75.91 crore “in the last three years” in revenue through sale of tickets and other paid services.
The minister said that Rs 22.45 crore was earned in 2013-14, Rs 21.26 crore in 2014-15, Rs 23.88 crore in 2015-16.
It was the UP government which was responsible for starting the controversy when it released a list of the state’s tourist destinations minus the Taj Mahal. After facing sharp criticism for the goof up, the government issued a clarification saying that the list was of religious places only.