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City of Taj Mahal to get a facelift

The Agra Municipal Corporation has launched one of the biggest cleanliness and anti-squatting drives to make the 500-year-old city live up to its international reputation.

india Updated: Jan 01, 2008 10:16 IST
Brij Khandelwal
Brij Khandelwal

What will the city of Taj Mahal get as a New Year's gift? A long awaited makeover.

A city, which is just 200 km fm the Indian capital New Delhi and draws tens of thousands of foreign visitors every year, is so full of squalor and eyesores in parts, that many first time visitors to the country recoil from it. But now the Agra Municipal Corporation has launched one of the biggest cleanliness and anti-squatting drives to make the 500-year-old city live up to its international reputation.

After initial resistance from shopkeepers in the Loha Mandi and Shah Ganj areas, municipal commissioner Shyam Singh Yadav led his army of 200 cleaners armed with batons, bulldozers and other equipment recently to demolish illegal structures.

"The campaign has started showing results and now the encroachers themselves are coming forward to remove illegal constructions," said Yadav, who is also a national shooting coach.

The drive, Yadav told IANS, will continue till encroachments were removed. Agra has a population of 1.7 million.

In 2007, residents were frequent victims of traffic snarls and chaotic roads because of the encroachments or squatting. Foreign tourists have also been avoiding several monuments across the Yamuna river and in the interiors of the city because of congestion and slow-moving traffic.

"If the district authorities had been vigilant, there would not have been encroachments. The police have not been helpful either," complained a Nagar Nigam or municipality official.

The city administration and police intervened after Yadav's gunner opened fire a week ago on a mob protesting the drive. Yadav had to requisition personal security. The 'safai karmacharis', or road cleaners, were armed with batons during the demolition drive to keep the protesters away.

The stretch between the Loha Mandi road and the upscale Jaipur House neighbourhood is now free of squatter and illegal, ugly structures. The traffic is also smooth. The Madia Katra crossing too has been widened and cleaned up.

The drive will now move on to the MG Road, the lifeline of the city. The bypass road will be taken up later. The Agra Development Authority has announced plans to widen and beautify the Fatehabad Road, which leads to the Taj through the tourist complex.

Sameer Gupta, president of the Agra Architects Association, feels the municipality must work out a sustained programme to rid the city of encroachers. The authorities, he said, should first earmark space for street vendors, petty shopkeepers, auto-rickshaws and rickshaws; and build pavements and drains simultaneously by removing encroachments.

Sameer said the elected representatives of the people should be deeply involved in the exercise. "New rules and laws should be framed to book encroachers. Don't just fine them, a jail can be a deterrent," Sameer said.

The Municipal Corporation has mobilised all its resources to make the drive successful. "This time, we are also cleaning up the place after demolitions, not leaving the debris to block the roads, as happened earlier," an official explained.

If the drive succeeds, it will come as a relief to local residents, says social activist Sudhir Gupta. Several social organisations have come forward to support the campaign.