India clears dust, dogs, cows ahead of Obamas’ Taj visit

AFP, AGRA, India

Sat, Jan 24, 2015 - Page 6

As he scrubs the road to India’s Taj Mahal on his knees for less than US$5 a day, Ramjeet beams with pride at the thought of US President Barack Obama admiring his handiwork.

“If everything is clean, then he will be impressed,” the aching man said as he took a rest with another 10km of road still to be scoured by him and his coworkers.

“It’s hard on the knees and back,” admitted the cleaner, who is being paid just 300 rupees (about US$4.8) a day for his part in a massive makeover.

Ramjeet, who does not have a last name, is one of 600 cleaners mobilized in the city of Agra ahead of Tuesday’s visit by the US president and first lady Michelle Obama to the world’s most famous tomb.

Apart from cleaning white lines on the roads, authorities have been rounding up stray dogs, clearing cows from the streets and have ordered a lockdown around the complex.

“There are a lot of spit stains and such that need to be washed away. The streets need to be spick and span,” said India’s former chief archaeologist K.K. Mohammed, who has guided world leaders around the white marbled mausoleum.

“You cannot have a VVVIP of the world come to the Taj Mahal and let him see that,” Mohammed told reporters.

The spruce-up, which comes after Indian President Narendra Modi launched a nationwide clean-up campaign in October last year, reflects a wider determination to ensure the Obamas get to see India at its finest.

In Delhi, workers have been coating buildings and bollards with fresh paint ahead of the Obamas’ attendance at a military parade on Monday.

However, the frenzy has been most intense in Agra, no stranger to hosting heads of state or royalty, such as Britain’s Princess Diana.

The Obamas’ visit is to be covered by a massive press pack, and organizers want to ensure a picture-perfect backdrop.

Pradeep Bhatnagar, chairman of the Taj Trapezium Zone, a buffer region around the monument, said ongoing beautification work has been halted for 10 days to allow dust to settle before the guests arrive.

Suresh Chand, who is in charge of the clean-up, said stray dogs — a common sight in any Indian city — have been rounded up, and more than two tonnes of rubbish pulled from the nearby Yamuna River in just two days.

Another official said cows and buffaloes roaming the streets also “would have to go.”

“When a guest comes to our house, then we have to do something better than the normal,” said Chand, who is Agra municipal council’s lead engineer.

Inside the Taj complex, a dozen barefoot women were busy trimming lawn edges with trowels.

“Obama, Obama,” said one lady, who has worked at the Taj for more than two decades and earns 100 rupees a day.

About 3,000 police officers are on duty and will conduct boat patrols of the river, Agra police senior superintendent Rajesh Modak said.

Tourists will be turned away while the Obamas are touring the Taj Mahal, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his beloved empress, who died during childbirth in 1631.

Locals teeming the alleys around the Taj — which took 20,000 laborers 16 years to build — said they have been ordered to stay indoors.

Not everyone is happy about the lockdown, with some saying it has made them feel like criminals.

“You can’t go outside, you can’t go onto the roof, you can’t go outside to the bathroom — it’s like a curfew,” said Anil Kumar Sonkar, who runs a sweet shop a stone’s throw from the Taj.

“We should be open for business and Obama should be allowed to come and sample my world-famous petha,” Sonkar said, referring to a sweet made from sugar and pumpkin.