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Taj Mahal reopens to public after six months

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BY S VENKAT NARAYAN

Our Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI:

Taj Mahal, the world’s most famous monument to love located in Agra in India’s Uttar Pradesh state 221km from here, reopened to the public last Monday after six months. It remained shut since March 17 due to Covid-19 pandemic. About 160 tickets were booked online on the first day. The first to enter was a tourist from Taiwan staying in India, officials said.

A maximum of 5,000 visitors will be allowed in two shifts per day into the monument, the 17th-century architectural marvel built by fifth Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (1592-1666) in memory of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to their 14th child.

On normal days, the Taj attracts 25,000 to 30,000 visitors a day.

Tight Covid-19 protocol will be followed for checking tourists. There will be no window ticket sale, visitors can scan the code to purchase tickets or book online through the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) website, or through the ASI mobile app.

Not many paid Rs 200 to visit the main mausoleum but appeared content taking photos of the monument and clicking themselves on the ‘Diana seat’.

ASI officials said they had not neglected the monument despite its gates having remained closed for so long.

“Lawns were maintained all through these six months. The Taj will stay open from sunrise to sunset. All will go through thermal check and they will be provided with sanitizer,” said AN Gupta, conservation assistant, ASI at the white marble monument.  

Gupta said not more than five visitors will be allowed at a time within the main mausoleum, which houses the graves of Emperor Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, the third of his six wives. The mausoleum will remain closed on Fridays, said Agra district magistrate Prabhu N Singh.  

Vasant Swarnkar, superintending archaeologist for ASI’s Agra circle, said: “The Taj Mahal will have visitors in two slots — pre-lunch and post-lunch. In each slot, there will be a maximum of 2,500 visitors. Once tickets for the first slot are sold, tickets will be issued for the second slot. In a day, a maximum of 5,000 visitors can visit the Taj.”  

Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) jawans will remain at a distance and check visitors with hand-held metal detectors.

No goods are to be carried inside the Taj. An an ambulance will be ready at the gates, Gupta said.  

The Taj’s reopening has excited all those who make a living in and around the monument. For instance, Munawwar Ali, 50, began cleaning items at his marble goods shop on Sunday for the first time since March 16.  

“We have called the staff on Monday after six months. We expect business to be slow but at least we will see tourists going to the Taj,” said Ali. He has a shop adjoining the western gate of the monument.  

‘Yes, we are excited about the reopening of the Taj after such a long duration. A day will come when international flights will resume. In the beginning, domestic tourists from nearby regions will come,” said Rajiv Tiwari, president of the Federation of Travel Association of Agra.

“ASI needs to follow the Covid-19 protocol so that all goes smoothly. The government should begin thinking about restarting international flights as European nations have resumed tourism. We have to live with the coronavirus,” Tiwari added.  

Indians will have to pay INR 50 per ticket for visiting the Taj Mahal and cough up another INR200 for entering the main mausoleum. During routine days, it was mostly foreign tourists who used to pay extra to enter the main mausoleum.

Tourism trade experts recollect that the Taj Mahal had never remained closed for such a long period before. The decision to close monuments all over the country due to the Covid-19 pandemic was taken on March 17, before the lockdown.  

“It is perhaps for the first time that the seventh New Wonder of the World, which attracts a large number of foreign tourists to India, had been closed for such a long time,” said Arun Dang, former president of Tourism Guild.  

“This is unprecedented. Though the monument was closed during the Second World War and also during two wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971, the closure had not been so long,” said Dang.

While the Taj Mahal will remain closed on Fridays and Sundays, Agra Fort will remain shut on Sundays.

According to ASI estimates, the Taj Mahal receives around seven to eight million visitors each year, including a large number of foreign tourists who are not likely to come till regular international traffic resume. The Agra Fort gets three million visitors a year.

Emperor Shah Jahan reigned over much of what are now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan for 30 years (1628-58), and built the Red Fort and Jama Masjid in Delhi and the Lahore Fort in Lahore (now in Pakistan).

It took 21 years (1532-53) for over 20,000 labourers to build the Taj on a 17-hectare (42-acre) plot on the banks of River Yamuna at a cost of INR 32 million then, and INR 70 billion or nearly one billion US dollars now.

When he took ill, and handed over his reign to his elder son Dara Shiko, younger son Aurangzeb killed Dara Shiko, seized power, declared Shah Jahan an incompetent ruler who wasted too much money on building massive monuments, and jailed him in the Agra Fort.

Shah Jahan could see the Taj only from a tiny window in his cell in the Fort, and died a sad man in 1666.

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Current wave of COVID-19:

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AG asks police to probe alleged negligence of Brandix, others

Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC, has called for an immediate investigation into circumstances that led to the coronavirus eruption at the Brandix apparel manufacturing facility at Minuwangoda early this month.

AG’s Coordinating Officer State Counsel Nishara Jayaratne told The Island that a progress report had been called  by or before Nov 13.

The AG stepped in amidst Opposition political parties, both in and outside Parliament questioning the failure on the part of health authorities to establish how the eruption had taken place.

Instructions were issued yesterday (27) when the AG summoned DIG Ajith Rohana, a senior officer in charge of the police Legal Division. The State Counsel said that the AG wanted the Brandix management, its agents and government servants probed as regards their negligence and carelessness.

Epidemiologist Dr. Sudath Samaraweera recently told The Island that they were yet to ascertain the cause of the current wave. Health Secretary retired Maj. Gen. Sujeewa Munasinghe said they had probed several leads and were now close to bringing the inquiry into successful conclusion.

Both Dr. Samaraweera and Head of the National COVID-19 Task Force Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva have said the 39-year-old Brandix employee who was the first to be tested positive is not the patient zero as regards the garment cluster.

The AG intervened in the absence of a police investigation into various accusations regarding the second wave with the number of positive cases rapidly nearing 9,000.

Brandix, in response to The Island queries, has assured that it followed health guidelines when 341 workers attached to its facility in India and their families were repatriated in three batches. The company said that it would fully cooperate with government authorities inquiring into the outbreak.

The Opposition lambasted the government for the deteriorating situation during last Friday’s debate on the epidemic now threatening to overwhelm the health facilities.

JHU spokesman Nishantha Sri Warnasinghe yesterday said that a comprehensive inquiry was needed to establish the truth. (SF)

 

 

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An Open Letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: 

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Don’t try to sign agreements in secret

Issued by the Sri Lanka
Study Circle 

We, the members of the Sri Lanka Study Circle in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, a founding member of the Non Aligned Movement – the largest organised grouping of Nations after the UN – that initiated a UN General Assembly Resolution in 1971 which was unanimously adopted by the entire World to make forever the Indian Ocean a zone of peace within which area no Nuclear weapons whatsoever would be permitted are a bit confused about the status of your visit to Sri Lanka due to a lack of transparency. 

Initially, your embassy in Colombo, when questioned about rumours of a possible visit by you to our country, denied those rumours. Several days later, the embassy made an announcement that you would be visiting our country for a day. 

We surmise therefore that you are visiting our country, not at our invitation but at your request, at a time when the ugly head of COVID is raising its head once again due to, what appears to be, the criminal negligence of a Company funded and mentored by your Government. 

We must express our dismay and protest that the forerunners to your visit have dampened the spirit and purpose of your visit by flagrantly violating the basic health guidelines, required to be followed by all entering our country, to bring under control the pandemic which has caused thus far the deaths of 218000 people in your country. 

 We trust that you and your entourage would subject yourself to the mandatory health checks, especially travelling from India which ranks number two, next to your country, in the number of COVID related deaths. 

We note that your visit has been preceded by many communiques appearing in the media.  

To comment on some of them: You seem to harbour an illusion that your country and ours has a common vision. No, we do not have a common vision; your country is a Capitalist country where the engine of growth is the private sector. Ours, Mr. Pompeo, as per our Constitution and the thinking of our people, is a Socialist State where, in perfect harmony with Buddhist principles, public interest prevails over private interest.  

The factors of production like Land are held by the State and not private individuals. That is why MCC goes against the very grain of Sri Lankan thinking, Buddhism and culture and does not have the people’s mandate. 

You have ‘advised’ our Government to take necessary and difficult decisions to secure her economic independence. Mr. Chairman MCC, we request you to keep your unsolicited advice to yourself. We are indeed sorry if some members of our country had portrayed themselves to you, as imbeciles. The majority of them are not capable of sagacious and independent thought.   

You seem to suggest that some of our donors’ conditions are not transparent and our discriminatory. In fact this is the very criticism the people have levelled against the MCC ; it is very discriminatory and the least transparent. The people of this country have yet to see the draft MCC document in the language they understand, Sinhala and Tamil. 

‘US officials warned the Sri Lankan Government who they team up with for their economic partnership’. Mr. Pompeo, if that is a threat you can go to Mars; you could spend your time more profitably over there. We are aware that you were refused an audience with the Pope and we are acutely aware that you have endorsed the torture going on in Guantanamo Bay and that you hold a view that the hell-hole you forcibly occupy there should not be shut down. 

It is laughable that you allude to debt diplomacy of some other countries. Does it not make you laugh that the US offers a gift horse – as your acolytes would say- worth 480 Million USD when the US has a sovereign debt of 26 Trillion USD. Amidst this debt from where did you get this pottage and why not use this amount to reduce your own debt? 

 ‘Secretary Pompeo will travel to Colombo to underscore the commitment of the United States to a partnership with a strong, sovereign Sri Lanka and to advance our common goals for a free and open Indo-Pacific region.’ 

Hitherto, your military reach in the Pacific was limited to the South-east Asian Countries because the Pacific ended there. The Indian Ocean was untouched and the littoral states in the Indian Ocean declared the Indian Ocean, a Zone of Peace.  

What you are now attempting to do is extend the Pacific Ocean to include the Indian Ocean.  

As a first step, you have artificially made two Oceans one, by calling it the Indo-Pacific Ocean. And the second step is to extend the militarisation of the Pacific Ocean to cover the ‘Indian Ocean’ portion of the Indo -Pacific Ocean.  

This is where the MCC, the ACSA, the SOFA and the QUAD fit in. This is how, in our opinion, the US would militarily ‘Pivot-to-Asia’ 

You have the gumption to say ‘free and open’ Indo Pacific Ocean when in the seas around the American Continents you restrict naval activity by applying unilaterally a doctrine, the Monroe doctrine. 

Make no bones about it, the Indian Ocean, Mr. Secretary, is a nuclear Free Ocean, and an Ocean of Peace. Sri Lanka is a committed Non-Aligned State and not a Neutral state. Some novices are confused about this. 

 If you wish to speak with Sri Lanka come in Peace and we shall talk. We shall talk openly and transparently. Do not attempt to sign Agreements in Secret because they do not have the mandate of the People.     

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CEJ warns of danger to health from lead in paints

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By Ifham Nizam

The Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) yesterday urged the public to be vigilant about the lead content in consumer items. Dilena Pathragoda, CEJ Managing Director said that most old buildings still had old paint with high lead levels.

Addressing the media at an event to mark the International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week of Action he said that some Sri Lankan companies dump lead contaminated liquid waste into our water ways without following the proper procedures.

CEJ Executive Director Hemantha Withanage said: “In Sri Lanka, lead concentration in paint has been limited by the Consumer Affairs Authority as a result of a case filed by the CEJ in 2011. Accordingly, enamel and floor paints can have only 600ppm of lead while the limit is 90 ppm for emulsion and paints used on children’s products. This law came into effect from January 1, 2013. It is also mandatory to declare on the label if the paint is lead safe.”

Withanage added that it was the consumer’s duty to check for the lead level before purchasing paint. He added that many countries in the region had now reduced the maximum permissible lead level to 90 ppm in all types of paints. It was time to introduce more stringent standards for Sri Lankan paints, he said.

Lead is a toxic heavy metal that can cause permanent and irreversible brain damage in children, resulting in reduced Intelligence quotient (IQ), reduced attention span, impaired learning ability and increased risk of behavioral problems.

In adults it can affect reproduction, endocrine or the hormone system and the cardiovascular system. Research shows that the main source of lead poisoning is paint. The oil-based paints that are commonly known as enamel paint, floor paint, anti corrosive and lacquer contain high lead levels. These paints are commonly found on walls of preschools and childcare facilities, children play areas, furniture, baby cots and some toys.

In addition, researchers have revealed that lead is found in some imported plastic and rubber toys, stationery, paints on porcelain, cosmetics and artificial jewelry. People working in; e-waste recycling plants, lead-acid battery/ car battery recycling plants, metal smelting, construction and demolition work are highly vulnerable to lead exposure.

 

 

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