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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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SJB MPs tell Speaker they received death threats

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Vote in House to elect President:

By Saman Indrajith

Three SJB MPs told Parliament yesterday that they were threatened with death on the eve before the recent vote in Parliament to elect the President.

MPs Wasantha Yapabandara, Tilak Rajapaksa and Chaminda Wijesiri said that they had received death threats and demanded to know the legitimacy of the recent election of a new President by Parliament.

Badualla District SJB MP Wijesiri said that votes had been solicited from MPs by offering bribes and those who did not take bribes were threatened and intimidated to vote for Wickremesinghe.

“The votes were obtained by issuing death threats on MPs. Therefore, one has to question the legitimacy of the recent poll held in Parliament to elect a new President,” MP Wijesiri said.

The MP demanded that Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena should order an investigation into death threats. “Similarly, the Speaker should inform this House whether the election held in Parliament to elect a new President is legitimate or not,” he said.

Kandy District SLPP MP Wasantha Yapabandara said an unidentified caller had asked him to resign from Parliament or face death. “I have handed over recordings of the conversation to you and I request you to carry out an investigation into this matter,” the MP told the Chair.

Digamadulla District SLPP MP Tilak Rajapsksa also called for an investigation into threats faced by MPs.

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Govt. announces 75% power tariff increase

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Janaka Ratnayake

By Ifham Nizam

The Public Utilities Commission (PUCSL) yesterday said that the new electricity tariff hike of 75 percent would be effective from today.

The electricity bill of the consumers who use up to 30 units per month will increase by Rs. 198.

The average monthly electricity bill for those who consume up to 60 units will be increased by some Rs. 200.

Although the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) had sought an increase of 276% for the consumers who used more than 90 units, the PUCSL stood firm on sticking to 125%, according to PUCSL Chairman, Janaka Ratnayake, who said that 75 % of the electricity consumers continued to benefit from a subsidy.

Steps had also been taken to encourage electricity consumers to promote renewable electricity generation with the tariff revision decision, he said.

Ratnayake said that the new tariff revision had been formulated to provide relief to the hotel sector and the industrial sector.

“During the last nine years, the value of the dollar has increased by 190 percent. Therefore, the industries in the export sector will not be greatly affected by this electricity tariff revision,” he said.

Instead of the 116 percent tariff increase proposed by the Ceylon Electricity Board for industries, hotels and general-purpose sectors, with low electricity consumption, will get an approved tariff increase of 39 percent for the public sector and 75 percent for the industrial sector.

Only 50 percent of the increase in the approved rates, especially for the tourism sector will come into effect tomorrow. The remaining 50 percent tariff increase will come into effect after another three months as an incentive and relief, facilitating the tourism industry’s recovery, according to the government.

In addition, it has been decided to provide a 1.5 percent discount when electricity bills are paid in dollars as a relief to the tourism and export industries.

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SLPP questions GR’s response to ‘Aragalaya’

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… won’t expect miracles from new Prez

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) didn’t expect miracles from UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe but strongly believed he could meet the growing threat posed by fascists, lawmaker Sagara Kariyawasam, General Secretary of the party, said on Monday night.

Appearing on ‘Salakuna’ a live political programme on Hiru, SLPP National List MP said that the party unanimously decided to back Wickremesinghe’s candidature, at the presidential contest, in the wake of the so-called protest movement destroying properties belonging to 76 lawmakers and those belonging to other party activists and their relatives during meticulously planned and executed ‘operation.’

The protest movement also killed Polonnaruwa District MP Amarakeerthi Atukorale and his police bodyguard, MP Kariyawasam said, emphasizing that their decision was essentially influenced by serious security considerations.

The panel of journalists, comprising Chamuditha Samarawickrema, Madushan de Silva and Kalindu Vidanage, pressed Kariyawasam and UNP General Secretary and ex-MP, Palitha Range Bandara, over their agreement on the SLPP’s support for Wickremesinghe at the presidential contest.

In spite of Kariyawasam and Bandara repeatedly denying a written agreement, or verbal understanding, the Hiru panel sought an explanation how the UNP leader managed to obtain 133 votes other than the one vote exercised by Wickremesinghe himself.

The SLPP won 145 seats, including 17 National List slots at the last parliamentary election in August 2020 whereas the UNP was reduced to just one NL seat.

At one point, a smiling ex-State Minister Bandara asked the interviewers not to portray the SLPP’s backing for Wickremesinghe as another ‘ali koti’ agreement. Bandara was referring to the much-publicized accusations, directed at the UNP at previous national elections, before President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government brought the war to a successful conclusion in May 2009.

Responding to queries, lawmaker Kariyawasam revealed that in the wake of stepped up protests, against the government, the SLPP advised the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa against appointing another member of the government parliamentary group as the PM. The SLPP felt that replacing PM Mahinda Rajapaksa with one of their own wouldn’t have helped to bring the tensions down, MP Kariyawasam said.

UNPer Bandara emphasized that Wickremesinghe accepted the premiership on May 12 after Samagi Jana Balavegaya leader Sajith Premadasa, MP, and Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, also of the same party, turned down President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s offer.

Asked whether SLPP strongman Basil Rajapaksa proposed Wickremesinghe’s name, lawmaker Kariyawasam said that a committee, chaired by him in his capacity as the General Secretary, decided to field Wickremesinghe at the presidential contest. Lawyer Kariyawasam said that former Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa, too, attended the meeting, via zoom technology.

According to MP Kariyawasam, of over 30 members of the decision-making body, led by Mahinda Rajapaksa, 23 participated at the meeting. Basil Rajapaksa and SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris had been among those who didn’t attend the meeting.

MP Kariyawasam said that in spite of a Prof. Peiris acting contrary to the decision taken by the party, disciplinary measures hadn’t been initiated. The former Foreign Minister remained the SLPP Chairman, MP Kariyawasam said.

When interviewers sought an explanation as regards Mahinda Rajapaksa’s declaration, soon after MPs overwhelmingly elected Wickremesinghe, as the President, on July 20, that the SLPP fielded Dullas Alahapperuma, MP Kariyawasam asserted perhaps the former Premier said so taking into consideration his personal friendship with the Matara district MP. Lawyer Kariyawasam said that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s reaction could be interpreted in different ways.

Lawmaker Kariyawasam asked the interviewers to raise the issue at hand with Mahinda Rajapaksa while reiterating the SLPP took a hard decision and nothing mattered other than electing a person who could overcome the fascist challenge.

MP Kariyawasam declined to name culprits though he categorized a section of the parliamentary group as having conspired against the government.

The SLPP General Secretary questioned President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s failure to meet the threat posed by the protest movement. Declaring the SLPP had been surprised by the President’s decision to leave the country, lawmaker Kariyawasam queried whether the President cum Defence Minister refrained from exercising his powers, or the instructions issued by him weren’t carried out. Declaring that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should have stayed back and faced the challenge, MP Kariyawasam said that the SLPP’s stand on this matter would be revealed later, along with what he called self-criticism of the party.

Asked whether the armed forces refrained from carrying out instructions issued by the President, MP Kariyawasam advised the interviewers to seek a clarification from the former leader.

MP Kariyawasam said the campaign that had been carried out against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should be examined against the backdrop of Western powers interventions in Iraq and Libya leading to the execution of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on Dec 30, 2006 and killing of Muammar Gaddafi on Oct 20, 2011 at Sirte, Libya. Lawmaker Kariyawasm recalled how the Western powers falsely accused Iraq of having Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) before invading that country. Those who couldn’t stomach the eradication of the separatist LTTE were hell bent on taking revenge on the Rajapaksas, MP Kariyawasam said.

When Chamuditha Samarawickrema asked MP Kariyawasam to reveal the number of Colombo-based diplomatic missions that had been involved in the anti-government project, an irate SLPP official, while declining to answer, emphasized that it shouldn’t have been raised with him.

The public would know the truth one day, the MP said.

The contentious issue of handling corruption cases, during the Yahapalana administration, compelled the SLPP General Secretary to strongly dispute the UNP General Secretary.

Responding to the UNPer’s declaration that a team, supervised by Ranil Wickremesinghe, altogether handled 448 cases whereas the other team, spearheaded by Maithripala Sirisena and J.C. Weliamuna, did absolutely nothing, MP Kariyawasam said such claims were baseless.

Ex-MP Range Bandara harshly criticized both Sajith Premadasa and Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. Alleging that MP Premadasa never had the guts to take up a challenge, lawmaker Range Bandara issued a dire warning to MP Fonseka over his call to revolt against the government. Declaring that the former warwinning Army Commander couldn’t operate outside the Constitution, the UNPer said that the Gampaha District MP could suffer the fate of Ranjan Ramanayake, who was found guilty of contempt of court and sentenced to a prison term.

MP Kariyawasam launched a scathing attack on former Power and Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila over what he called the much publicized claim over an agreement with Oman to procure oil for a period of one year. In spite of such claims, nothing materilized thereby causing major problems for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government, the MP said.

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