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India's latest plan to attract more tourists: closing the Taj Mahal

ON THE threshold of "Visit India Year", the Taj Mahal, the most popular monument in the country, and far and away the biggest magnet for foreign tourists, may be forced to close.

A senior officer of the Archeological Survey of India, the state body responsible for the upkeep of ancient monuments, has recommended an immediate ban. "Visitors can easily appreciate the beauty of the Taj from the lawns outside the monument," D V Sharma, a survey superintendent, was quoted as saying from Agra, the location of the Taj. "There is no need to go inside."

He went on: "The structure of the Taj Mahal has been irreparably damaged. The marble steps are worn out and delicate carvings as well as fine inlays of precious stones have been damaged. If thousands continue to enter the monument ... the damage to the Taj will be irreversible. Hence further entry inside the monument has to be banned immediately."

It is a verdict that will send shivers of fear through the ranks of the hoteliers and tour operators who depend for their living on the 10 million visitors, 1.5 million of them foreigners, who stream through Shah Jahan's sublime mausoleum for his wife every year. It is also a flat contradiction of a report in the spring by the ASI and two other bodies. In April, Christian Manhart, a research specialist of Unesco, one of the organisations involved, said: "There is no danger to the Taj. It is a monument that, with its 8-metre thick walls, has been constructed for eternity." This view was endorsed then by an ASI official, A C Grover. "The Taj is in excellent condition," he said.

The suspicion of the cynical must be that the ASI would like to close the Taj because it would be much less trouble than keeping it open. Set up in 1861 by Alexander Cunningham, a colonel in the Royal Engineers, and given its most forceful thrust by Lord Curzon 40 years later, the ASI has seen better days. It is not just the pitiful Rs200 million (pounds 2.9m) budget, which is all it has to preserve an entire subcontinent full of monuments. The ASI is seen by some as a comfortable sinecure. "Instead of installing a professional cadre and allowing them avenues of growth," The Indian Express editorialised in September, "the ASI has become another fiefdom for Indian Administrative Officers to exploit."

Of India's 3,597 monuments, only 100 have been the subject of thorough reports. Some of the most important buildings in the country are falling apart. In September, a two-ton stone slab fell from the fabulous Sun Temple in Konarak, Orissa. The ASI said it had to wait for a report by Unesco before taking action. Near the Taj, and on the same tourist route, the wonderful, abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri is slowly being demolished by explosions set off by sandstone miners nearby. Until June, mining was going on inside the fort complex.

In a discussion of the significance of next year's Visit India Year, the chief civil servant of the Tourism Ministry, M P Bezbaruah, acknowledged that India only receives 2.37 million foreign visitors a year, less than one tenth of the number who go to China, but he took heart from the fact that those who do come spend more.