Barely a kilometre from Taj Mahal, the ongoing underground construction has been stalled and workers, assisted by huge cranes, are busy padding up the roads.
“Obama aa rahe hai na! (Obama is coming),” exclaims Ahmed, a tea stall owner as he explains how the construction work has been briefly halted and it will resume after US President Barack Obama visits the historical 17th century monument, Taj Mahal.
Security has been beefed up with all vehicles entering, and leaving, the city being thoroughly examined by the police. Meanwhile, Obama has become a household name here as everybody – from rickshaw pullers to shop owners, security guards to tourism officials – braces up to welcome him.
The city is set to come to halt soon. Taj will be closed to visitors on January 27, the likely date of Obama’s visit. “We have got a verbal order that the monument will not be open for general public on the day Obama makes a visit,” Superintendent of Police (City) Agra Samir Saurabh told Business Standard. There has been no written directive from the Uttar Pradesh government so far, he said. Around 20,000 tourists visit the monument on a daily basis, according to state government estimates.
Also, all the shops surrounding the Taj Mahal at all the three entrance gates -west, south and east – are likely to be shut for three days (December 26, 27 and 28) as a high alert has been sounded in the city. A senior police officer said even the Yamuna Expressway might be closed for commuters on January 27.
A 30-member advanced team of the US President visited the monument on Monday, the second time since the plans of his visit were announced. According to sources, the team has interacted with Archaeological Survey of India officials here to take stock of the situation.
“Usually, even when the chief minister of the state visits the monument, we are given directions to shut shops. But that is only around the time he makes the visit, not for the entire day,” says Manoj Srivastava, a shopkeeper selling the traditional petha sweet near the monument.
As one walks down the eastern gate entrance of the Taj Mahal, renovation work at the roadside could be seen picking up pace and a rickshaw puller says this has been going on for the past three weeks.
Policemen were seen guarding almost all corners of the city – in and around the monument, the market place and even in narrow lanes.
The security is so tight that the guards don’t let people take even notepads while entering Taj Mahal and the only reason that they tell you with a smile is, “Obama”.