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Obama cancels much-awaited visit to Taj Mahal

US President Barack Obama and wife Michelle will not visit the monument of love. The US scratched Agra out from his itinerary after it was decided that he should stop in Riyadh to condole the death of the King of Saudi Arabia on his way back to Washington.

However, US officials were also absolutely clear that the US President should not violate any Indian laws: and given the Supreme Court order in 2000 that petrol and diesel vehicles should not be permitted within a 500 metres radius of the Taj Mahal, the only choice the President had was to sit in a battery powered golf cart-type vehicle with his wife to travel to the main monument: which his security vetoed.

The Taj’s eastern gate is the traditional entry point for VIPs. This was the route use by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the last VIP to visit the Taj.

However, there is a short stretch that does not permit cars. So President Obama opted to drop Taj from his itinerary altogether. Originally, it was Vice-President Joe Biden who was to represent the US to condole the Saudi King’s death.

In a terse statement, the State department said: “As the President’s and Vice President’s travel schedules became clearer, we determined that the window when the Vice President would be on the ground in Riyadh coincided with the President’s departure from India. Accordingly, we adjusted the schedule in coordination with the Indian Government so that the President would be able to depart India following his speech on Tuesday to stop in Riyadh during the return trip to meet with King Salman and other Saudi officials and offer his condolences on behalf of the American people. The President regrets that he will be unable to visit Agra during this trip. The Vice President will remain in Washington.”

So it is clear that it was a little of both – security concerns and protocol issues – that prompted the President to cancel his Taj visit.

The Supreme Court could not have known of the effect its order would have had. Its judgment was prompted by the indefatigable M C Mehta who has fought and won scores of cases involving environmental damage.

Mehta filed a case to protect heritage monuments, including the Taj, after a concert by musician Yanni was held in the vicinity of the monument in 2000 and involved the use of potentially damaging high voltage lights, generator sets and speakers that might have damaged it beyond repair.

In the interim, residents of the area say that the court’s guidelines have been flouted with impunity (including by successive District Magistrates whose cars ply the region where fossil-fuel powered vehicles are forbidden).  But presumably the US did not want to be party to this.

Agra district magistrate Pankaj Kumar confirmed to Business Standard that the American authorities had informed him this morning about the cancellation of the Agra leg of the visit of President Obama.

“When I addressed a press conference this morning, I had said that the reasons for the cancellation were not clear. However since then, the White House has issued a release stating that the American President had to reschedule to attend the Saudi King’s funeral,” Kumar said.

He asserted there were no other security or other concerns and the American security officials were satisfied with the arrangements. He added that the Americans had already done several drills at the Agra airport of the Air Force and Obama had been scheduled to fly to Agra from Delhi and not by the Taj Expressway as had been conjectured.

ASI Agra Circle-in-charge Navratna Kumar Pathak said that the Americans who had made several visits to the monument since December had had several security drills there.

‘We had not made any specific arrangements for the Obamas except for sprucing up the cleanliness at the monument. The Americans had not been too keen on visiting the dark crypt chamber and Obama would have kept to the upper areas. He was slated to stay at the monument for about 45 minutes,” Pathak said.

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