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Agra: Having lost the race to be included in the list of smart cities, this Taj city has now slipped to 47/73 in the ranking of clean cities in the Swachch Sarvekshan drive. Agra was previously ranked at 27. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's 'Swachch Bharat Abhiyan' (Clean India Mission) appears to have run aground in Agra and made no discernible change to the city's profile or the upkeep of basic amenities.
"This, when the city is ranked the number one tourist destination in the country, visited by more than 10 million people annually," social activist Shravan Kumar Singh told IANS.
The Agra Municipal Corporation is now working on a new plan to clean up the mess, introducing night cleaning of markets.
Municipal commissioner Indra Vikram Singh said initially a dozen bazars will be cleaned every Saturday night. Later this would be expanded to other areas of the city. The sanitary supervisors of the municipal wards have been equipped with cameras to enable them upload photographs of the cleanliness work done.
"The reason why the city remains so dirty and disorganised is because of the wrong priorities of the government. The officials spend more time on organising fairs and festivals than on getting the basics fixed," activist Ranjan Sharma told IANS.
"This month, the city hosts a literature festival, a national golf tournament, a car race, the Taj Mahotsava, the literary colloquium and a whole lot of other activities. Cleaning up the city and streamling the traffic management plan, or improving the law and order situation, are nowhere on the priority list," he added.
Local politicians have no role to play in cleaning up the city or the Yamuna river. On paper, public toilets have been opened but in large parts of the city, people still defecate in the open, along the drains.
"As you enter the city, a strange stink or odour hits you and never leaves your company till you leave the city," a visitor from Mysuru, Jagan Gupta, told IANS.
Mysuru tops the list of India's cleanest cities in the current list. Though the Modi government claims to have built eight million toilets in 2015, India continues to have the highest number of people - estimated at 595 million - defecating in the open.
The first question many foreign tourists ask while closing in on Taj Mahal is: Why does this whole area stink?
Tourists from other parts too have felt "the whole city of Agra has an unusual stink or odour. We don't know what the reason is, but it is there like the urban clusters are perched on mounds of shit," a foreign visitor retorted recently.
"Elsewhere they roll out a red carpet for guests. In Agra you have permanently animal dung splashed roads and a stink in the air welcoming people. Little wonder no one wants to stay back for the night in Agra," Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society, told IANS.
Environmentalists in the city blame the Yamuna river, which has been reduced to a huge sewage canal for want of fresh water.
"The city's sewer system is choked, the treatment plants are not working. In many localities waste water, including sewerage, is being directly pumped into the earth through borewells," emporium owner and handicrafts exporter Abhinav Jain told IANS.
"Methane is being generated from huge mountains of garbage piled up everywhere as there is no proper and scientific system in place for its disposal. Hospital waste is also callously littered around. You have the dairies and cattle herds freely loitering around. No wonder foul and noxious gases are being released into the atmosphere," Jain added.
In the Taj Ganj area around the Taj Mahal, there are hundreds of horse-drawn tongas. Now there are also camel carts.
"The animals litter around. You can see the condition of the roads, all splashed up with dung that gets stuck up on the shoes and is transported inside the monument. Dairies in the Taj Ganj area have not been shifted. So you have the spectacle of cattle merrily crossing the road at the Eastern Gate of the Taj Mahal. The cattle fights are joined in by barking dogs almost daily," Jain rued.
(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at brij.k@ians. (IANS)