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Is Agra safe for foreign tourists?

By Brij Khandelwal, IANS

Agra : On an average, 20,000 tourists visit the Taj Mahal every day. But comments written in the Visitors’ Book at the world famous monument reveal how shocked and concerned foreigners are about crime in this city. Many say they will never return while others say it was a mistake to have come.

Foreign visitors have been easy targets of unscrupulous cheats and touts masquerading as guides and friendly neighbourhood faces in Agra. They reported at least a dozen cases of rape, harassment, theft and cheating last year.

The figures tell a grim story of how government agencies have been callously indifferent to the sordid tales of harassment, molestation, snatching and plain cheating that have brought a bad name to the city of the Taj which every tourist entering India wants to see.

After a hue and cry following the gangrape of two Japanese tourists in September 2007, a new Tourist Thana – a special police station for tourists – was opened. But the situation has not improved. In the last quarter of 2007, at least half a dozen complaints were lodged by foreign tourists.

The latest is the shocking case of a Russian woman tourist being shot dead in the Kamayani Express train on the Agra-Jhansi stretch on Dec 28 while it was running. Unidentified desperadoes armed with guns entered the AC compartment and started looting and bashing up passengers between Dabora and Panhai. When the Russian couple protested, the woman was shot point blank and the husband beaten up.

One of the most shocking was the gangrape of the two Japanese girls Sep 19. The girls were so shocked that they did not even lodge a complaint in Agra. The complaint was registered in New Delhi with assistance from officials of the Japanese embassy. Agra Police later registered a case. Three people are now in jail.

After that case, there has been a decrease in the number of tourists from Japan, according to half a dozen Japanese language knowing guides at the Taj Mahal.

A survey by Shyam Vir Singh, a researcher, shows that most victims in 2007 were those who had problems with their English. “The Japanese, the Koreans and even some south Indians find it hard to communicate in Hindi or in English and are often misunderstood. Being extra polite could mean acceptance of an offer to drink or spend time together,” Singh explains.

In another case, acid was thrown on a Russian girl when she was returning with her friend after dinner at a hotel on Mall Road Nov 28.

Every few days a foreign or domestic tourist is cheated or harassed by touts called ‘lapkas’ in local parlance.

2007 started with a theft case in hotel Taj View. The victim was a foreigner called Jolandra from West Europe. Another tourist, Anwar Mohammed, was a victim of theft and lost dollars, pounds and a credit card.

Malaysia’s Sheng became a victim of harassment and attempted molestation Feb 5. Tourists from the Philippines Feb 17 last year lodged a complaint of theft of camera and some currency inside the Taj Mahal premises.

In March the same year two American female tourists lodged a complaint of harassment and taunts, again inside the Taj premises.

The Government Railway Police (GRP) station at Agra Cantonment is still investigating at least a dozen cases involving foreign tourists on trains coming to Agra or at the railway station.

The complaints of domestic tourists are not taken seriously either. In most cases, the harried visitor files a complaint and leaves. Since there is no follow up, there is no result.

However, the romance of the Taj Mahal lives on and despite all the problems and negatives, the number of tourists to Agra has continued to swell. Around 3.2 million tourists turned up to see the Taj in 2007 against two million in 2006 and 1.9 million in 2005.

(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at [email protected])