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Plan for making Taj Mahal's inner dome accessible has been shelved: A.S.I. Chief

Plan for introducing a specially designed hydraulic lift inside Taj Mahal to allow people with disabilities to visit the inner platform has been shelved as it may destroy the monuments’ sanctity says C. Babu Rajeev, Director General of Archaeological Survey of India (A.S.I.), in conversation with Parvinder Singh.

Picture of A.S.I. Chief C. Babu Rajeev

1. After Professor Stephen Hawkings’ visit to India, in 2001, the Archaeological Survey of India (A.S.I.) had announced a policy to make the World Heritage Sites accessible. What is the present status of access for people with disabilities at these sites and National Monuments?

Yes, we do have a policy on access for people with disabilities to these historical sites. In April 2005, I held a meeting with Superintending Officers, our men on the ground who get orders executed, from across the country to take a feedback on various issue including what is being done about access in there respective jurisdictions. The issue of access was reiterated during the meeting and a decision has been taken to make all World Heritage Sites (20 declared and 14 listed) friendly to people with disabilities on a priority basis. Thereafter, focus would be shifted to all ticketed sites under us. Right now I cannot give you a specific number of how many monuments can be declared barrier-free. Efforts, however, would be to attain a standardisation of these facilities to adhere to a quality, so that these can be used effectively. In the National Capital Qutub Minar and Humayun's Tomb are two such examples.

2. Are there any guidelines or parameters that ASI has on access for the aged and people with disabilities?

No there aren’t any guidelines as such, and I do not think there is a need to prescribe any specific parameters. It is not an issue that involves very hi-tech technical know-how to make ramps and toilets accessible. As these facilities can be easily provided for. However, the will and spirit to carry them out is need.

3. But you surely must be aware that in the United States, Britain and several other European countries specific guidelines ensure that people with problem of access can reach such sites link any other section. Isn’t there a need for similar initiatives?

It’s not right to compare the situation here with these countries. There are huge cultural differences. Further, specific laws in these places make it mandatory for all facilities, not just monuments, to have an accessible infrastructure. For instance, I often see during my travels abroad that wheelchair users are provided with special lifts at airports when a flight is about to take-off or land. In India at best you see two people manually dragging wheelchair user. There is a general lack of standardisation in India.

4. What sort of training is being provided to A.S.I. officials and local staff including guides vis-à-vis disabled tourists?

At the moment no training programme is being carried out and there is nothing in the pipeline either. Well, you see we do not really need to train the entire staff. Sensitisation and awareness over the issue is required for the top-level people who are involved in the panning phase. From there on, we conduct periodic appraisal and assessment of the execution of the policy being carried out by the staff.

5. What are the challenges that ASI confronts in making “heritage sites accessible”?

The country has a very large number of heritage monuments, around 5,000 of them. The idea of access for people with disability is rather new and it will take a lot of time for things to move. But we are taking steps in this direction. One of the problems that I noticed when I visited some sites is that facilities are very poor and unusable. For instance, some of the ramps that I saw that some of the monuments were too steep to allow any access forget about wheelchairs. But anyways the biggest problem is that we cannot do too many changes to a monument, as it would interfere with its original look. If a platform is too high, we cannot make a too long a ramp.

6. People were quite enthused to hear about the lift in the Taj Mahal? Tell us more about how A.S.I. is importing technology/ know how for creating universal access to the monuments? Do you feel that the lack of access to important tourist destination may be acting as a put-off for aged and disabled foreign tourists?

There was an announcement sometime ago, but we have shelved the project for providing a lift, which was to be especially designed and engineered, to reach the inner platform. This was done primarily because there was opposition from some groups and individuals, who have raised concerns over the sanctity of the place being desiccated due to this move. Yes, I too feel that cultural sanctity of a historical place is important. We cannot and should not destroy that. I have been to the platform that houses the grave; I do not understand why people make such a crowd there. The outer structure of the monument is the main attraction and it is accessible…. The problem was of electrical cables etc to power the lift. No technological association with foreign countries underway or planned as yet. Better accessibility will definitely encourage such tourists to visit these monuments.