The bulk purchasing of shoe covers by the authorities at the Taj when tourist arrivals had reduced to a trickle amid Covid-19 crisis raises questions. An investigative report by Tehelka SIT
“Turn disaster into an opportunity.” This slogan was widely used during the Covid-induced lockdown. There was a positive thought behind it. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also emphasised this in his speeches. The motive perhaps was to raise the morale of the countrymen in the midst of the epidemic.
But some people turned the slogan on its head and tried to take advantage of the situation. They saw in the unprecedented crisis the country was battling with an opportunity to make money for themselves. There were reports on all media platforms as to how people made money during Covid-19 crisis by overcharging for ambulances, oxygen cylinders, medical equipment and hospital beds etc. The list is long.
But today we are talking about the seventh wonder of the world, the Taj Mahal. Nobody would have thought that during the Covid lockdown even Taj Mahal could become a vehicle for some for making a quick buck. But Tehelka investigation done through RTI applications reveals that this is what actually happened. Some officers of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Agra circle, didn’t think twice before taking advantage of the situation. Thus, the purchases made by the Agra Circle, which maintains dozens of buildings including Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri, have come under a cloud. This has come to fore during a special investigation done by Tehelka through RTIs.
The special investigation reveals that shoe covers were bought — that too in lakhs — at the Taj Mahal while actually they were not needed at all. It is not that the purchase was made once or twice. Every year, twice or thrice, lakhs of rupees were spent on shoe covers. The price of shoe covers purchased ranged from Rs 8 to Rs 90 per pair.
By the way, shoe covers are mandatory only for foreign tourists at Taj Mahal, but there too it is the responsibility of Agra Development Authority (ADA) to fulfill the requirement in this regard. Then the question arises that for whom the Agra circle of ASI was buying shoe covers worth lakhs of rupees.
Not only this, the Agra circle also bought shoe cover dispensers in 2015-16 at the cost of lakhs of rupees. It should be noted that foreign tourists are allowed to enter the main mausoleum of Taj Mahal only if they are wearing shoe covers. And for foreign tourists to wear shoe covers, ADA has already installed two shoe cover dispensers in the Taj Mahal complex.
According to a reply to an RTI query, there is no provision for providing shoe covers to domestic tourists. Though Agra circle does arrange shoe covers for VIPs and VVIPs. But those shoe covers are very different from the common non-woven shoe covers. Also, there is no need for machines to put them over the shoes. Surprisingly, the Agra Circle has also shown the consumption of these special shoe covers at a time when no VIP and VVIP was coming to the Taj Mahal during the Covid-19 lockdown. Also, during the lockdown, when the Taj Mahal was opened only for a few days, curiously about one lakh shoe covers from automatic dispensers were said to have been used.
To gather some more information on this issue, many RTI applications were filed in Agra. But every time the answer given by Agra Circle [ASI] was different from the one provided earlier. Sometimes they would say, “We give shoe covers to Indian tourists visiting the main tomb.” While at other times, they replied, “There is no provision to give shoe cover to the Indian tourists going to the main tomb. There is no provision to give shoe cover even on a normal ticket of Rs 50.”
Same is the case with the shoe cover machines. Different answers were given in reply to RTI queries about shoe cover machines. First, in a reply to an RTI, the office said that 8 machines for putting on shoe covers have been purchased, and till 31 July 2021, two machines were in working condition. Then in response to the second RTI, it said that six machines were in working condition. When the photos of the machines were asked for, the officials provided photo copies, from which it was too difficult to make out anything as images were very dark.
Apart from VIP-VVIPs, the Agra circle purchased shoe covers for some of its employees and CISF jawans, who are deployed in the security set-up of Taj Mahal. These employees and CISF personnel do duty at the main mausoleum of Taj Mahal, though the number of such staff is less. It is forbidden to go to the main tomb wearing shoes and slippers, so shoe covers are given to them for putting them over the shoes. The duty of the employees of Agra Circle lasts from morning to evening, while the CISF personnel do duty in two shifts. Though on several occasions, through RTI queries, Agra Circle was requested to provide the number of the employees who go to the main mausoleum daily for duty, the answer was refused every time. The office said that the number of such employees kept changing in accordance with the number of tourists visiting the monument. Similarly, the query about the number of CISF Jawans who are given shoe covers was also stonewalled. However, once while talking on mobile, an officer put the number of employees and CISF jawans visiting the main mausoleum daily at 8 to 10. From the numbers mentioned by the officer, we are taking the bigger number 10 for employees and similar number for CISF personnel. So the total number of people on duty comes to 20 on a daily basis.
The Taj Mahal, which finds place in the seven wonders of the world, is open for all types of tourists for 26 days in a month. It remains closed on Fridays. It is opened only for Friday prayer, when worshipers go to the mosque built in the Taj Mahal, while the main mausoleum is not visited by anyone. Accordingly, 520 shoe covers are required in a month. Let’s make it 600 shoe covers be put on the shoes. It is possible that some senior officers of ASI, police, administration or any other department or friends came to see the Taj Mahal, and they were also given shoe covers. So we assume the requirement of 1000 shoe covers instead of 600 in a month. If Agra circle says, we can also increase 100-200 shoe covers.
Types of shoe covers
Before diving into the details of this investigative report, it is important for us to understand the types of shoe covers and their cost. Mainly, there are four types of shoe covers: Cotton Cloth with Canvas Bottom, Velvet Cloth with Canvas Bottom, Matty Cloth with Canvas Bottom and Non-Woven Shoe Covers. Out of these, non-woven shoe cover is used in shoe dispensers i.e shoe cover machine. These are use-and-throw shoe covers. Once used, they are thrown away as soon as the tourists return from the main tomb. These are bought in bulk. In the year 2021, from January to July, more than 3 lakh non-woven shoe covers were purchased. Their price ranged from Rs 4.75 to Rs 5 per pair. In the year 2019-20 also, Agra circle purchased these shoe covers at the rate of Rs 11.50 per pair.
The remaining three types of shoe covers last for several days. The most expensive shoe cover, Velvet Cloth with Canvas Bottom is priced at Rs 92.35. In the year 2021, they were bought by the Agra Circle at this rate. Matty Cloth with Canvas Bottom shoe covers were purchased in the year 2021 for Rs 48. Cotton Cloth with Canvas Bottom shoe covers were last bought in the year 2018 for Rs 46.
When ASI-Agra circle went shopping
In view of the outbreak of Covid-19 epidemic, from 17 March 2020, the gates of Taj Mahal were closed for all categories of tourists. But two months before this, in January, Agra circle had bought 200 shoe covers of velvet cloth with canvas bottom at the rate of Rs 90 per pair and 20,000 non-woven shoe covers for shoe dispensers at the rate of Rs 11.50 per pair. Similarly, in the year 2021, non-woven shoe covers for shoe dispensers were purchased thrice. First, 1.05 lakh shoe covers were purchased in January at the rate of Rs 4.75. Again, 1.05 lakh shoe covers were purchased at the rate of Rs 4.75 in February. Whereas, one lakh shoe covers were purchased at the rate of Rs 5 in July.
Taj Mahal remained completely closed from 17 March 2020 to 20 September 2020 due to Covid-19 epidemic. From 21st September, the tourists were given an option of purchasing online tickets. But this time also, the decision about how many tourists could enter the mausoleum rested with the Agra Circle. The Taj Mahal was permitted to remain open only for five days in a week During the Covid-19 epidemic, only domestic tourists were received at Taj Mahal. Because of the closure of international flights, there were no foreign tourists coming into the country. Till 15 April, 2021, everything went well but from 16th April 2021, the Taj Mahal was again closed for the tourists. It remained closed till 15 June, 2021 for around two months and was again opened from 16 June 2021.
1.05L pairs of shoe covers used in 130 days!
By the way, from January 2020 to July 2021, Agra Circle had purchased 3 lakh, 30 thousand, 2 hundred shoe covers. It also includes shoe covers with a price tag of Rs 90 for each pair. If we talk about 2021 only, then 3.10 lakh pairs of shoe covers were purchased. These were non-woven shoe covers. In response to an RTI application submitted in September 2021, the Agra Circle had said that till July 31, 2021, it had only 2.05 lakh non-woven shoe covers outstanding in the balance. This means that from January till July 31, 1.05 lakh shoe covers were used. That too when Taj Mahal was open only for 130 days during this period due to the prevailing epidemic. Let us know from the figures given in the box below that in the year 2021, from January 1 to July 31, when the Taj Mahal opened and when it remained closed.
From January 1 to April 15, Taj Mahal was open for tourists – 106 days (15 Fridays)
From 16 April to 15 June, the Taj Mahal remained closed for tourists – 61 days.
Taj Mahal re-opened for tourists from 16th June to 31st July – 46 days (7 Fridays)
So the above figures indicate that from January 1 to July 31, 2021, the Taj remained open only for 152 days. But Friday is a closed day. So if we deduct 22 Fridays, the Taj Mahal remained open for tourists only for 130 days.
The situation is really intriguing. If Agra circle is to be believed, then 10 shoe covers were used daily in 130 days as in total 1300 shoe covers were used. We assume a daily use of 20 shoe covers. According to this, 2600 shoe covers were used. Let’s leave 26 hundred also, let’s assume 3,000. Let’s say 200-500 shoe covers were eaten by rats, then let’s say 3500. Let us also assume that due to prevailing Covid-19 some people may have used double shoe covers, then say 5 thousand shoe covers were used. But still the question arises where did one lakh non-woven shoe covers go. While for the information of the readers, it may be mentioned that on July 11, 2022, Agra Circle has said in reply to an RTI query that CISF jawans on duty are given shoe covers with matte cloth with canvas bottom. This means that non-woven shoe covers are used only and only among the employees of ASI. But the question remains the same: how many shoe covers could they use?
3000 VVIP-VIP visitors in two years?
Tehelka investigation found that Agra circle purchased four types of shoe covers. We have mentioned that above also. Out of these, we have told you in detail about the purchase and use of non woven shoe covers. However, there will be more revelations in the remaining part of this report as well. So we mentioned that cotton cloth with canvas bottom, velvet cloth with canvas bottom and matty cloth with canvas bottom varieties of shoe covers were also bought in the name of Taj Mahal. But how many were used? This question can only be answered only by Agra circle.
These special three types of shoe covers are given to VVIPs, VIPs and CISF personnel. According to information gathered in the year 2021 through an RTI, from January 2018 to January 2020, 15,000 pairs of shoe covers were purchased. They were differently priced at Rs 46, Rs 85.51 and Rs 90. These shoe covers were of cotton cloth and velvet cloth varieties both with a canvas bottom. According to Agra Circle, all these shoe covers were also used till 31 July 2021. Now if 5 people including one VVIP and VIP with protocol went to the main mausoleum and shoe covers were given to all 5 people, does it mean three thousands VIP-VVIP visited the monument in two years? In this regard, when the Agra circle was asked for the figures of movement of VVIPs and VIPs, they flatly refused to give any answer.
ASI’s bid to obfuscate?
Not one but many RTI applications and appeals were filed to Agra Circle to know the details about shoe covers being bought in the name of Taj Mahal. But in response to these queries, every time Agra Circle sent a doubtful-looking answer. Like when we asked who all are given shoe covers at Taj Mahal. In response to this, Agra Circle informed on September 1, 2021 that CISF personnel, ASI, SIS, sweepers, VIP-VVIPs and domestic tourists visiting the main mausoleum from December 10, 2018 were given shoe covers. But then on April 27, 2022, in its second reply, the office told us that there is no provision to give shoe covers to domestic tourists.
Then we wanted to know from the Agra circle how many of their employees go into the main mausoleum for duty. In response to this, Agra Circle said on 16 November 2021 that the number of CISF, ASI and SIS personnel, and the cleaning staff keeps changing according to the number of tourists, so there is no definite figure. Not only this, the Agra Circle informed on July 11, 2022, about non-woven shoe covers for shoe dispensers, which were purchased in lakhs in 2021 alone, that ADA provides the shoe covers used in shoe dispensers. The answer given by Agra raises a question mark. Because if shoe covers for shoe dispensers are being given by ADA, then why Agra circle is buying lakhs of non-woven shoe covers for shoe dispensers.
Agra Development Authority (ADA) is a department of the Government of UP and is responsible for the maintenance of the city. The ADA is also entrusted with the maintenance work on the outskirts of the Taj Mahal complex. In return, ADA collects toll funds from ASI’s Agra Circle. This means that ASI gives a part of the entry ticket price for Taj Mahal to ADA. In return, the ADA hands over a pair of shoe covers and a small water bottle along with the ticket to foreign tourists. These shoe covers are non-woven ones for shoe dispensers. For foreign tourists, ADA has kept two shoe cover dispensers in the Taj Mahal complex. A man is also stationed there who gives shoe covers to foreign tourists from the dispenser only after seeing their tickets.
The ‘missing’ dispenser
While replying to an RTI query, Agra circle of ASI said that in the year 2015-16, it had purchased eight shoe cover dispensers. Shoe cover dispenser was purchased from Hanuman Enterprises, Tajganj, located in Katra Umar Khan, a locality near Taj Mahal. Agra circle has given the price of one dispenser as Rs 61,000. It may be mentioned that the shoe cover dispenser of this model is available online at a very low price. The model of the dispenser is CD-OTO-720. Agra circle has mentioned this model while issuing the tender. According to the information received through RTI, till 31 July 2021, only two shoe cover dispensers were in working condition. Then again when the information about shoe dispensers was sought, on April 27, 2022, it was informed that there were six dispensers in working condition and one was defective at that time. The question is that when Agra circle had bought eight shoe cover dispensers, why are they giving information only about seven dispensers only. Where did the 8th dispenser go? Under RTI, separate soft or hard photos of working and defective shoe cover dispensers were asked from Agra circle. The department sent photo copies of the photos. The hard copies it sent are so blurry and dark that it is not easy to read and see anything. There also, a photocopy of only seven dispensers has been given instead of the total eight the department is supposed to have.
Mysterious spike in demand
What happened was that from the year October 2015 and especially from 2021, the Agra circle started requiring lakhs of shoe covers for the Taj Mahal. Whereas before the year 2015 i.e. till 2014, the requirement was 600 to 1000 shoe covers per year. The information obtained through RTI on November 16, 2021, is as under:
In 2010-11, 600 pairs of shoe covers of cotton cloth with canvas bottom were purchased at the rate of Rs 30 for each pair.
In 2011-12, 1100 pairs of shoe covers of cotton cloth with canvas bottom were purchased at the rate of Rs 40.
In 2013-14, 2400 pairs of shoe covers of cotton cloth with canvas bottom were bought at the rate of Rs 36.40.
Now the question is that from the year 2013-14 to 2014-15 i.e. for 2 years work was done in 2400 shoe covers. As the total period for which the data was obtained above makes it four years, then with 4100 pairs of shoe covers, the requirement of 4 years has been fulfilled. Whereas even at that time there were CISF jawans, ASI, SIS, cleaning staff and VIP-VVIPs with protocol. What has happened since the year 2015 that along with the expensive ones, the requirement for cheaper shoe covers has seen such a sharp rise.
Year-wise list of purchases made
According to the information received in response to the RTI application, ASI’s Agra circle has been continuously purchasing shoe covers. Shoe covers have been purchased from firms selling CCTVs and repairing ACs, selling furniture and running shops from home. We obtained shoe cover information from the year 2010. However, Agra circle did not give any record of purchase of shoe covers for the year 2016-17.
The Shopping Cart
Type of shoe cover Number of pairs purchased Price per pair Total amount spent
Year 2015 (October)
Cotton Cloth With Canvas
bottom 26000 Rs 37.75 Rs 9,81,500
Canvas Bottom 800 Rs 50 Rs 40,000
Non woven for shoe
dispenser 1 lakh Rs 8.20 Rs 8.20 lakh
Cotton Cloth with Canvas Bottom 9612 Rs 46 Rs 4,42,152 (Jan)
5000 Rs 54.51 Rs 2,72,550 (Dec)
Velvet Cloth with Canvas Bottom 200 Rs 85.51 Rs 17,102 (Dec)
Non Woven for Shoe Dispenser 30000 Rs 8.95 Rs 2,68,500 (Jan)
15000 Rs 8.51 Rs 1,27,650 (Dec):
Year 2020 (January)
Cotton Cloth With Canvas Bottom 00 00 00
Velvet Cloth with Canvas Bottom 200 Rs 90 Rs 18,000
Non Woven for Shoe Dispenser 20000 Rs 11.50 Rs 2,30,000
Cotton Cloth With Canvas Bottom 00 00 00
Velvet cloth with canvas bottom 00 00 00
Non Woven for Shoe Dispenser 1.05 Lakh Rs 4.75 Rs 4.98 lakh (Jan):
1.05Lakh Rs 4.75 Rs 4.98 lakh( Feb)
1 lakh Rs 5 Rs 5 lakh (July)
After July 2021
Cotton Cloth with Canvas Bottom 00 00 00
Velvet Cloth with Canvas Bottom 500 Rs 92.35 Rs 46,175
Non woven for shoe dispenser 1 lakh Rs 5 Rs 5 lakh
Matty Cloth with Canvas Bottom 5000 Rs 48 Rs.2.40 lakh
According to media reports, in May 2019, ASI Agra Circle had filed a site management plan in the Supreme Court. This plan was linked to the Taj Mahal. In this plan, along with other preparations, there was also a plan to protect the main dome of the Taj Mahal from dust particles. For this, the ASI had asked all the tourists visiting the main dome to wear shoe covers. ADA gives shoe cover to foreign tourists. But no arrangement has been made to provide shoe covers to domestic tourists. Recently, a video surfaced which showed shoe covers being illegally sold to domestic tourists inside the Taj Mahal complex.
For Taj managers, mum is the word
According to the RTI, information was sought from the Agra Circle from the year 2015-16 to 2021-22. Except for the year 2016-17, all information regarding the purchase of shoe covers was provided. In the case of 2016-17, the purchase of shoe covers was declared as zero. But when information about the expenditure related to Taj Mahal was sought in another RTI, it was revealed that in the year 2016-17, reusable shoe covers worth Rs 5,52,500 had been purchased. Now why and for what purpose the Agra circle is hiding this purchase, only they can tell. It leaves us wondering whether the information provided in response to the RTI inquiries about shoe covers is complete or not.
When contacted for their side on the story, both Raj Kumar Patel, Superintendent of Archaeological Survey of India [ASI ] Agra circle; and Vasant Kumar Swarnkar, Director of Conservation and PRO, ASI, refused to give their versions on Tehelka investigations.