Heritage sites not accepting cash due to COVID
By Utsav Parekh
MAMALLAPURAM: Luvkush Sharma (name changed on request), from Delhi wore his face mask on his chin as he took phones from the long, densely-packed line of visitors in his hands to scan the QR codes that represented tickets to the UNESCO World Heritage Site called the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram, located in Tamil Nadu.
Physical tickets to sites operated by the Archaeological Survey of India had been stopped due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The monuments themselves had been reopened on the 16th of June following the subsiding of the second wave of COVID-19 in India. However, online tickets and digital payments were the only way for people to visit the sites.
“Sometimes people come and when they see the online tickets, they leave without going to the sites,” said Saranya Kannan, Assistant Tourist Officer for the Tamilnadu Tourism Development Corporation. She said, “People from the village areas who don’t have smartphones cannot visit.” Sharma, who works for the central government’s tourism department, said, “We help people sometimes by doing the bookings for them and getting printouts. Not too many people face problems. Only a few when the large crowds come on weekends.”
The 2021 reports by the Reserve Bank of India and the PMJDY show 99.87% of India had access to banking facilities, and 99.99% of households had bank accounts, respectively. However, according to a report by the World Bank released in 2017, there was a disparity in the usage of savings accounts, and how many were unused after they were opened.
To buy the tickets online, visitors had to enter their names, email IDs, and ID proofs. After giving this information, the visitors would be redirected to a payments page, where the payment options did not include cash. The entire process was only available in English.
“We get complaints from the visitors but we can’t do anything about it. With the unseasonal rains in Tamil Nadu, people have been complaining about the network problems also. But ASI controls this site and they have only digital tickets,” said Kannan. The officers at the local ASI office in Mahabalipuram refused to comment when approached.
There were a set of rules on COVID appropriate behaviour listed next to the entrance of the monuments. They included that people had to wear masks at all times, social distancing was to be maintained, and no one was allowed to touch the monuments. These were all flouted openly by the visitors. “We can’t tell people to not touch the monuments. They want to touch the monuments so they feel they’ve seen something,” said Sharma.
The rules to prevent COVID were being broken by the visitors, and no action was being taken against them. The tickets were cheaper online at Rs. 35 per person, than the Rs. 40 which had been charged for physical tickets when they had been available. Physical ticket counters had been converted into baby feeding rooms. The question was whether these changes were for COVID, or another push to an exclusionary, cashless India.