No room at the Taj: City pulls out all stops to host Obama
Mumbai October 23:
In the first week of November, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel may resemble a fortress when the most powerful man in the world checks in there. President Barack Obama will make the hotel his home for two days—most likely November 5 and 6—during his brief visit to Mumbai.
The authorities have booked almost the entire 604-room hotel, and tourists are most likely to see a board that states 'No rooms available'. According to state government sources, almost the entire heritage wing—which was the most damaged section of the property during the 26/11 siege—has been booked as have the restaurants and banquets rooms of the hotel.
"No visitor will be allowed inside the hotel during Obama's stay,'' said a state government official. United States authorities are ensuring that there is restricted movement of the public in and around the hotel during that period.
The US President's staff and top-notch US delegation will be staying at Oberoi Hotel, Grand Hyatt and ITC Grand Maratha. A team of Obama's personal chefs will be part of the delegation and the Prez will eat food cooked by them only. From Mumbai, Obama is expected to head to Amritsar on November 7.
His wife, Michelle, reportedly, has agreed to visit Kamathipura, Mumbai's biggest red-light area, on November 7, on the invitation of an NGO, but it is still not clear whether she will go there. "Obama will land in Mumbai's international airport in a special plane on the afternoon of November 6 and will be accompanied by two other jumbo jets,'' said a Mumbai police official. "The delegation will leave the airport in around 40 to 45 cars and the President will be in one of them,'' said an official.
But while civic officials are working at a feverish pitch to ensure that the US President will be spared a bumpy ride from the airport, they are hoping that the VVIP protocol will kick in and Obama and his contingent will be transferred directly to Shikra, the Indian Navy's helicopter base at South Mumbai. "We have been informed by senior officials in Mantralaya that the President will fly directly to the Shikra air base from the international airport,'' said a civic official.
In Mumbai, Obama is scheduled to take part in a programme at Mani Bhavan and Nariman House in Colaba, where Pakistani terrorists killed several Israelis in the 26/11 siege. "Obama will have a multi-tier security cover. There will be his special protection group personnel, CIA agents, the Mumbai police, personnel from the Indian intelligence establishments and Research & Analysis wing (RAW). Besides, Mumbai's sniffer dog squad, the US authorities will be bringing their own sniffer dogs.
Personnel from the US airforce and US navy will also be Obama's companions during his visit to India,'' said government sources. Civic officials are unsure whether Obama and his team will transfer to a helicopter or use the roads. "However, we are still preparing for all possibilities,'' said a civic official. Both the Indian president and prime minister have used the Shikra base during visits to Mumbai. It was also used by NSG commandos who were flown in to tackle the siege at Nariman House during the 26/11 terror attack.
The BMC, however, is taking no chances and leaving no stone unturned in its endeavour to rid the city's roads of potholes. Workers laboured through Thursday and Friday night so that the President was spared the trauma that motorists endure every day. Heavy machinery and equipment were deployed in front of Haji Ali Junction to paint dividers and repair bad patches. Workers were even seen at Marine Drive trying to repair an underground drain that had started leaking early in the morning. At Pedder Road, north-bound traffic was diverted for a few hours to even out a patchy surface.
Stress levels and anticipation are both high, as this is one of the few times the city is playing host to a VVIP of Obama's stature. Civic officials told TOI they were relieved the visit coincides with Diwali. "This is even bigger than the then US President Bill Clinton's visit to Mumbai. If it had not been a holiday, we would have been forced to announce one in order manage the chaos on that day,'' said a BMC official.
The BMC is currently training its eyes and resources on the approximately 20-km stretch between Bandra and Nariman Point. Stretches getting special attention include the Bandra-Worli Sealink, Worli Sea Face, Pedder Road and Marine Drive. Rs 25 lakh has been set aside for an overall renovation plan of Ward A (Marine Drive, Collabra, Fort).