Agra: No trip to Agra is complete without two essentials - a glimpse of the Taj Mahal and a sampling of the famous `Agra ka petha`. But thanks to a protracted tussle between railway authorities and a private vendor, the sweet is not being sold at railway stations here for about two years now.
"This is gross injustice to the visiting tourists, who are denied an opportunity to buy a kilo or two of petha from the once ubiquitous stalls on Agra stations," Madan Garg, who led a delegation of petha makers to the office of Divisional Railway Manager (DRM) Devesh Mishra to demand immediate lifting of the ban, said.
The railways had given the contract to supply pethas -- made out of sugar-soaked pumpkin -- for the entire Agra zone to a private vendor. But the firm did not meet certain conditions, leading to a logjam. The matter is now pending in court.
Former central deputy minister and national general secretary of Samajwadi Party Ramji Lal Suman said in a petition to the North Central Railway general manager that the ban on selling petha was a clear violation of the rights of passengers.
Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society, said: "Either they (the railways) should allow local organisations to put up stalls or open dozens of stalls themselves."
"Unauthorised vendors board trains between Mathura and Agra and sell petha packets to passengers. Many of them are caught and fined regularly," he added.
The Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation Ltd (IRCTC) has set up a stall at the Agra Cantonement station. But a lone stall is far from enough.
"The halts are so short one cannot risk running to the stall to buy petha," said Ram Pal, a coolie at the station. "People ask us where they can buy pethas, but when we tell them to get down and walk down to the stall, they hesitate."
Railway authorities had more than six months ago agreed to allow women`s groups, cooperatives and NGOs to set up stalls, but nothing has been done so far.
However, Devesh Mishra is hopeful of a resolution soon.
"We will do it through our own outlets. The consumer should not be the loser. The private vendor who had won the tender has not been very helpful. We as a government body have to be fair and just and take all precautions, that is why the delay. But now we have started the process in full gear and will soon be showing results," Mishra said.
Gopal Agarwal, president of the Uttar Pradesh Vyapar Sabha affiliated to the Samajwadi Party, said, "Our party will lift all taxes on petha making and selling to promote this labour- intensive industry."
Agra`s 400-odd petha makers cater to the needs of virtually the whole country.
About the origin of the sweet, the story goes that Mughals needed some cheap, fresh and energy-packed sweet for the thousands of labourers working at various sites, including the Taj Mahal. This is when the petha came handy, said historian Raj Kishore Raje, as it is affordable and easy to make.