The Taj Mahal is not the only thing monumental about Agra, so is the rising level of air pollution. Although data published by the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (uppcb) shows a decline in spm levels in the city between 1991 and 1994, it has steadily increased thereafter. Emissions from 70,000 generators used as a result of daily power shortages, increasing number of three-wheelers running on diesel and emissions from the Mathura Oil Refinery continue to be the major sources of high levels of spm in Agra.
The closure of 212 coal-based industrial units in 1993 and shifting out of a thermal power plant are possible reasons for the decline in spm levels between 1991 and 1994. But the reasons for the increase in pollution from 1994 to 1996 are not clear. Part of the blame goes to the frequent use of generators due to severe electricity shortages after the coal-based thermal power plant was shifted out.
Residents of Agra are of the opinion that the number of vehicles in the city have increased alarmingly over the past few years, although no data could be obtained on this. They blame diesel-run three-wheelers known as "Vikrams" that are the main source of public transport. One of the largest manufacturers of these vehicles is the Lucknow-based government-owned Scooters India Ltd (sil). A surprise test conducted on new vehicles out of the sil factory by the uppcb revealed that emissions from 15-20 per cent of the "Vikrams" were in violation of the minimal requirements of environmental safety. Government authorities also come in for flak for not dealing with vehicular air pollution effectively. The pollution under control (puc) certificates for vehicles can be obtained for a paltry fee of Rs 20 without taking the vehicles to the checking centre.
"On paper, the cpcb says that pollution has decreased. I don't know about scientific data, but judging by the health of my patients, I say that the level of pollution has definitely gone up," says Deepak Goyal, a physician in Agra. "The numbers and the severity of asthma cases has increased, as have cases of respiratory diseases, allergies and chronic bronchitis."
The views of residents indicate that hardly any steps have been taken to solve the problem of air pollution. And the steps taken have either been inadequate or have led to other problems. For example, the coal-based thermal power station has been shifted out of Agra. This has given rise to frequent power cuts thereby increasing the use generators. The Mathura refinery, located about 40 km north-west of Agra, has been dogged by controversy ever since it started functioning. "I feel the Mathura refinery surely contributes to air pollution in Agra. I have seen the Taj for the last 20 years and have noticed that the colour has definitely changed -- it has turned yellow," says Goyal. "I may not be able to explain how this has happened but it definitely has to do with pollution. Even though the refinery is about 35-40 km from the Taj, they have a chimney that is constantly emitting pollutants. The smoke is bound to stay in the atmosphere and cause detrimental effects sooner or later." Meanwhile, M K Dutta, senior technical services manager at the refinery, stressed that the pollution control equipment at the refinery has been upgraded and that the emissions are well within the acceptable standards. But he refused to provide data on the emission levels at present.
After the danger to the Taj was brought to public notice in 1983, no new coal-based industry has come up in Agra. In 1984, M C Mehta, an advocate who was given the Magsaysay Award this year, filed a public interest petition in the sc to save the Taj from air pollution. As a response to the petition, the sc ordered uppcb to submit a list of all polluting industrial units in Agra and Ferozabad in 1993. The list comprised 508 units that were subsequently issued notices by the uppcb . Of these, 212 units did not reply to the notice. They were served closure notices. Only the units that installed pollution control equipment are functioning at present.
In 1996, the sc ordered National Environment Engineering Research Institute (neeri), Nagpur, to conduct a study on coal-based brick kilns in the Taj trapezium area (a 10,400-km trapezium-shaped area covering the five districts of Agra). Following the survey, the Court ordered in May 1996 that all unlicensed brick kilns within 20 km radius of all significant monuments in the Taj trapezium area should be closed down by August 15, 1996. Consequently, the uppcb closed down 456 brick kilns.
On December 30, 1996, a sc verdict ordered that the 292 coal-based industrial units in Agra should either apply to the Gas Authority Of India Limited (gail) for a gas connection or to the Uttar Pradesh State Industrial Development Corporation (upsidc) for relocation. All the units had to stop using coal by April 30, 1997. However, in response to an appeal made by these units, the sc extended the deadline for stopping the use of coal by December 31, 1997. gail has been ordered to supply gas by that time. But gail has asked for its limit to be extended to March 1998 to complete its deadline of laying the pipelines.
As directed by the sc , a green belt has been developed in a 500-metre area around the Taj. A committee has been set up to visit the site every three months to monitor the progress. About 53,000 trees have already been planted. But the results of this will only be evident after a few years when the trees have grown. There are 12 battery-operated buses around the Taj. But the batteries of these buses have to be recharged for 12 hours after running for 70 km. Hence they cannot be used for long distances in the city. Construction of a 52 km-long ring road had been proposed to join the three national highways (nhs) -- nh 2, nh 3 and nh 11 -- whereby the heavy traffic can be diverted outside the city. A single lane of this road has already been constructed and the remaining work will be completed by 2000. Cooking gas connections are being issued to people on priority to prevent the use of coal for cooking. Gas is being supplied from Delhi. gail has laid the pipelines and the first phase of supply of gas will commence in the first week of November. The second and the third phase of supply will start in December and March respectively.
Rajeev Upadhyay, assistant scientific officer at the uppcb has some interesting suggestions to curb pollution. He feels that since supplying gas to Agra is quite easy, there is a possibility of a gas-based power station that will solve the problem of power-cuts, reducing the emissions from generators. Upadhyay strongly feels that the green belt should not be restricted to certain pockets around the Taj. It should cover areas all over the city.
Goyal suggests that public transport systems should be improved. The local buses that operate at present are not convenient because of their inefficiency in terms of timing and service. Tempos are the main source of transport -- and pollution. Old ones should be replaced with new ones that are less polluting, he reckons. Loans can be given to the tempo operators at affordable interest rates, he says.
Although levels of spm in 1997 from uppcb records are less than those for 1996, the figures are only for 6-7 months. Going by the past three years, there has been a rise in pollution and it can easily be said that the city is getting increasingly polluted. The effectiveness of shifting the thermal power plant in reducing the pollution load is compensated by the increased use of electricity generators.