Daunting journey

Carbon particles from biomass burning and vehicles could be discolouring the Taj Mahal. Down To Earth returns to the monument, a symbol of our protracted fight against pollution


Daunting journey

Taj mahal


The Taj puzzle

"If India has to reconcile the conflict between industrialisation and environmental sustainability, its technological and management choices will have to be built on good science. This is necessary to ensure that the pain of industrial closure and joblessness is reduced to the absolute minimum"

This is what Anil Agarwal, Down To Earth’s founder editor, had to say when this fortnightly had done an investigative story questioning the scientific evidence that indicted small-scale industries for pollution and damage to the white marble of the Taj Mahal. On the 23rd anniversary of Down To Earth it is important for all of us to return to this monument of love, the Taj.

Not only because it is an iconic and glorious monument that needs to be cherished by us all.

Not only because the fight to save the Taj from pollution is the country’s longest and perhaps most difficult battle. It began in 1983, when 10,400 sq km of area was declared the Taj Trapezium Zone and polluting units were prohibited (see ‘The right zone’,).

Since then the Supreme Court has directed action to clean the Taj and huge costs have been paid, particularly by local industries and residents, to close down polluting units or to relocate them.

Not only because now it is feared that this battle may not be over. Recent studies have once again suggested that the scourge of pollution is still adversely affecting the white marble of the Taj. This time, it is not sulphur dioxide, which was suspected in the 1980s of turning the gleaming façade yellow. This time the villain is black and organic carbon particles that are emitted from vehicles and other polluting units. But again, it is important to ask whether we know the cause of the problem? Already, the administration is gearing up for another purge—this time it wants to remove all the makers of petha, a unique and local sweet made of, believe it or not, the common vegetable, ash gourd. But will this be enough? Should it even be done? For Taj’s sake.

But also because it is important to understand how we will succeed in such highly contested and protracted efforts to clean our cities or rivers. The Taj Mahal is a piece of amazing architecture and beauty, a tribute to our past. But how can it become modern India’s tribute to the balance between environment and development?

Discolouration: why is Taj turning yellow?

What do we know of the state of Taj discolouration? Is it extensive; is it leading to irreversible damage or is it about surface stains that can be cleaned? In its 1996 landmark judgement, the Supreme Court drew upon the petitioner lawyer M C Mehta’s assessment, which it quoted as saying that the white marble had yellowed and blackened in places. “Yellow pallor pervades the entire monument. In places the yellow hue is magnified by ugly brown and black spots and according to the petitioner the Taj is on its way to degradation due to atmospheric pollution.”

Taj Mahal

This was when the court also had before it a scientific study, which contradicted this claim. The government-appointed committee under the chairpersonship of S Varadarajan, the then chairperson of the Indian Petrochemicals Ltd, had commissioned Italian company Tecneco to study the impact of pollution on the Taj. A petrographic, chemical and physical analysis of marble samples—from the Taj and also from the original quarries at Makarana in Jaipur—concluded that the cause of deterioration and black spots was not pollution, but microscopic algae.

The Lucknow-based National Research Laboratory for Conservation of Cultural Property (NRLC) conducted further studies to look at the different types of deterioration, from discolouration of the surface, either uniformly or in spots, and breaking of marble edges to cracks and erosion of the surface. Their overall analysis was that these issues had little to do with pollution and more to do with dirt deposits and maintenance. For instance, the reason for “yellowing”, they concluded, was the deposit of dirt or the application of resin that was used to preserve the monument.

O P Agrawal, the then director of NRLC, wrote prophetically, “Control of atmospheric pollution from Mathura Oil Refinery or from locomotives or from local factories, foundries, although extremely important and desirable, is not going to solve the problem of alteration and deterioration of Taj Mahal.” This needs more studies to understand the causes so that we can address the problem.

But his message to use science to inform decision-making was ignored then as well as now. Since then, there has been even less research on the causes of deterioration of the monument. The studies only point to the extensive problem of pollution in the vicinity of the Taj and in the airshed of the Trapezium. Clearly, this is not enough, and for two reasons. One, we will not be able to fix the problem unless we know the underlying cause. A 2014 study, which found the Taj still discoloured, is now indicting high pollution because of black and organic carbon particles. While this may be enough to say that more must be done to control air pollution for the health of Agra residents, it is not enough to determine the actions needed to conserve the Taj. It is time we had more clarity, otherwise, another few decades later discolouration will again be the headline and by then it may be too late to save the Taj.

Second, we will not be able to convince people of the actions that need to be taken unless we have information and evidence at hand. The fact is that poor people in Agra have paid a big price to keep the environment of the Taj clean (or cleaner). Industries have been closed down, relocated and many lives disrupted, made poorer. This was possible because the directions came from the Supreme Court, which was acting in public interest. But it was also possible because people who were impacted by these decisions were poor and powerless.

As India becomes richer, more literate or politically informed, it will be much more difficult to push through such necessary actions, without hard, credible data on the nature of the problem and the steps required to be taken.

`We cannot wait for the Taj to suffer the damage'

There is no doubt that pollution—acidic formations from sulphur and nitrogen oxide particles or soot from black and organic carbon particles—will take a toll on the monument. How much and how serious can be debated. But damage they will do. Speaking to Down To Earth in 1996—when the issue of relocation of small industries was raging—P Khanna, the then director of the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), had said, perhaps rightly, that “we cannot wait till the Taj actually suffers damage”. The court took pre-emptive action in the interest of conserving the wonder of the world.

Taj Mahal

There is also no doubt that the Supreme Court directions to clean the Taj and to find alternatives to dirty energy use in its vicinity have been far-reaching and bold.

First, the Court ordered that the polluting units in the vicinity of the Taj be identified. Mainly foundries; glass and bangle manufacturing units; and chemical and engineering industries were found to be using coal and other polluting fuels. The court also ordered that the Gas Authority of India Ltd would supply cleaner fuel—natural gas—to these units. This was done and a 170 km pipeline to the Taj Trapezium was laid. According to the Uttar Pradesh government’s affidavit to the court, 187 units were closed; 42 moved to natural gas and 53 to electricity. Clearly, enormous work was done to bring this transition.

This was not all. The court, in its 1996 judgement and subsequently, asked for many other things to be done such as creating a green belt; building a bypass for heavy traffic; ban on brick kilns within 20 km from the Taj; supply of uninterrupted power so that the use of generators is negated; and ban on diesel-driven, light-duty vehicles and three-wheelers within 500 metres of the monument.

These steps have had an impact. The court-ordered air quality-monitoring stations, located both near the Taj and in the industrial outskirts of the city, prove the difference. There is a drastic reduction in all pollutants between 2005, when natural gas became available, and 2012. More importantly, pollution around the Taj—monitored by the Archaeological Survey of India and the Central Pollution Control Board—has reduced dramatically.

The question now is: why should the Taj still be under threat? Is it because there are new sources of pollution that were not accounted for in the earlier decisions; or is it because governments have not implemented the directions of the court yet? Or is it because the airshed is polluted and it is no longer enough to keep the quality of air close to the monument clean. For instance, in Agra and Mathura vehicular traffic has imploded. The city has not invested in public transport and even though compressed natural gas (CNG) is available it has not made optimum use of this clean fuel.

Then, power supply remains erratic. NEERI’s 2013 report finds that there is 178 per cent growth in generators in commercial shops in the city, as compared to 2001. However, the generators in the glass industries in Firozabad are based on natural gas and not diesel. But garbage disposal is unsatisfactory. Open burning continues, adding to pollution. What is clearly needed is to assess the sources and actions taken till date on the different court orders and then work out the second-generation, air pollution-control measures for the Taj Trapezium.

The one thing that should not be done is to turn the people of Agra against the conservation of their city’s monument once again. This clearly is the most important opportunity we must seize.

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