ENVIRONMENTAL issues often generate considerable heat and
public debates. While the traditional focus of these debates
have been the role of governments and that of political and
commercial vested interests, the role played by scientists and
expert committees has seldom been examined seriously. Given
the fact that every environmental controversy is either
'cleared' or backed by some 'expert' opinion, and that more
often than not, environmental scientists have themselves been
at the root of these controversies, the question that arises is:
how scientific are these scientific opinions?
The case in point is the brouhaha over air pollution in and around Agra, and the feared consequential damage to the Taj Mahal and other places of interest in the region. The Supreme Court is currently hearing a public interest petition filed by lawyer M C Mehta, seeking the closure or shifting of the Mathura refinery (MR) and other sources of pollution which are endangering the Taj, besides the neighbouring Bharatpur bird sanctuary and the health of the people in the region.
The issue had taken a new turn in 1994 with the proposal to shift the smallscale industries of Agra and Ferozabad outside the Taj Trapezium (TTZ) - an area covering over 10,400 sq km - leaving out the MR. The proposal was based on the recommendations of the' National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur, which had 2 conducted scientific studies on air pollution in the TTZ in 1993; NEERI had held the smallscale industries of Agra and Ferozabad (especially the foundries, engineering and glass units) responsible.
The Varadarajan Committee, appointed in 1994, following the criticism of the scientific validity of NEERI's reports and an agitation by Agra's smallscale industry owners, held that there are no pollution -related damages to the monuments and attributed deteriorating air quality in the region mainly to non-industrial sources such as traffic and diesel gensets. The committee did not oppose relocation of the local industries, although instead of shifting them outside the TTZ, it recommended shifting them to nearby sites towards the south/south-east of the Taj Mahal.
Interestingly, the original issue of whether the Taj has suffered any damage due to air pollution and whether it can be attributed to industry alone, on which scientists and expert committees continue to differ for the last several years, seems to have become less important than the question of whom to shift, when to shift and where to shift - so much so that a feature in The Hindustan Times (April 1, 1995) joked that the government is now considering shifting the Taj Mahal to NOIDA in Uttar Pradesh (up), near Delhi.
The controversy, as it stands today, raises certain fundamental questions regarding the role of the judiciary in environmental issues, that of experts or scientists, the accountability of experts to the parties concerned, and most importantly, the need to verify the expert opinion through independent bodies. At the centre of this controversy is NEERI, whose reports have set the tone for the proceedings in the Court.
Experts say that though the Varadarajan Committee ruled out pollution -related damages to the monuments, NEERI'S attempts to bail out the MR and target local smallscale industries remain justified. But J M Dave, environmental scientist and former deputy director Of NEERI, was f4ious at the Institute's report - Air Pollution Studies to Redefine Taj Trapezium Coordinates (July, 1993). "What is wrong with them? How can they blame local industry without precisely quantifying the source-wise contribution of pollutants to the total air quality in the region? They should have done HF6 (radiotracer) studies to assess the pollution at each industrial source," he said, adding that NEERi had not paid enough attention to non-industrial sources, which probably contribute much more to pollution in the region. D K Biswas, chairperson of the Central Pollution Control Board, while refusing to comment on the scientific validity of NEERI'S reports, said, "There are several factors responsible for air pollution,in the TTZ. Industry is only one of them. Holding only local industry responsible will not achieve results."
NEERI, as Dave pointed out, had not given conclusive evidence linking any industry with damage to the Taj. NEERI scientists, apparently, did not do full justice to their jobs. Discrepancies abound in the Institute's ambient air quality data, which is the backbone of its report. However, P Khanna, NEEM director and project guide, and A L Agarwal, project leader, claim ignorance about discrepancies in the data. Regarding the evidence linking industrial air pollution with damage to the Taj, both say that they had recommended further studies "to establish the causal relationships", but the ministry of environment and forests (MEF), which commissioned and funded the study, had insisted on an early report.
The project started in January 1993; NEERI submitted an interim report in April 1993 and a final one in July 1993. As against the initial budget of Rs 60 lakh, Agarwal says that only Rs 10 lakh were made available by the MEF. He points out, "We could not have conducted HF6 studies as they would have taken three years and cost at least Rs three crore." Khanna, on his part, claims, "We did the best possible job given the limitations of time and money."
Two decades after environmental debates involving the Taj started, scientists are still at odds regarding the damage to the historical monument and the specific pollutants responsible for it. According to Biswas, "Suspended particulate matter (SPM) is the main factor, especially dust and sand which have highly abrasive properties." On the other hand, Dave strongly feels that acid rains pose the main danger to the Taj's white marble. "The combined effect of S02 (sulphur dioxide), NOX (nitrogen oxides) and other acid mists quadruples the natural carbonic acid erosion," he says.
The NEEM report also attributes the damage to these factors. However, B B Lal, a scientist with the Archaeological Survey of India, states, "Chemical and petrographic studies have shown that the Taj marble has not undergone mineralogical alteration, nor is there any evidence of chemical weathering. The impact of acidic gases in the air has not been noticed, as there is hardly any perceptible sulphation of the marble." S C Pandya, a retired professor in environmental sciences and a resident of Agra, feels that the Taj has not suffered any permanent damage due to pollution and that claims of permanent yellowing of the marble are not true. Also, measurement of PH values (acidity or alkalinity of a solution) of rain water and washings from the Taj disprove the 'acidic' theory.
Interestingly, NEERI'S claims regarding acid rains and damage to monuments due to sulphation / nitration are contradicted by its own data. For example, data on rain water quality shows that the PH values ranged between 6.1 to 7.7, a perfectly neutral range, indicating that there are no acid rains.
Similarly, data on the analysis of marble stones clearly reveals that sulphates and nitrates (which indicate stone decay) are not detectable. No other data supporting the claims for acid rains or pollution-related damages to the Taj or any other monument in the TTZ has been provided in the report. "Based on literature regarding other monuments abroad and our own studies on marbles under controlled laboratory conditions, damage is possible if the levels of pollutants in the air increase at the present rate," says Agarwal reluctantly. Asked how a pollution model can be made with Taj as the sensitive receptor without even proving damage to it, Khanna says, "We cannot wait till the Taj actually suffers damage."
Pandya is critical of the fact that NEERI scientists did not know the difference between various types of stones used in construction of the Taj. "There is no question of gypsum formation in sandstone as mentioned in the NEEW report. Sandstone contains over 98 per cent silica, and calcium constitutes a fraction of the remaining two per cent. How can you have calcium sulphate (gypsum) formation in sandstone then?" he asks. Answers Agarwal, "While mistakes are possible, I cannot comment unless I verify each of them with the original text and database."
Incidentally, while the report repeatedly states that "The whole structure is of pure white marble", archaeologists assert that the quality of marble and materials used in the construction of the Taj is not uniform. According to them, the visual appearance of Taj Mahal changes with light and weather conditions, as well as due to smoke and spm deposits on the marble surface, but a good rain or a thorough cleaning restores the original lustre and colour; improved cleaning methods such as the 'clay pack technique' have shown good results.
Jaweed Ashraf, professor in the School of Life Sciences in New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University too finds the report misleading. "NEERI scientists repeatedly refer to medieval architecture in the TTZ as 'ancient'. They also do not distinguish between semi-arid and sub-tropical when they say that Agra is located in a semi-arid zone." However, "locating Bharatpur on the Yamuna banks takes the cake", he adds. Says Agarwal, "Everyone looks at it from his own angle of specialisation, " implicitly admitting that NEERI'S team was weak in these areas.
Ambient air quality data forms the back- bone of a number of NEERI'S conclusions. It was based on measurements from 38 sampling stations at various locations in the TTZ in the period between January to March, 1993. But experts feel that data generated in a few months is not sufficient for drawing up annual figures, let alone projecting scenarios for the future.
Besides, there are some loopholes in the manner in which this data was generated. Says Ashraf, "Nowhere does the report give the exact location of these stations. There is evidence to suggest that for some of the industrial points, the monitoring instruments were placed right in the factories to generate a high data. This is true at least for Agra Industrial-II." NEERI's bias against industry is obvious even in the selection of observational locales. Pandya endorses this: "Parameters for deciding the number, location and height of monitoring equipments were not clearly defined. These are extremely crucial for any attempts to ascribe observed levels of pollution to specific emission sources. There is no altitude-wise data for pollutants anywhere in the report."
Agarwal agrees that choice of location is important in the sense that while measuring ambient air quality, equipment should not be located close to an emission source. But he was unsure whether this norm was violated. "The factory from where monitoring was done may not be running," he points out. He also agrees that height is important, but says, "We measure at whatever height is available to us. Obviously, we are not going to construct platforms." He feels that within a certain range, which he does not specify, it does not affect the results.
, "Climatic conditions and wind flow parameters are also extremely crucial for any air pollution analysis and modelling, since the dispersion of pollutants depends solely on them. But NEERi has reduced them to an insignificant factor," says Pandya. Easterly wind-borne pollutants from Ferozabad's industries, for instance, never reach Agra, since these winds are prevalent only during monsoons and rains wash away pollutants from the air. "The NEERi report, on the other hand, projects a significant impact of Ferozabad's industries on Agra's monuments," Pandya adds. Agarwal responds by saying) "We did our own measurements of wind speed and direction during our study. But it requires long-term meteorological data for accurate prediction," implying that the predictions made in the report could be faulty.
NEERI's a priori assumption that air pollution has to be necessarily linked to industrial emissions has resulted in its inability to explain the high levels of pollutants in predominantly rural settings. "NEERi has no rational explanation for the fact that places such as Baldev, Hathrus, Mat, Deeg, Rupbas and Sadabad have extraordinarily high levels of SPM, S02 and Nox as per their own report, Ashraf says, adding that all expert committees appointed so far have ignored the "changing agricultural practices such as excessive chemicalisation and filthy civic conditions prevailing all over the TTZ, which also release the same molecules that instruments measure and investigators attribute to industry." Agarwal has no explanation for the high pollution levels in some rural areas, but argues that soil and water pollution does not affect air quality significantly, even though no specific studies have been conducted to ascertain this. For him, the report, inspite of all its limitations, is a work of "technical excellence".
In its 1993 report, NEERi had blamed the smallscale industries in a circumspect manner, implicit in the institute's projections of the present and future pollution scenarios, based on calculations of fuel consumption in various industries. Its 1994 report, which is more direct in its accusations, drew howls of protest from local industrialists. "We were shocked to see the fuel consumption figures and the derived emission data for Agra foundries projected by NEERI. They have overestimated 'our hard coke consumption more than 13-fold to arrive at shockingly high emission figures," says Raman, president, Agra Iron Founders Association. Raman's queries addressed to Khanna seeking clarifications on this count have not been answered fully so far.
In a reply from NEERI to Raman (August 8,1994), Agarwal explained that emission rates (kg of S02 emitted per million tonne or mt of coke consumed) for Agra foundries were calculated from actual field studies done in Haryana and Punjab for whole cycles of cupola (furnace) operation. Says Raman, "It is were'unrea" obvious that NEERI'S figures are erences to Ii imaginary. How can NEERi rely on emission factors generated in order years Punjab/Haryana? Why did not they do actual testing in Agra? How can they assume a consumption of 382,520 mt per annum of hard coke for foundries alone when the up government has certified that the total consumption of all industries of Agra put together is only 28,500 mt per annum? How can they consider all the units as operating daily when less than two per cent of the foundries operate on daily basis?"
Agarwal replies, "There is nothing that stops any registered unit from operating daily, and we are not going to check each one of them. We had to go by the number of registered units and calculate their fuel consumption based on their maximum requirement. We assume the worst possible situation, which is a very normal procedure in such studies." However, on being pointed out that the amount of coal/coke estimated by NEERI is just not available, he says, "While mistakes are possible, all our data has a basis."
"Pollution is not in our industry. It is among the scientists, government departments and judiciary," says Raman. He feels that foundries are being targeted unfairly. "If it is proved beyond doubt that foundries are the main culprits of pollution, we are ready to face any action. We have even offered the government that we will close down all our units for one month so that ambient air quality can be checked before and during closure to ascertain the truth. But who wants to know the truth?" he asks.
Foundries constitute over one-third of the fossil fuel consuming industries in Agra. They are also the oldest and the most competitive in the country. The Obvious fear of the foundry owners is that shifting will render them financially unviable, especially due to stiff competition from other states. S M.Khandelwal, convenor of the Taj Trapezium Udyog Sangharsh Samiti (which represents all the industries in the region), says, "The local industry of Agra has not grown at all since 1981, when S02 level in ambient air was 5.64 pg/m3 as against the current level of about 30 pg/m3. In fact, many existing units were closed down due to economic uncertainties in the region and others are operating with air pollution control devices since 1994. In such a situation, how can small scale industries be blamed? It is a well known fact that the MR is the only major addition to industrial emissions in mining had no jus- the region since 1982. The NEERI reports virtually ignore the MR which belches out over 700 kg of S02 per hour".
A simple calculation based on official figures was quite revealing. The total coal/coke supplied by Coal India Ltd in and around Agra/Ferozabad is about 5,00,000 mt per annum, out of which industries consume less than half. Based on the-daily industrial consumption figures provided by the Agra District Industries Centre, the Varadarajan Committee calculated that the annual coal/coke consumption by Agra and Ferozabad industries was about 32,000 mt and 1,75,000 mt respectively. Considering the fact that the coal used in the region contains about 0.5 per cent sulphur, even if all the sulphur is emitted as S02 the total S02 contribution by these industries would be around 160 mt and 875 mt per annum.
The committee also estimated that about 70,000 int of diesel is consumed every year in Agra district alone by over 30,000 vehicles and 20,000 generators, in addition to pumpsets. If all the 0.8 per cent sulphur contained in diesel escapes as S02, diesel-based emissions will account for 560 mt of S02 per year. On the other hand, the MR alone emits a whopping 5,475 int of S02 per year. Khandelwal points out that NEERi did not work out any independent measurements relating to the refinery, but accepted the figures given by the MR.
In the report, NEERI has provided fuel consumption figures for all the 2,353 industries in the TTZ except the MR, against which it mentions "not available". The S02 emission figures for the MR are shown as 501 kg/hr in the 1993 report and as 705 kg/hr in the 1994 report. "If the MR has to be saved, someone else has to be blamed, and we (smalIscale industries) are the most convenient scapegoats," Khandelwal says.
Khanna disagrees: "We did not favour or oppose any industry. We projected various pollution scenarios and provided several management options. The basic purpose of our 1993 report was to re-evaluate the parameters based on which the Trapezium was defined. We did not even know that it would be used in the Supreme Court." He feels that NEERI cannot be held responsible for the decisions taken on the basis of its reports. "Normally such a report would have gathered dust in the ministry. We did not know that the ministry would submit it in the Supreme Court," says Agarwal, when asked to comment on whether such a short-term study with so many lacunae could be used for arriving at important decisions with wide social implications.
Several solutions have been proposed - including those by NEERI - regarding sustained power supply and availability of cleaner fuels in the TTZ, construction of a ring road for Agra and by-pass roads for other traffic passing through Agra, a local railway, better sewage management, restoration of the Yamuna river water system through dams, a green belt development and technology upgradation in industries. But local residents are sceptical of what they call the authorities' short- cut approaches. They fear that if industries are shifted or shut down in the name of conservation of the Taj, their livelihoods may be affected. On the other hand, they also feel that implementation of the remaining recommendations would ensure them better living conditions. The Tripathi Committee's (set up by the up government in 1994 to study the impact of pollution on Taj) remarks echo their apprehensions: "Shifting of units is not required as it will render them financially unviable. Closure will render a very large number of people (over 57,800 workers) unemployed. Impact of pollution from industries other than the MR is insignificant and as such, threat to the Taj Mahal, if any, will remain even after shifting of industries."
Several intellectuals feel that the entire approach to pollution in TTZ is monument-oriented. "This has resulted in the complete lack of social components in the approach of various expert committees and their recommendations," says Pandya. The Indo-us Blue Ribbon panel of the Agra Heritage Project, which met in January, 1995, arguing for a people-centered approach, made several recommendations such as to "establish and promptly implement mechanisms for local participation in setting goals and carrying out Agra Heritage plans."
Finally, it is Jaweed Ashrafs trite observation that sums it up all: "Decision-makers at all levels are behaving as if the Taj can survive if people suffer or, yet better, disappear altogether. The Taj is the heritage of the people; tourists, in this context, enter very late. However, people figure very casually in the calculations of decisionmakers. Politicians recognise them only at the time of elections. The executive wing is too subservient to politicians to have an independent opinion. Scientists as a community? The less we discuss the better."
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.