Shadow over Taj
The threat of pollution returns
Taj Mahal,the domed marble mausoleum on the bank of the Yamuna river in Agra,is iconic for more than one reason.It represents the best of Indo-Islamic architecture and serves as a symbol of beauty and love. What is less known is the fact that it also symbolises India’s battle for clean air.
The issue of pollution around the Taj has its roots in the 1973 decision to set up a petroleum refinery at Mathura, near Agra. In 1981, based on reports of committees that looked into the pollution threat, government closed two thermal power plants in Agra and shifted to diesel in its railway shunting yards there. In 1983, the Ministry of Environment and Forests declared some 10,400 sq km of the Agra-Mathura region as a protected area called Taj Trapezium Zone,where polluting industries were banned.A year later,lawyer M C Mehta filed a case in the Supreme Court, asking for the Mathura Oil Refinery to be shifted.
The Bench of green judge Justice Kuldip Singh began hearing the case some years later.In 1993, a report by the Nagpur-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (neeri) on the causes of pollution held small-scale industries of Agra and Firozabad—foundries and the engineering and glass units—responsible for pollution that was damaging the Taj.It recommended that these industries should be relocated outside the Taj Trapezium. It also asked for a green belt around the Taj to save it from pollution.The court ordered this to be done.
At that time a question was raised whether the court had adequate information to make the decision about the source of pollution threatening the Taj. In 1994, another report was commissioned. This time to eminent scientist S Varadarajan. His findings contradicted neeri. Varadarajan held that there was no pollution-related damage to the monument. He said the problem of poor air quality did exist and was because of vehicles and diesel generator sets.However, he did not oppose the relocation of industries, but said that they could be shifted to nearby sites and not out of the Trapezium.So this was ordained.
Since then, the Supreme Court has issued a number of directions to protect the Taj. It has asked for everything to be done, including the supply of compressed natural gas (cng) in the Taj Trapezium to reduce particulate matter emissions and the provision of adequate water in the Yamuna. After some action the matter of pollution around the Taj Mahal got erased from public memory.It was something that was done. Completed. Till now.
In December 2014, a study by the Indian Institute of Technology (iit)-Kanpur, University of Wisconsin and Georgia Institute of Technology,both in the US,found that the Taj Mahal was still under the pollution cloud.The study collected samples of particulate matter around the Taj over a year to find relatively high concentration of light-absorbing particles called black carbon as well as organic carbon and dust.When the researchers studied the surface of marble pieces placed in the Taj complex they found the same particles deposited there.They concluded that black and organic carbon particles—from vehicles and biomass burning—and dust are responsible for the discolouration of the Taj Mahal. “We calculated the amount of light reflected by these particles and compared the modelled reflectance with human colour perception to conclude they play a significant role in causing surface discolouration of the marble,” says Sachchida Nand Tripathi, one of the researchers and professor at iit-Kanpur.
Media reports on the finding prompted the standing committee of Parliament on science,