The Taj puz­zle

Down to Earth - - THE FORTNIGHT -

This is what Anil Agar­wal, DownTo 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’, p24). 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.”

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.

"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"

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, a nother 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.

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,l ight-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 sec­ond­gen­er­a­tion, 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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