Mud ther­apy not a per­ma­nent so­lu­tion to the Taj’s woes

The ivory white mon­u­ment of love is turn­ing pale yel­low, and mud­packs are be­ing ap­plied to im­prove it. But is that enough when the cause of the yel­low­ing is ram­pant pol­lu­tion?

Governance Now - - FRONT PAGE - Ishita Mishra

Patch by patch, the lu­cent dome of the Taj Ma­hal is be­ing plas­tered with a mix­ture of Fuller’s earth. it’s a treat­ment other parts of the mon­u­ment of love – minarets, walls and path­ways – have re­ceived over the years. Th­ese mud packs, of two mil­lime­tre thick­ness, are be­lieved to take away the grime and re­store the mar­ble to its ivory white­ness. since the 1980s, tox­ins in the highly pol­luted air have turned the mar­ble a sick­en­ing yel­low. The mud packs will help, pro­vid­ing a tem­po­rary makeover. of course, it’s no per­ma­nent so­lu­tion.

in ad­di­tion to preser­va­tion and con­ser­va­tion of the Taj, restora­tion work has also been un­der­taken by the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sur­vey of in­dia (asi). its ex­perts have been ap­ply­ing Fuller’s earth packs on the Taj since 1994. The mar­ble mau­soleum had been given this treat­ment sev­eral times in the past, in­clud­ing in 2001-02, 2008-09, 2012 and 2014. “But ear­lier, this mud pack was ap­plied on minarets, the pas­sage and the level from which the main dome rises,” says MK Bhat­na­gar, of the sci­ence branch of asi, agra. This is the first time the main onion dome is be­ing treated with mud. Work be­gan in april, and is likely to take a year to com­plete – though there’s a break for two months now. Scaf­folds have come up for work­ers to climb and ap­ply the paste; poly­thene sheets are be­ing cling-wrapped on the paste to pre­vent it from dry­ing up too soon; green nets have been spread to check the sun­light. When the layer of dried clay

starts fall­ing, the walls are washed with dis­tilled water. “Fuller’s earth packs are quite ef­fec­tive, non-abra­sive and non-cor­ro­sive. They re­move sticky pol­lu­tant de­posits on the walls and crevices of the mon­u­ment. once cleaned, the sur­face doesn’t re­quire treat­ment for 6-7 years. This method has been suc­cess­fully used in the uk and italy,” says Bhat­na­gar.

The treat­ment does leave mar­ble struc­tures bright. But there are some who say it’s only a cos­metic process. Prof r Nath, a historian and founder of the Brij Man­dal Her­itage con­ser­va­tion so­ci­ety of agra, says he’d warned the asi that ap­ply­ing Fuller’s earth would only de­face the mon­u­ment. Brij Khan­del­wal, a jour­nal­ist and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist who is a mem­ber of the so­ci­ety, says that Fuller’s earth would make the mar­ble patchy.

There’s also crit­i­cism from those in­volved in tourism. “Peo­ple come here for pic­tures,” says Vishal Khan­del­wal, a pho­tog­ra­pher and so­cial ac­tivist. “if the dome is cov­ered in scaf­fold­ing for a year, it will hit tourism.” The peak tourism sea­son is from septem­ber to March, and since the work could take up to april next year, this year’s busi­ness is more or less ru­ined, ac­cord­ing to those in trades and ser­vices as­so­ci­ated with tourism: pho­tog­ra­phers, guides, money-chang­ers, ho­tels and restau­rants, hand­i­crafts and so on.

The root cause

The ex­perts who com­mend the Fuller’s earth treat­ment are well aware that it’s the con­ser­va­tion equiv­a­lent of symp­to­matic re­lief. The cause of the Taj’s dis­coloura­tion is heavy air pol­lu­tion – from heavy traf­fic, from the many fac­to­ries and in­dus­trial plants in the Taj trapez­ium zone (TTZ), from the glass fac­to­ries, from the many petha (can­died gourd, syn­ony­mous with agra) mak­ers, who re­lease smoke in the air and dump the residue from pethamak­ing di­rectly into the Ya­muna. There are brick kilns that spew smoke and soot in neigh­bour­ing Firoz­abad and Mathura, and there’s an IOC re­fin­ery in Mathura, which spews sul­phurous fumes. a few of th­ese units have been shut down – but only on pa­per.

Mu­nic­i­pal solid waste (MSW), which in­cludes ev­ery­day items like poly­bags, plas­tic items, news­pa­pers, clothes and rot­ten food, is also in­creas­ing the pol­lu­tion and dam­ag­ing the Taj Ma­hal. in­stead of be­ing prop­erly dis­posed of, much of the MSW in agra and in the neigh­bour­ing dis­tricts of Firoz­abad, Mathura and gwalior is be­ing burnt in the open. agra alone burns a shock­ing 223 tonnes of MSW daily on av­er­age, which is 24 per­cent of the to­tal waste gen­er­ated in the city, ac­cord­ing to a re­port pre­pared by a team of amer­i­can and in­dian sci­en­tists. in com­par­i­son, the na­tional cap­i­tal delhi burns 190246 tonnes of MSW on av­er­age, which is only three per­cent of the to­tal MSW gen­er­ated, re­veals the re­port pub­lished in the jour­nal en­vi­ron­men­tal re­search letters in 2016.

“our study ba­si­cally looks at emis­sions from burn­ing of mu­nic­i­pal waste and cow dung cakes in agra. Th­ese two are the fac­tors that can dam­age mar­ble to the max­i­mum ex­tent than any other fac­tor ex­clud­ing ve­hic­u­lar and fac­tory pol­lu­tion. We found an acute rise in or­ganic aerosols near Taj, es­pe­cially car­bona­ceous one. dust is an­other fac­tor for the dis­col­oration of the mon­u­ment. Too much of ve­hic­u­lar pol­lu­tion and con­tin­u­ous felling of trees in TTZ are also re­spon­si­ble for yel­low­ness,” says pro­fes­sor sn Tri­pathi from the civil engi­neer­ing depart­ment of iit-kanpur’s cen­tre for en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­ence and engi­neer­ing. Tri­pathi was one of the mem­bers who pre­pared the study.

The Na­tional green Tri­bunal (NGT) crit­i­cised the up gov­ern­ment over dump­ing of solid waste in the Ya­muna near the Taj, com­ment­ing that the state was un­able to pro­tect a mon­u­ment from which “it is mak­ing mil­lions”. Since 1996, stiff mea­sures have been taken by the gov­ern­ment to slow down the Taj’s dis­col­oration. In its first or­der, it com­pletely banned coal fired power plants and coke in­dus­tries in the city. it also or­dered the re­lo­ca­tion of over 400 brick kilns in and around the city. The district ad­min­is­tra­tion’s crack­down on the petha in­dus­try and the ban on burn­ing of cow­dung cakes for cook­ing were some other at­tempts.

Re­fin­ery woes

The is­sue of pol­lu­tion around the Taj has its roots in the 1973 de­ci­sion to set up a pe­tro­leum re­fin­ery at Mathura, some 58 km from agra. in 1981, based on the re­ports of com­mit­tees that looked into the pol­lu­tion threat, the gov­ern­ment closed down two ther­mal power plants in agra and started us­ing diesel as fuel in its rail­way shunt­ing yards. in 1996, the supreme court or­dered the es­tab­lish­ment of the TTZ, an area of 10,400 sq km around the Taj Ma­hal, for strict en­force­ment of en­vi­ron­men­tal rules to en­sure its bet­ter con­ser­va­tion. The court also or­dered that there would be no fur­ther

Scaf­folds have come up for work­ers to climb and ap­ply the Fuller’s earth paste; poly­thene sheets are be­ing cling-wrapped on the paste to pre­vent it from dry­ing up too soon.

ex­pan­sion of in­dus­tries in this area, cov­er­ing five dis­tricts of Agra re­gion and com­pris­ing of over 40 pro­tected mon­u­ments in­clud­ing three world her­itage sites – the Taj Ma­hal, the agra Fort and the Fateh­pur sikri com­plex.

“But on the ground, things haven’t changed much,” says shabi Haider Zafri, one of the mem­bers of the com­mit­tee set up by the court to mon­i­tor the im­ple­men­ta­tion of its di­rec­tives. He joined the post around a year ago af­ter the death, in 2016, of dk Joshi, a renowned en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist com­mit­ted to pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment in agra. For Zafri, agra is more dusty, noisy and ugly to­day than it was 30 years ago, when Joshi started a move­ment to se­cure the his­tor­i­cal mon­u­ments of the city from air pol­lu­tion. For Zafri, a lot has to be done be­fore “one can say agra has be­come en­vi­ron­men­tally safe for the Taj Ma­hal”.

ac­cord­ing to Zafri, over 20,000 saplings were planted in the Taj Na­ture Walk a cou­ple of years ago. “Hardly any sur­vived. Five thou­sand saplings were planted when the then Pak­istan pres­i­dent Parvez Mushar­raf vis­ited Agra [in 2001] and i can’t see any of those plants now. saplings that were planted in TTZ dur­ing con­struc­tion of agra-luc­know ex­press­way and Ya­muna ex­press­way are not vis­i­ble any­where,” he says. ex­press­ing con­cern over the in­creas­ing pop­u­la­tion in the city, he says that in the last decade, the city touched the 30 lakh mark, with more ve­hi­cles and waste heaps around the mon­u­ment.

and as pop­u­la­tion in­creases, con­struc­tion has had to keep apace. and in­stead of stop­ping con­struc­tion of high­rises on the banks of the Ya­muna near the Taj Ma­hal, the agra de­vel­op­ment au­thor­ity has gone on a house-build­ing spree with Phase-1, Phase-2 and now Phase-3. “if the sce­nario re­mains same, you will see a grey Taj Ma­hal in half a cen­tury and may be a black one in an­other 100 years,” says a for­mer asi chief of agra on con­di­tion of anonymity.

The bugs

Many parts of the mon­u­ment have oc­ca­sion­ally turned green, es­pe­cially

parts fac­ing the Ya­muna. ac­cord­ing to the asi, pol­lu­tion in the Ya­muna is to blame: the green coloura­tion is ac­tu­ally a bug’s poop. “it’s be­cause of pol­lu­tion and pools of stag­nant water. The Ya­muna has turned into a breed­ing ground for a spe­cific type of in­sect that is turn­ing the white mar­ble green. af­ter sev­eral chem­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal tests, the in­sect was iden­ti­fied as Chi­rono­mus cal­ligra­phus (Goeldichi­rono­mus),” says Bhat­na­gar. sev­eral parts of the mau­soleum, es­pe­cially those to­wards the Ya­muna, have de­vel­oped tiny crevices, which are in­vaded by the in­sects that leaves them stained with green­ish poop.

The asi re­port, which has been shared with the gov­ern­ment and all con­cerned au­thor­i­ties, states that due to low water level in the Ya­muna, on whose bank Taj Ma­hal is sit­u­ated, the area has turned into a swamp. This has ac­cel­er­ated the heavy al­gal growth and phos­pho­rus con­tents in the water. This is the pri­mary food for Chi­rono­mus cal­ligra­phus. it has been sug­gested that the Ya­muna be de­silted near the Taj to pre­vent stag­na­tion. “even af­ter shar­ing the re­port with the gov­ern­ment last year, noth­ing has been done till now. What was more shock­ing was that we were told to keep clean­ing the Taj. Wo bole aane do keede. Aap bus ssaf karte raho. (They said, let the in­sects come and you keep clean­ing),” says an Agra ASI of­fi­cial on con­di­tion of anonymity.

in the asi re­port, the rea­son given for the high lev­els of phos­pho­rus in the river is the prac­tice of dump­ing the ash from bod­ies brought to Mok­shad­ham, a cre­ma­tion ground. The other rea­son cited is that when sluices of the Mathura dam are shut, the water flow stops, and the in­dus­trial waste dumped into the Ya­muna, es­pe­cially that from the leather and petha in­dus­tries, stag­nates. and in­di­rectly causes dam­age to the Taj.

Cre­ma­to­rium and Hindu sen­ti­ments

in 2016, the sc had or­dered the re­place­ment of all con­ven­tional cre­ma­to­ri­ums near the Taj Ma­hal with cleaner elec­tric ones. a sim­i­lar or­der had been given by the court in 1998, but the up gov­ern­ment and the agra civic bod­ies had replied that it was not pos­si­ble to shift the cre­ma­to­rium – they said that ac­cord­ing to some un­of­fi­cial records, the cre­ma­to­rium was in use much be­fore the Taj was built!

en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists say the smoke is af­fect­ing not just the mar­ble of the Taj but peo­ple’s lungs too. “Heavy pol­lu­tion is caused due to th­ese open pyres at the cre­ma­to­rium. Be­sides re­leas­ing harm­ful gases, the process also emits heavy met­als. Mer­cury fill­ing in teeth, for in­stance, when burnt could prove to be haz­ardous to peo­ple in the vicin­ity,” says rk upad­hyay, for­mer pro­fes­sor of chem­istry, al­la­habad univer­sity, who is based in agra af­ter re­tire­ment. at­tempts to move the cre­ma­to­rium else­where have been met with stiff re­sis­tance from lo­cals, who claim the move will hurt their re­li­gious sen­ti­ments.

“it’s a very sen­si­tive is­sue,” says gau­rav dayal, district mag­is­trate, agra. He says the ad­min­is­tra­tion is try­ing to per­suade peo­ple to switch to elec­tric cre­ma­tion and ef­forts are be­ing made to up­grade the al­ready ex­ist­ing elec­tric cre­ma­to­rium ad­ja­cent to Mok­shad­ham.

The staff of Mok­shad­ham, how­ever, ve­he­mently deny all charges of pol­lu­tion. “can you imag­ine that we are caus­ing pol­lu­tion by burn­ing ghee, cam­phor, san­dal­wood in the pyres?” asks san­jay singh, man­ager, Mok­shad­ham. Th­ese things are in­stead help­ing en­rich the en­vi­ron­ment by killing bac­te­ria in the air and also pro­duce good smell, ac­cord­ing to him. sci­en­tists at the Na­tional en­vi­ron­men­tal engi­neer­ing re­search in­sti­tute (Neeri), Pune, which keeps a tab on the pol­lu­tion sta­tus near the Taj Ma­hal, have of­fered a so­lu­tion. Padma rao, se­nior sci­en­tist at the in­sti­tute, has rec­om­mended that cre­ma­to­ri­ums that use elec­tric­ity and bio­gas should be used in Mok­shad­ham. But her ad­vice is hardly fol­lowed.

Ap­a­thy ev­ery­where

so far, the gov­ern­ment over­sight has only made things worse. in fact, the sc re­cently be­rated the ut­tar Pradesh gov­ern­ment for the shod­di­ness shown in the re­pair work of the mon­u­ment. “[Your] en­gi­neers should be ashamed of them­selves,” said the court, while com­ment­ing on the qual­ity of con­struc­tion of roads in Taj’s in­ner cir­cle, ring road and other ar­eas that lead to the mon­u­ment. it fur­ther stated, “Peo­ple from all over the world come to see the mon­u­ment and any con­struc­tion

done near Taj should be as good as Taj. You messed it up. it is un­ac­cept­able.” it could be due to ad­min­is­tra­tive in­ep­ti­tude or a lack of en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tion, with ev­ery pass­ing minute this teardrop on the cheek of time is wit­ness­ing dam­age, some­times re­pairable and some­times ir­repara­ble. “if the Taj Ma­hal is to sur­vive or re­turn to its for­mer glory, then bold new so­lu­tions are needed, and needed fast,” says adn rao, asi’s coun­sel.

Even the will­ing­ness of of­fi­cials to pre­serve and con­serve Taj is hardly vis­i­ble. com­ment­ing about the ban on burn­ing cow­dung, ak anand, for­mer head of the pol­lu­tion con­trol board (PCB) in agra, says that ev­ery step is be­ing taken to stop peo­ple from us­ing cow­dung cakes but if they use it inside houses, the PCB doesn’t have any way of stop­ping it. “even af­ter the ban on au­tos on Mg road, agra’s main road, th­ese ve­hi­cles can be seen as there is no strict­ness. Plan­ta­tion drives are be­ing car­ried out, but with no pres­sure on the main­te­nance of the planted saplings, there is only de­crease and no in­crease in green cover in TTZ. The is­sue is with en­force­ment, not with ef­forts,” says rao. He also says that most of the time, the asi is strug­gling to deal with silly court cases, pe­ti­tions and is­sues that are hardly of any ben­e­fit.

“DK Joshi was fight­ing to stop the dump­ing of garbage in Ya­muna. This is re­ally im­por­tant as we re­ally need water in Ya­muna. it will not only help in pro­tect­ing Taj from bugs and dam­age, but also give gov­ern­ment an opportunity to start night view­ing of the Taj from Me­htab Bagh,” says rao, adding that no one is both­ered to con­cen­trate on the real is­sues and of­fi­cials are usu­ally busy strug­gling with some­thing unim­por­tant. “one can eas­ily save Taj by just man­ag­ing garbage dump­ing and re­cy­cling, con­trol­ling ve­hic­u­lar pol­lu­tion and cre­at­ing aware­ness among res­i­dents. The Taj’s yel­low­ness is not a tech­no­log­i­cal prob­lem but ac­tu­ally a man­age­rial prob­lem,” says Prof Tri­pathi of iit-kanpur. When it comes to mean­ing­ful so­lu­tions, Tri­pathi be­lieves the gov­ern­ment has fallen short. “The au­thor­i­ties need to con­cen­trate on all sec­tors which are re­spon­si­ble for the air pol­lu­tion, trans­port, house­hold, MSW, com­mer­cial in­dus­try, etc,” he says, while adding that a strict clean­fuel pol­icy for all pub­lic and pri­vate ve­hi­cles should be en­forced in agra.

above all, reg­u­lar mon­i­tor­ing and upgra­da­tion in poli­cies is the need of the hour. “We do not bath one day to re­main hy­gienic. We do not ex­er­cise one day to re­main healthy and we don’t even eat one day to sat­isfy hunger. Then why we make poli­cies one day and never look back on their im­ple­men­ta­tion and the sit­u­a­tion at ground level. This is a ma­jor prob­lem in the sys­tem,” he says.

Noth­ing to see

When asked what Taj Ma­hal means to him, 72-year-old Tahirud­din Tahir re­cited two lines: “Baad­shah bhi dikhta hai. Dada bhi dikhta hai. Me­hboob bhi nazar aata hai… Ye Taj hi mu­jhe sabka deedar karata hai (i can see the em­peror. i can see my grand­fa­ther and my love. This Taj makes me see all in it­self).”

Tahir claims his fore­fa­thers have been tak­ing care of the Taj Ma­hal since gen­er­a­tions. He lives in Ta­j­ganj area that sur­rounds the 16th cen­tury mon­u­ment of love, which was de­scribed as a “teardrop on the cheek of eter­nity” by No­bel lau­re­ate ra­bindranath Tagore. Tahir, who owns a shop sell­ing mar­ble in­lay ar­ti­facts, also heads the Khud­dam-e-roza com­mit­tee (com­pris­ing tra­di­tional care­tak­ers of the Taj Ma­hal) which of­fers a long multi-colour chadar – rep­re­sent­ing dif­fer­ent faiths of the coun­try – at the grave of Mughal em­peror shah Jahan dur­ing the urs (birth an­niver­sary) fes­ti­val.

Around eight mil­lion vis­i­tors flock the mar­ble mau­soleum, sur­rounded by tall minarets, lush green gar­dens full of trees and the Ya­muna flow­ing at the back, ev­ery year. But this mon­u­ment of love is now at risk of be­ing de­faced for­ever, says Tahir. “dense smog, cre­ated by hu­man ac­tiv­ity, has turned the bright white Taj a pale yel­low. Be­sides the air­borne im­pu­ri­ties, the mon­u­ment is also at risk from hu­man van­dal­ism, in­sects from the dirty Ya­muna and cal­lous at­ti­tude of the gov­ern­ment, which has al­legedly failed to ad­dress the con­crete is­sues while ex­ploit­ing tourism op­por­tu­ni­ties,” he says. The sit­u­a­tion seems un­likely to change. all the more tragic for a mon­u­ment as grand as the Taj!

In the ASI re­port, the rea­son given for the high lev­els of phos­pho­rus in the river is the prac­tice of dump­ing the ash from bod­ies brought to Mok­shad­ham, a cre­ma­tion ground near the Taj Ma­hal.

Photos: he­mant ku­mar

Sev­eral parts of the mau­soleum, es­pe­cially those fac­ing the Ya­muna, have de­vel­oped tiny crevices, which are in­vaded by the in­sects that leaves them stained with green­ish poop

Manoj ali­gadi

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