Photographs: Vikas Choudhary
Infographics: Raj Kumar Singh
Note: This article has been republished from Down To Earth.
Appraisal: 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.”
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.
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.
Pollution: Black spot
Threat of discolouration returns to haunt the Taj
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 theMathura 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, technology and environment to visit the Taj Mahal on April 10. The committee pointed to black spots on the minarets flanking the mausoleum, and asked the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to seek expert advice, if required, to clean the marble facing. “We are concerned by news reports that the directions of the Supreme Court for preserving the Taj Mahal have not been complied with and the discolouration of the monument is a reality,” says Ashwani Kumar, Rajya Sabha member and chairperson of the committee. Members of Parliament who visited the Taj are expected to submit a report to Parliament during the current budget session.
But all this leaves crucial questions unanswered. Why is the Taj getting discoloured? What is the source of pollution? In 1993, NEERI blamed it on acid rain, which happens when sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) particles in the air combine with fog droplets and water condensation. But the measurement of pH value—to gauge the acidity or alkalinity—of rainwater and the waste water after washing the Taj contradicted this theory.
As a result, the court orders culminated in the landmark judgement of 1996 that directed the closure of 292 small industries, including 168 foundries, if they did not relocate or switch from coal and coke to CNG, a cleaner fuel. The Mathura Oil Refinery, which started operations in 1982 and was found emitting high levels of SO2, was asked to switch to gas fuel. The order led to the closure of most of the small industries and almost all foundries in Agra in 2001. The Mathura Refinery switched to CNG in phases by 2005.
At the time of the judgement, the court’s prime concern was SO2 emissions, which, it feared, could lead to acid rain and damage the marble surface of the mausoleum. The judgement also noted that “soot in itself is not harmful but that with tar it acts as a soiling agent” and that absorption of acidic gases is also enhanced by the presence of soot. The judgement quoted views of two foreign experts who said suspended particulate matter and dust were causing the marble to appear yellow.
Pursuant to court directions, the Union government and the Agra administration took a number of steps to clean the air in the Taj Trapezium Zone. Now CNG is the fuel of choice in the zone, no vehicles are allowed within half-a-kilometre of the Taj Mahal, and a green belt is under development around the monument to filter out pollutants.
The IIT-Wisconsin-Georgia study suggests that it is not acid rain, but black and organic carbon that is the cause of the problem. The source is incomplete combustion. Black carbon comes from diesel vehicles and brick kilns, and organic carbon from biomass burning. This would mean that the orders of the Supreme Court that would have reduced pollution from these sources have not been implemented or that there is something new and different that needs to be addressed. Already, based on this study and a little more information, the city administration is rushing to close down petha (sweet made from ash gourd) units as these use coal and wood (see ‘Man v monument’,). Is this going to be the solution? Is this even the problem?
Key indicators down
In 2000, the Supreme Court had directed the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to set up four monitoring stations to check ambient air pollution. By 2013, the city added four more stations, including one operated by ASI in the Taj Mahal complex and three by the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board.
NEERI has analysed pollution data for the past nine years in its December 2013 report on a comprehensive environmental management plan for the Taj Trapezium.
It has found dramatic reduction in key pollutants SO2 and NO2 at the Taj Mahal between 2002 and 2012. The biggest difference is seen after 2005, when CNG was introduced in the city. The level of PM10 at the Taj was significantly lower than at Nunhai, an industrial area outside the city, but was still two times the permissible standard of 60 µg/m3 (see ‘Cause of concern’).
In other words, pollution has definitely reduced in the city and more importantly, the levels are much lower in the vicinity of the monument. Now the question is whether these levels of particulate emissions are sufficiently high to cause discolouration of the marble. It is known that black carbon and organic carbon are a fraction of the particulate matter.
Clearly, the monument of love needs some more attention and care from us. We need to know the real cause of the problem so that the real answers can be found.
Dangers to Taj Mahal
Mineral impurities present in the marble get oxidised and create brown stains. Rains also have a weathering effect on the marble and have been noticed to cause chipping and cracking. The iron dowels used to fix the marble slabs on the building get rusted and the rust flows down with rain, getting deposited on the marble.
The biggest threat to the Taj is the unregulated number of visitors, which on some days is over 50,000. Constant treading wears down the marble floors. Presence of visitors increases humidity inside the building and the grease from their palms causes deposition of grime on the walls. The greater threat is to the red sandstone used in the Mehman Khana and the mosque on either side of the Taj. Unlike marble which is hard, red sandstone is porous. The weathering of the Mehman Khana is very obvious.
A recent Indo-US study found that dust and carbon-containing particles are settling on the Taj Mahal and causing discolouration. Earlier, the Mathura Refinery and small industries were seen as the cause for the “yellowing” of the monument, prompting the Supreme Court to order use of cleaner gas fuel by these units.
Receding, Polluted Yamuna
Media reports in 2011 suggested the receding Yamuna is weakening the sal wood (Shorea robusta) in the foundation of the Taj Mahal which needs constant moisture to prevent it from cracking. Taj’s foundation, built of brick, watertight mortar and wood, is supported by circular wells dug in the river bank to give it stability. The low flow in the river and the high pollution are also major causes of concern. ASI, however, says it has no evidence that wood has been used in the foundation.
A large number of trees have been felled in Agra in recent years to build roads and other infrastructure. Agra lies in a semi-arid zone, near the desert state of Rajasthan, and experiences very hot summers when temperatures touch 49C. Hot dusty winds have an abrasive effect on the marble. Increasing green cover and water bodies is one way of curbing dust pollution.
Taj Heritage Corridor-the riverfront project of former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati-comprising food plazas and malls, planned between the Agra Fort and the Taj was shelved on Supreme Court’s orders as it could have been a threat to the monument. Sand accumulated in the reclaimed river bed can erode the marble surface during sand storms, says ASI. The site is yet to be turned into a green belt as directed by the court.
Taj Trapizium Case: Unfinished agenda
Supreme Court orders to curb industrial emissions in the Taj Trapezium Zone have been implemented but progress in several other areas is a concern.
The Taj Trapezium case, seeking the Supreme Court’s intervention to protect the Taj Mahal from the adverse effects of harmful air pollutants, is one of the longest-running environment court cases in India.Filed a year after the monument was declared a World Heritage Site in 1983, the petition blamed Agra’s foundries, hazardous chemical industries, and the oil refinery at Mathura as the major sources of pollutants damaging and discolouring the Taj. It said sulphur dioxide (SO2) emitted by the refinery and the industries, when combined with oxygen and moisture, formed sulphuric acid which had a corroding effect on the white marble of the building.
The petition led to the apex court passing a series of orders to protect the air, water and land around the Taj Mahal as well as in the entire Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ).
The turning point in the case came on December 30, 1996, when the Supreme Court (SC) asked 292 small industries in Agra to either shift to natural gas or shift out of TTZ by February 1997, failing which they would be closed. While passing the order, the court mainly relied on the report prepared by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) in 1993, which held small-scale industries of Agra (mostly foundries) and glass industries of the neighbouring town of Firozabad responsible for the pollution. Factory owners and workers protested, saying they were unfairly targeted and that the Mathura Refinery was to be blamed (see ‘The trouble with the Trapezium’, Down To Earth, April 15, 1996). In its December 1996 verdict, SC said it would monitor TTZ-relatedprojects and proposals. These include:
The court closely monitored compliance of its orders. From 1993 to 1996, when Justice Kuldip Singh was heading the Bench, hearings were held almost on a weekly basis. The court also deputed an amicus curiae and appointed court committees to report on ground reality.
A perusal of court orders and official documents in the public domain in the Taj case shows that many court directions, especially those relating to controlling air pollution, have been complied with. But other directions are yet to be fully implemented.
About 10 years after the 1996 judgement, SC reviewed the status of some of the projects it was monitoring and sought reports on Agra bypass road, green belt and provision of uninterrupted electricity supply in its order dated August 7, 2006. The status of the compliance with various SC directions was finally brought out by two reports published by NEERI—an evaluation of TTZ projects in 2010 and a comprehensive environment management plan for TTZ in 2013. These were prepared for the Agra Municipal Corporation and the Agra Development Authority respectively and throw light on the current status of TTZ-related projects.
Emissions control: The units that were supposed to shut in 1997, as per the 1996 judgement, eventually closed in 2001. A Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) newsletter of 2002 says that 187 units closed as a result of the order, 53 started using electricity and 42 compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied petroleum gas or electricity. Ten factories were either not found or were not using any fuel. To monitor the gains in air quality, the court, on November 7, 2000, accepted CPCB’s recommendations to set up four stations in Agra. These became functional by 2002.
Mathura Refinery: Meanwhile, the Mathura Refinery, which was the trigger for the court case, installed a hydrocracker unit in 2000, according to the website of Indian Oil Corporation, which runs the refinery. It also says that the switch to CNG was achieved in a phased manner by 2005 (see ‘Order and disorder’).
Brick kilns: In an order dated May 10, 1996, SC had asked for closure of all brick kilns in the 20 km radius of the Taj. The May 2013 report of NEERI says 450 brick kilns in TTZ have closed operations. “Now only the registered units, which are beyond the 20 km radius of the Taj Mahal, remain in TTZ,” says Nazimuddin, scientist with the small-scale industries branch of CPCB.
Agra bypass road: In the wake of SC orders on infrastructure development in 1996, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs approved schemes worth Rs 222.21 crore for TTZ. One part of the Agra bypass was constructed at a cost of Rs 26.91 crore. The bypass is functional now. The city also spent Rs 21.22 on improvement of roads.
Uninterrupted power supply: SC had put great emphasis on providing uninterrupted power supply in TTZ. The Agra authorities have implemented projects worth Rs 39.09 crore for rural areas and Fatehpur Sikri and Rs 9.11 crore for Agra, says NEERI’s evaluation report of 2010. It also notes 27-41 per cent reduction in suspended particulate matter, 70-82 per cent reduction in concentration of ambient SO2 and 46-74 per cent reduction in ambient nitrogen dioxide (NO2) during 2002 to 2003 over 1996-98 levels because of improved power supply. Agra Development Authority chairperson Pradeep Bhatnagar says the city is getting 19-20 hours of power supply at present. “Round-the-clock supply is not possible because there is a general power shortage in Uttar Pradesh,” he says.
Gokul barrage: Construction of the barrage in Mathura, 204 km downstream of Wazirabad barrage in Delhi, was initiated in 1990 and completed in 2001; Rs 92.20 crore was sanctioned for it. The project has helped augment water supply in the region—73.5 million litres a day (MLD) water is supplied to Mathura and 282 MLD to Agra. However, NEERI’S 2010 report says the quality of water is not good and the barrage has reduced the flow of water downstream, near the Taj. The report also mentions worsening of river pollution since the barrage became operational. Work on the second barrage, 8 km upstream of the Taj Mahal, for increasing water on the stretch of the Yamuna behind the Taj has not started yet.
Solid waste management: The Union environment ministry had released Rs 7.49 crore for improving solid waste management, as per NEERI’s reports. Agra produces over 700 tonnes of solid waste and the reports say there is slight improvement in garbage collection, especially around the Taj, but the city does not have a sanitary landfill. The Down To Earth team that visited Agra found dumping and burning of garbage in open sites just outside the Taj.
Sewerage: Only 17 per cent (1,400 ha out of 8,360 ha) of the city is covered by sewerage network, says NEERI report of 2013. However, according to Agra authorities, it has increased to 30 per cent after implementation of two phases of Yamuna Action Plan and projects under Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. NEERI says 254 MLD wastewater flows through the city drains against the treatment capacity of 90.25 MLD. Only 10 per cent of sewagegets treated.
Green belt: On March 9 this year, SC stopped short of ordering an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into compensatory afforestation carried out by the Uttar Pradesh forest department. This happened after a court-appointed committee found that the state government had submitted wrong information about the number of saplings planted in lieu of trees cut with court’s permission since 1996 for development projects. The court wanted an inquiry to ascertain if funds had been misappropriated and gave an opportunity to the state to explain. K K Singh, divisional forest officer (in charge) of Agra, says only 5,000 trees could be planted in place of 250,000 because of non- release of funds. There is no official status report on the green belt around the Taj Mahal.
Centre’s cell for Taj preservation: The Court’s mandate to the Centre to develop TTZ in a sustainable manner does not appear to have made much headway of late.The Union environment ministry’s annual report for 2013-14 says only a token of Rs 1 lakh is available for its Taj Protection Mission and that the Uttar Pradesh government had been asked to formulate fresh proposals to seek provision of more funds under the 12th Five Year Plan. “Till date no comprehensive proposal has been received from Uttar Pradesh government,” says the report.
Relocation of emporia: There are no shops or emporia functioning within the Taj Mahal premises at present but some shops on the eastern and western side remain to be shifted, according to information with A D N Rao, counsel for SC’s Central Empowered Committee on forest matters.
Impact on air quality: The court-monitored actions have had a noticeable effect on Agra’s air quality. According to NEERI’s 2013 report, annual average concentration of SO2 was in the range of 4-9 µg/m3,NO2 was 18-23 µg/m3 and PM10 was 133-167 µg/m3 in TTZ between 2002 and 2010. These are below the CPCB’s permissible norms for SO2 (20 µg/m3) and NO2 (30 µg/m3).
While sulphur and nitrogen emissions in Agra may be under control, the level of PM10 is still more than double the prescribed limit. This may be because of rising number of vehicles. According to the regional transport authority data, the number of vehicles (two wheelers, cars, buses and heavy vehicles) in Agra district, has nearly tripled from about 326,000 in 2002 to over 915,000 this year. Add to this the few thousand trucks that pass through the city every day via the National Highway-2 , the tourist buses and cars that bring in 20,000-odd visitors to Taj Mahal and the vehicular emissions would work out much higher. NEERI’S 2013 report mentions that over 48,000 diesel generators also contribute to the city’s pollution.
Anand Kumar Anand, Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board’s (UPPCB) regional officer for Agra, admits vehicular emissions are a major source of pollution along with unorganised industries, dust, construction activities and biomass burning. But there is no way of knowing the percentage contribution of each of these. No estimates are available with either CPCB or UPPCB. What’s more, the pollution control authorities do not monitor PM2.5 (particulate matter of 2.5 micron or less) in the city, which would help assess vehicular emissions.
“The second generation challenge in Taj Trapezium demands assessment of all sources of pollution and more stringent action not just around the Taj Mahal, but across the airshed of Agra and beyond,” says Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of Delhi-based non-profit, Centre for Science and Environment.
Science and sensibility
NEERI filed a complaint against Down To Earth for questioning the study that led to closure of Agra’s small units
Supreme Court’s 1996 judgement, ordering relocation or closure of 292 small industries from the Taj Trapezium Zone, relied greatly on studies by the government’s National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) on air pollution sources that could affect the Taj. More than eight months before the judgement, Down To Earth (DTE) published an article that questioned NEERI’s report. A complaint against the magazine was filed by NEERI with the Press Council of India for the article. It was, however, disposed of in 45 minutes and the Council made it clear that mere criticism would not give NEERI a cause of action (see, `Trouble over the Taj Mahal’, DTE, February 15, 1998). At that time, DTE’s founding editor Anil Agarwal emphasised that reconciliation of industrial-isation with environmental conservation needs good scientific advice. The magazine reiterates this point when conservation of the Taj Mahal is again at odds with the livelihood of people.
Restoration: Grimy tale
Till early 2000s, ASI used chemicals for conservation without any research on their effect on the monument
The marble used in the Taj Mahal has a unique translucent quality. It is also a little delicate. Soft marble was used on purpose to facilitate inlay work and carving. It is more vulnerable to cracks and breakage, and has to be handled with care.
But back in the 1970s the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) started to routinely use chemicals to clean the marble and sandstone in the Taj. A 2006 book, titled The Complete Taj Mahal, by art historian Ebba Koch says the ASI had been using “ammonium and non-ionic detergents, hydrogen peroxide and triethanolamine with absorbent clay packs containing magnesium trisilicate, aluminium silicate…and with solvents like ethylene dichloride, benzene and triethanolamine” till 2002. Koch is a professor at the Institute of Art History in Vienna, Austria, and is considered a leading authority on Mughal architecture.
What is strange is that the ASI decided to use the chemicals without carrying out any research on the effects of the chemicals even when conservationists have hinted that they might contribute to the yellowing of the stone.
In 1993, O P Agrawal, former director of the National Research Laboratory for Conservation of Cultural Property, wrote in a paper published in journal Puratattva, an annual bulletin of the Indian Archaeological Society, that not just pollution, but several other factors were also responsible for the discolouration of the monument and that controlling pollution alone would not help. The paper says that at least one of the chemicals used to clean the Taj, polymethyl methacrylate, was responsible for yellowing. It was used to wash the western garden-wall pavilion and east and west walls. The chemical is a preservative which is transparent while applying, but turns yellow later. Nilabh Sinha, head of the Material Heritage Division of non-profit Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), says polymethyl methacrylate may have been in vogue during the 1990s and early 2000s. ASI officials claim they no more use harsh chemicals. ASI, however, is tight-lipped on why chemicals were used in the first place and when were they stopped.
Officials are also silent over whether the chemicals deteriorated the monument. A 2008-09 booklet of ASI’s science branch in Agra states the agency used chemicals to remove accretionary deposits on the marble in the main mausoleum, the main arches and the ornamental screen around the cenotaph. “In many cases, wax polish was applied on the cleaned surface, followed by burnishing,” says the booklet titled Focus on Scientific Conservation of Cultural Heritage. The booklet, however, says ASI now uses only glycerol, cellosolve and sodium bicarbonate. “We now use fuller’s earth pack (multani mitti) that absorbs impurities from the surface. We only add glycerol, cellosolve and sodium bicarbonate in summers to ensure that the pack does not dry out fast. It takes at least 24 hours for proper cleaning,” says an official in ASI, Agra. “Such alkaline products are usually not harmful for stones, including marble,” says Satish Pandey, faculty at the Department of Conservation at the National Museum Institute of History of Art, Conservation and Museology, Delhi. The ASI started using fuller’s earth in 1984, but it was mixed with “harmful” aluminium silicate and magnesium trisilicate to remove greasy particulate matter, states the ASI booklet (See ‘Efforts to keep the Taj’s glory).
Conservationists stress the need for more research on the conservation material used and their long-term impact. “The marble stones used on the Taj Mahal are not uniformly white and have different shades. They may react differently to chemicals and this needs to be studied carefully,” says conservation architect Ratish Nanda, who heads the India operations of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. “Even the effect of water needs to be checked before used for cleaning,” says Pandey. Amita Baig, who worked with the Taj Mahal Conservation Collaborative, says ASI should also focus on red sandstone that is highly porous and prone to weathering.
Apart from chemicals, a big threat to the Taj’s conservation is the increasing footfall. With the growth in the tourism industry and the construction of Yamuna Expressway that connects Agra with Delhi, the number of tourists visiting the monument has increased manifold in recent years. When the Supreme Court passed its judgement in 1996, Taj Mahal received 0.2 million visitors a year. It touches 10 million a year today, which is double the number of tourists visiting the Vatican City. And while the Vatican is spread over an area of 44 hectares, the Taj Mahal complex is spread over just 16 hectares. “The number is astounding when one considers that the monument was built to handle only 40-50 people a day,” says Baig.
According to the ticket sales data, the monument receives over 25,000 visitors on weekdays and over 40,000 during weekends. The actual figure will be higher because entry is free for children up to the age of 15 years. “The number increases when there is a centralised exam in the city as almost all examinees from outside the city come with family members who visit the Taj,” says Raj Kumar, one of the ASI officials responsible for managing tourists at the monument. The government earned over Rs 20 crore through ticket sale in 2011, suggests ASI data.
The action of tourists’ feet wears away the stone in the pavings, floors and terraces. The presence of crowd inside the tomb chamber shoots up the humidity level. Many succeed in writing their names on the walls with felt pens, necessitating the use of aggressive cleaning substances, says Koch in her book. ASI officials admit the problem and say they are considering the recommendations submitted by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) in March this year on the Taj Mahal’s carrying capacity. Tourism and Culture minister Mukesh Sharma last month said the NEERI recommendation to restrict visitors to the monument for two hours will be announced soon. But experts say the fundamental problem with the restoration work is that it lacks future planning. “We are only coping with today and not planning for tomorrow,” warns Baig.
Livehood: Man v monument
People pay with jobs as government cracks down on petha-making units
Honeybees and tourists hovering in petha shops is a common sight across the bazaars of Agra. After Taj Mahal, Agra is famous for petha, candied ash gourd, sold dry, in syrup and other forms. But these juicy delights are now facing a threat. When a recent study pointed to dust and carbonaceous particles discolouring the marble veneer of the Taj, the authorities had a knee-jerk reaction. They asked petha-making units within an area spread over 10,400 sq km around the Taj to either switch from using coal to LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) or shut shop, without ensuring proper alternatives.
Nearly 1,000 petha-making units exist in Taj Trapezium Zone, according to the data with the Agra Development Authority (ADA) for 2011-12, the last time it estimated the number. According to a December 2013 report by ADA, titled The Comprehensive Environmental Management Plan for Taj Trapezium Zone Area, the average wood consumption in each petha unit is five kg per day, whereas coal used is about four kg per hour. Thus, the total daily consumption of all the petha units is estimated to be 500 kg wood and 4.7 tonnes of coal, which emit nearly 7.5 tonnes of CO2 a day. This is equivalent to the CO2 emission by three diesel-run SUVs in a month.
The manufacturers have applied for an LPG line. “But we have been told that it will take eight months. How can we stop work for so long? We’ll lose all the trained workers,” says Shanu Yadav of Noori Darwaza Petha Union. “This will adversely affect the petha industry for a long period.”
Many workers have already lost their jobs. Shankar Lal, 46, had worked in the industry for 22 years. “I was earning Rs 9,000 a month till two months ago,” he says. Now Lal is working as a daily wage labourer in the fields of Khanda village, earning a maximum of Rs 2,000 a month. Over 800 people have been rendered jobless in the village, which is just 40 km from the Agra city.
Raju Yadav, 22, and his father Bachchu Singh, 52, were also rendered unemployed by the state government’s recent actions. They were working in a small petha unit at Noori Darwaza, the hub of petha making in the city. “We own two to three bigha of land (less than half a hectare). That is not sufficient for a family of six,” says Yadav. Singh had been making the popular sweet of Agra for three decades, having risen from being a helper to a kaarigar (chief). He does not know where to look for a job now. Lal, Yadav and Singh worked in small units that produced 400-500 kg pethas a day, usually employing 15 workers. When asked about loss of livelihood caused by the crackdown, ADA officials denied it and said they were merely following the 1996 judgement of the Supreme Court which barred burning coal in a 50 km radius of the 363-year-old building.
Availability of LPG is not the only issue. “Making petha with LPG costs Rs 5-6 more per kg. It is an inexpensive sweet; a simple preparation costs Rs 40-50 per kg. Sales of those manufacturers who increased the price dipped,” says Yadav of the union.
ADA has a rehabilitation plan for the petha makers but that hardly addresses their problems. The civic authority has set up a Petha Nagari at Kalindi Vihar, some 18 km from the Taj Mahal. It has 156 plots, of which 92 have been sold, and 20-odd units have shifted there. “Even if all plots are taken, what will happen to the remaining 850 units?” asks Yadav.
Kalindi Vihar does not even have a gas connection, which was the primary reason petha manufacturers were asked to shift in the first place. “I shifted here five years ago after the government promised LPG pipeline. That has still not happened. I have to make petha at a high cost and pay extra for transport,” complains Pradeep Kumar, owner of Om Sai Petha Udyog. Their union has submitted memorandums to the state government for cheap fuel.
The site does not fulfil one primary need of petha-making—sweet water. The water in the area is salty. Pethas made in the area are not considered tasty. “We are working to bring quality water and LPG pipeline to Petha Nagari,” says an ADA official, requesting not to be named.
Kumar says, “The Taj Mahal should be removed from Agra and taken elsewhere, so that people can live normal lives.”
History of high-handedness
Petha makers are not the only ones suffering. Ever since the Supreme Court passed an order in 1996 to reduce pollution in Agra and surrounding areas to protect India’s star tourist attraction, the administration’s response has been typical. It has gone about shutting industries in Agra without properly planning alternative means of livelihood and ensuring that the transition to better technology and manufacturing practices causes least pain to the people.
This has led to a sharp increase in the unemployment rate in the city. According to the 66th round of National Sample Survey Office, Agra was one of the top three cities that saw maximum increase in unemployment rate in the 2000s. The rate increased from 0.2 per cent in 2004-05 to 5.5 per cent in 2009-10. When the relocation of industries from Taj Trapezium Zone was in discussion in the mid-1990s, the city witnessed agitations. “Taj hatao, Agra bachao (remove the Taj, save Agra),” shouted workers who took to the streets.
Agra was an industrial hub until the Supreme Court asked 292 units, majority of them foundries, to shift to gas fuel or relocate. Acting on the court verdict, ADA started shutting down polluting foundries and tanneries in the city. While the big foundries relocated to Etah, Firozabad and Hathras, the small ones were forced to shut shop. While the government did not assess the impact of the 2001 shutdown, foundry association members claim that over 300,000 people were directly and indirectly affected by it. Government data, however, shows only 58,000 workers were employed in the city’s foundry units before the court verdict.
Twenty years on, the Jeevni Mandi area, the city’s foundry hub, still has no LPG connection. The area that had over 180 units before the crackdown has only 80 units today. Babulal Verma had set up a small unit in a room in his house in Jeevni Mandi. “I could not shift anywhere else,” says Verma. After his unit shut down, he started working in someone else’s factory which has switched to gas as fuel. “But my sons, who were also involved with our foundry, could not find any job. Our family income reduced by one-fifth in those days,” Verma says. “Workers in many foundries went back to their villages.” Atul Gupta, former president of the National Chamber of Industry and Commerce (NCIC), Agra, says gas technology came to the city in 2005-06. “That was because of the efforts of the industry,” he adds. NCIC is demanding subsidy on LPG in Agra.
The condition of the residents of Taj Ganj, right outside the Taj Mahal, also shows the callous attitude of the administration. In the original plan of Shah Jahan, Taj Ganj was an integral part of the Taj Mahal complex. It housed artisans, was a marketplace and had inns for travellers. Today the area is reduced to a slum.
The once thriving economy of Taj Ganj is doddering. Its resident Sanjay Kumar worked at a shoe factory till 20 years ago. His father also worked in a factory, while his mother helped with shoe-making at home. “I worked for a company which exported shoes. The factories in the area closed down and shifted to other cities. Workers were not given any compensation or rehabilitated,” says Kumar. He now makes shoes in a room in his house for local consumption.
Earlier, factory used to provide the raw material and give a commission of Rs 10-15 per pair. He would earn Rs 2,000 a week on making 400 shoes. “Now I have to buy the raw material myself. The demand is not for more than 250 pairs a week which I sell at Hing ki Mandi market. My earning is the same as it was 20 years ago,” says Kumar. His mother still helps by stitching shoes.
Taj Ganj, which should have benefitted from its heritage beginnings, faces many civic problems. In many parts, residents are dependent on hand pumps for drinking water, and groundwater in Agra is contaminated and high on fluoride. Sanitation is a big problem. “We are working on a project in which we will identify houses without toilets. Then, with the help of the government, we will fund construction of toilets,” says Monu Khan of non-profit CURE International, which has been working in the area to improve health, sanitation and education. “But the final push has to come from the government for the whole of Taj Ganj,” Khan says.
(With inputs from Shirin Bithal)