And city of Taj continues to rot and stink

By Brij Khandelwal


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Agra : Is Agra a safe place for the Taj Mahal and other heritage monuments, more than a decade after the Supreme Court took a path-breaking initiative to arrest environmental pollution around the world-famous monument to love?

This is the question being hotly debated in Agra which has become an icon of India's war against pollution, a crusade that attracted the attention of former US president Bill Clinton. He read out his environmental message to the world from the Taj Khema hotel mound, the same place where Sushmita Sen as Miss Universe planted a sapling, which alas is no more.

When in December 1996, an apex court bench with Justice Kuldeep Singh delivered its historic verdict on lawyer M.C. Mehta's public interest litigation, leading to a series of restrictions and projects to cut down environmental pollution in the Taj Trapezium Zone, there was a lot of hue and cry. Alarms were raised of large-scale displacement of labour and zero economic growth.

"The district authorities have been attacking the windmills once in a while, driving away launderers or cattle from the Yamuna river. But for all practical purposes these are half-hearted measures whose impact does not last long enough," says medical activist Shivani Chaturvedi.

The ex-president of the Taj Trapezium Udhyog Sangharsh Samiti which led the movement against shifting the industries from Agra feels the units "never had any role in adding to the pollution load, but local industries were victimised while the Mathura Oil Refinery was left out".

The 20 odd recommendations of the high-powered S. Vardarajan Committee constituted by the Supreme Court have been partially implemented. Factories, especially Agra's famous iron foundries, were told to shut shop or shift. Later the Gas Authority of India Ltd came to their rescue providing piped natural gas. LPG was made available for the asking and low sulphur crude supplied to the Mathura Oil Refinery to bring down the level of sulphur dioxide.

"The progress made in the past 10 years to contain pollution has not been impressive," says Vishal, a photographer who has shot the Taj from every angle in the past two decades. The fear that pollution was taking a heavy toll and damaging the surface of the white marble mausoleum has come true. A parliamentary committee headed by Communist Party of India-Marxist's (CPI-M) Sitaram Yechury recently expressed concern over the yellowing of the Taj Mahal and the rising suspended particulate matter (SPM) level.

"Though the Supreme Court had ordered uninterrupted power supply to Agra and neighbouring areas, the situation has not changed for the better and the supply continues to remain erratic and inadequate," says social activist Rajan Kishore.

At any point of time when the supply breaks down, more than 60,000 diesel generators roar and belch all sorts of noxious gases, says Sudhir Gupta, a lawyer.

The S. Vardarajan Committee wanted restrictions on high-rise buildings within 10 km of the Taj Mahal. In recent years, all the new townships and malls, including big hotels, have come up dangerously close to the Taj Mahal.

The most dismal failure has been in the field of aforestation. The apex court wanted several rows of trees to be raised on the western periphery of the city to filter dust-laden westerlies from Rajasthan entering Agra. Unfortunately the greenery has all but vanished and tall buildings have grown in ponds.

In terms of cleanliness, Agra continues to remain one of the dirtiest cities in the world with heaps of garbage and choked drains becoming eyesores. The now suspended Taj Corridor in the sensitive 500-metre zone around the Taj Mahal is a vast wasteland being used to dump garbage.

The Taj Ganj cremation ground, which uses truckloads of firewood daily, has still not been shifted. The electric crematorium nearby suffers from power supply breakdowns and lack of official patronage.

The wayward traffic system and perpetual jams prevent tourists from visiting monuments across the Yamuna river, which itself has been reduced to a vast drain where wastes and effluents from upstream cities are offloaded.

The demand for release of fresh water in the Yamuna has not received attention though the second Yamuna Action Plan with Japanese assistance has been launched. The drains have not been tapped, the treatment plants are not working. The city continues to face a grim water situation. The ubiquitous hand pumps cough up air instead of water and those that are operational have endless queues of thirsty commoners.

"Even with so much attention and global concern, the city of the Taj Mahal continues to rot and stink, representing civilisational decadence, it is indeed a sad commentary on the working of pollution boards and government agencies," comments historian R. Nath.

While the Supreme Court though has been regularly monitoring and hearing cases related to pollution in Agra, the ground reality doesn't excite or enthuse anyone.

"The situation is depressing and the total ambience negative. Collective efforts to improve the city of the Taj Mahal have failed," declares Surendra Sharma, founder of the Hotel and Restaurant Association.

(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at [email protected])