Taj city is greener, cleaner but larger battles remain

By Brij Khandelwal, IANS,

Agra : Seventeen years after India’s Supreme Court called for reducing pollution around the Taj Mahal, this tourist city certainly boasts of cleaner public transport and improved greenery. But many bigger battles are yet to be won.

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The fragile 17th century Taj continues to be battered by dusty winds due to illegal mining in the Aravali hills. Close by, the Yamuna river still flows dirty. And problems of encroachment and noise pollution persist.

Officials say Agra’s air quality has improved.

“Traffic management and better road conditions have helped reduce air pollution. Every day 35,000 kg of CNG is being consumed as clean fuel by autos, buses and other vehicles instead of diesel,” B.B. Awasthi, a pollution control board officer, told IANS.

“The availability of clean fuel will increase in days to come when we will have 10 CNG stations. Right now we have only three. The sulphur dioxide is within limits. All parameters of air pollution look safe and ok,” Awasthi added.

“The air quality has improved, the SPM level has come down from around 900 micrograms per cubic metre in 2000 to 300 micrograms per cubic metre now, a 67 percent reduction.”

He however admitted: “The NOx level (oxides of nitrogen) is still high due to the use of diesel generators on a big scale and an increasing number of vehicles on the road.”

The Supreme Court in December 1993, while disposing of the MC Mehta PIL, had directed polluting industries in the Taj Trapezium to shift or switch over to natural gas. This move alone helped drastically bring down air pollution.

The apex court also wanted cooking gas to be made available to all residents of the city which has largely been accomplished and gas connections are available for the asking, say Indian Oil Corporation officials.

The Mathura refinery had been cited as the original villain. But now, a refinery official said, a dense green cover insulates it and filters the air before it escapes into the ambient air, and all pollution control systems are in place.

The horticulture department and the forest division are also playing a more proactive role to green the city.

A significant change has been the introduction of Marco Polo buses which are gradually replacing auto-rickshaws as a mode of transport within Agra.

“No longer does one feel choked or suffocated at the road crossings,” says Rajeev Gupta, a businessman.

But many Agra residents are not as happy.

“The air is foul and stinking, the water of the river is contagious, not fit to even touch, the roads are shorn of green cover, the noise pollution level has gone up several fold, illegal encroachments are eating up all vacant spaces,” Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Foundation, told IANS.

The whole Braj Mandal area, which once had numerous mangroves and a dozen dense forests, is under the stress of urbanisation.

The stone mafia, despite a ban on mining in the Aravalis as also in areas bordering Fatehpur Sikri, continues its operations clandestinely. Mining has left gaping holes for dusty winds to the Taj, working as sand paper to roughen the surface of the monument that attracts around 7,500 tourists every day.

“Citizens of the area must be mobilised and sensitised to the new dangers. Our heritage, the river, the forests … our very existence is in danger,” says Father John Farreira, an educationist.

Mughal historian R. Nath feels a lot has to be done to save the monument. “India’s top architectural attraction, as also the biggest revenue earner, the Taj Mahal has not received the care worthy of its status. The rear of the mausoleum is totally exposed to the elements.

“If in the coming years the tilt of the minarets increases or the mausoleum itself shows signs of sinking or stress, it should not come as a surprise as the original physical settings of the whole area have been tampered with and the ecological balance disturbed beyond redemption,” warns Nath.

“If you look at the old photographs and original drawings you will find the river full and flowing close to the foundation. The surroundings were lush green. The backdrop was picturesque, the river water had the capacity to absorb any amount of pollution in the air. What now?” Nath asks.

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