Dust, vanishing greenery threaten Taj

By Brij Khandelwal, IANS
Sunday, April 18, 2010

AGRA - The Taj Mahal and other heritage monuments in and around Agra are facing a major threat from dust-laden air. Unabated construction is making the city’s green cover disappear and drying up water bodies, adding to the dust levels.

“The collision (of the dust with the marble) results in micro-scratches that retain moisture which attracts pollutants and gaseous substances,” said P.C. Gupta, head of the Archaeological Survey of India’s (ASI) chemical department.

The dry westerlies from the Rajasthan desert are sand-blasting the white marble mausoleum and the first question in the minds of many tourists visiting the Taj is whether it is turning yellow?

The suspended particulate matter (SPM) level in the ambient air around the Taj Mahal is over 350 micrograms per cubic metre, much above the permissible standard of 100. In the city and around other monuments, it could be much higher, Gupta told IANS.

The chief reasons are the rapid increase in vehicular movement, lack of water in Yamuna river and poor afforestation on the western periphery of the city, he said.

Surendra Sharma, president of Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society, questioned the success and validity of a whole lot of exercises undertaken to bring down the air pollution level when the SPM and dust levels have not come down.

The abnormally high temperature in March and April have dried up all water sources and the dust storms have raised the SPM level to a new high.

Mughal emperor Akbar’s abandoned capital at Fatehpur Sikri is equally threatened by illegal mining activity all around and lack of water to green the surroundings.

No government department has any idea or plan to remove the garbage dumps that have come up on 80 acres of the incomplete Taj Heritage corridor - work on which was ordered to be stopped by the Supreme Court in 2003 - between the Taj and the Agra Fort.

“The Supreme Court has done justice by staying the development of corridor at the site. However, the unfinished project is actually causing lots of environmental problems,” said Ritesh K. Sharma, an activist of rights group LegalMitra.

Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) officials have said repeatedly that the dust level in the whole Taj trapezium cannot come down until there is massive tree plantation all around and water in the river Yamuna round the year. The ASI last year sent a proposal for a barrage on the river but no action has been taken.

Despite crores of rupees spent over the past 15 years, the Yamuna behind the Taj is still dry. Urging efforts to save the river, Mughal historian R. Nath said: “The water in the river will absorb all the pollution and dust and also strengthen the base of the massive structure.”

Stretches of green cover along the Western periphery of the city and the southern side have vanished to make way for residential colonies. Community ponds have also disappeared and there is no trace of the dozen-odd Mughal gardens and with only their names like Bagh Farzana, Begum Samru Ka Bagh, Bagh Muzaffar Khan and so on surviving.

Road building activity all around the Delhi-Kolkata national highway, the Jaipur-Agra highway, and now the Jaypee group’s most ambitious expressway connecting Greater Noida to Agra along the river bank have also taken a heavy toll on trees and greenery.

The new townships proposed to be built by the expressway authority all the way from Noida to Agra will further deplete the green resources.

“They are spending tonnes of money on questionable projects within the city in preparation for the Commonwealth Games, but the general maintenance of the monuments and the surroundings has remained miserably poor,” conservationist Ravi Singh told IANS.

“Encroachments have not been removed and conservation work has not been taken up to facelift the historical monuments that dot the city. The focus is too Taj-centric.”

(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at brij.k@ians.in)

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