For more than three centuries, the Taj Mahal’s lily-white marble gave it the pristine, ethereal sheen befitting a monument to eternal love.
But soot from nearby factories is turning the Taj yellow, and that has angered environmental groups and spurred some members of Parliament this week to call for tighter pollution controls.
Lawmakers are prepared to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for several mudpack facials to restore the whiteness of the edifice of one of the world’s most-recognized architectural icons.
The Taj has become the latest battleground between India’s growing environmental movement—which has enjoyed backing by the courts—and entrenched industrial powers often supported by politicians.
Some analysts say this tug-of-war has hindered efforts to curb environmental problems that arise as India’s population surges past one billion and its largely industrial economy expands at warp speed.
For many, the issue at stake is whether India can balance its thriving economy with its fragile environment.
“It’s good that Parliament shows its concern for the Taj and the ecological factors that threaten it but so far, the government has not bothered much to protect the environment and heritage sites like the Taj,” said Mahesh Mehta, an environmental attorney working to preserve the elegant 17th century structure.
Mehta has filed numerous lawsuits in the Supreme Court forcing the government to crack down on the owners of hundreds of iron foundries, brick kilns and other industrial polluters, including an oil refinery, that have sprung up in and around Agra.
In 1993, India’s top court ordered the closure of more than 500 industrial sites near the monument unless they installed pollution-control devices or switched to cleaner burning fuels. Eventually, 212 of them were shut down, throwing as many as 13,000 labourers out of work.
“It’s clear that industry is being unfairly targeted,” said Manish Agrawal, vice-president of the National Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.
“The courts and the government should go after the drivers of trucks and petrol-powered autorickshaws. The thick smoke from diesel trucks and autorickshaws are doing more to damage the Taj than the factories, most of which have already complied with pollution controls,” he said.
The courts have banned petrol-burning vehicles in the vicinity of the Taj. Most tourists are shuttled to the Taj on battery-powered buses or horse-drawn carts.
The Taj was completed in 1654 by Shah Jahan for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to his fourteenth child.
Since then, the architectural masterpiece has become one of India’s most lucrative tourist destinations, attracting roughly three million visitors a year and accounting, directly and indirectly, for some portion of the more than $30 billion (Rs1.23 lakh crore) in annual tourism revenue.
Not far from the Taj, the smooth highways that wind past gleaming office parks and newly constructed shopping malls on the city’s edge eventually give way to potholed alleys strewn with smouldering garbage and an endless tumble of craft shops and food carts.
Agra is a gritty, heaving city of 1.3 million people. A constant, honking procession of cars, trucks and horse carts weave through thousands of bustling pedestrians and lumbering cattle.
For most residents here, the yellowing of the Taj’s white marble is a tiny concern compared to the fact that so few of them have access to clean water.
The Yamuna river that meanders past the Taj has absorbed increasing amounts of industrial waste, agricultural runoff and untreated sewage from Agra and the scores of other cities, including New Delhi, more than a hundred miles upriver.
Without expensive filtration equipment, the water is undrinkable, forcing most Agrans to buy bottled water or draw it from fresh-dug wells—either way, access to drinkable water is an expense that many here can hardly afford.
That’s something that raises Agrawal’s ire: “The Taj is going to turn yellow with age. The government shouldn’t bother too much about that, it should be more concerned about making sure people here have clean water,” he said.
With the yellowing of the Taj making headlines in the country’s major newspapers, the topic has captured the attention of many Indians. It’s a small part of a larger mesh of ecological issues facing the country as its rivers become fouled and its crowded, smog-choked cities put even more stress on the environment.
“Most Indians are completely in the dark about long-term environmental problems such as global warming and climate change and its disastrous impacts on India,” said Ananth G. Ananthapadmanabhan, executive director of Greenpeace in India.
“When heritage sites are threatened, they do much to throw the spotlight on underlying environmental problems. The real problem is not lack of concern for our heritage, but a lack of action” for which, he said, the government should take the lead.
Laboratories installed at the Taj site to monitor levels of air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrous-oxide gases said that these usually fall within permissible limits, and that corrosive soot and dirt were consistently at high levels except during the rainy season, roughly four months of the year.
The mudpack facial takes about two months to complete and costs about $230,000 per treatment. A layer of non-abrasive, non-corrosive clay is caked on the Taj’s exterior and left to dry completely before rinsing it clean. The clay is supposed to extract soot from the marble.
“The Taj will live for another 4,000 years if we protect it,” said Mehta, the environmental lawyer. “But if we don’t, it’ll be all but gone 50 years from now.” (Cox News Service)
(Indrani Ghosh Nangia contributed to this report.)