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Pollution battle at Taj Mahal

Attempts to curb industry and auto emissions meet with resistance

By Eric WeinerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 16, 1994



AGRA, INDIA

BUILT in the 17th century by Emperor Shah Jahan, the Taj Mahal has survived Mogul rule and British colonialism. But now, according to environmentalists, India's most famous monument - one of the seven wonders of the world - is losing the battle against its latest foe: pollution.

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Pollution levels at the Taj Mahal have been recorded as high as 10 times the government standards, according to scientists monitoring the monument's condition. Sulfur dioxide emitted by factories near the monument and exhaust from trucks and buses are slowly eating away at the Taj Mahal's soft marble.

``You can see the yellow spots,'' says Mahesh Mehta, an environmental lawyer who has been fighting a legal battle over the Taj Mahal for the past decade. ``The monument is eroding slowly and slowly.'' The Indian government, which has been using chemicals to wash the Taj, has already had to replace one of the monument's marble slabs.

The main cause of the marble's deterioration, according to Mr. Mehta and other environmentalists, are the 1,700 small- and medium-size factories located in Agra, the grimy industrial city that is home to the Taj Mahal. The number of new factories in Agra has grown by more than 200 in recent years, despite a 1983 law banning any new factories within a 50-square mile ``safe zone'' around the monument.

Last year, India's Supreme Court ordered 212 factories in Agra and in the nearby town of Firozobad shut down because they had failed to install pollution-control devices. Local police used water cannons to douse the furnaces of those factories that did not comply with the court's order. ``The track record of all these industries is very, very poor,'' Mr. Mehta says. ``Not even a single factory had the pollution-control devices until the Supreme Court ordered it,'' he says.

Most of the factories have installed the devices and have since reopened, but environmentalists say the pollution continues, and they are trying to persuade the Supreme Court to relocate the factories.

The high court's ruling - the strictest of its kind - may have pleased India's environmentalists, but it has infuriated Agra's large business community, which feels it has been unfairly singled out. ``We are telling the government that we are not the main culprit,'' says Virendra Agarwal, chairman of the pollution division of the Agra Chamber of Commerce. ``Every unit that burns something has to emit something.''

The closing of the factories - even if temporarily - has divided the people of Agra. About 100,000 people in the city make their living from tourists visiting the Taj Mahal - from hoteliers to bicycle-rickshaw drivers. Those people, of course, support the effort to protect the monument at any cost. But most people in this city of 1 million don't receive any direct economic benefit from the Taj Mahal, and they're wary of the environmentalists. Some people in Agra see the Taj as a ``symbol that was going to threaten their livelihood,'' says S.C. Tripathi, chief magistrate for the Agra area. Following the factory closings, security at the Taj Mahal was tightened.

During the two months the factories were closed, 13,000 people temporarily lost their jobs. Business owners warn that more people could be out of work if stricter environmental standards are enacted. ``The citizens of Agra are as equally important as the Taj Mahal,'' Mr. Agarwal says, echoing a sentiment shared by many business owners here.

Small-factory owners in Agra say a bigger cause of pollution is a government-owned oil refinery 30 miles from the Taj Mahal. The Supreme Court ignored the refinery in its ruling last year, but this March ordered the refinery to find a cleaner fuel to burn.

Other sources of the pollution that environmentalists say is harming the Taj Mahal are three highways which pass within a few miles of Agra. Each day, 35,000 trucks, buses, and cars travel on these roads, and their exhaust fumes add to the smoky brew that hangs over the monument.

Finally, some people point their finger at the tourists themselves. Each day, at least 25,000 people visit the Taj Mahal. They come in large tourist buses, and many can't resist touching the Taj's soft white marble. But the moisture from their hands can help erode the marble. ``There should be some check on the number of people visiting every day,'' says P.K. Sharan of the Archeological Survey of India, the government agency responsible for preserving the Taj Mahal. ``The monument should be given some rest.''

Meanwhile, the Agra Development Authority, a government agency designed to promote area business, has other plans. It wants to ``exploit the full economic potential of the Taj Mahal,'' Mr. Tripathi says. Plans include installing floodlights to illuminate the Taj at night, and possibly building a cable-car system, which would provide a panoramic view of the monument. Environmentalists oppose those schemes. ``The Taj Mahal has its own culture, its own beauty,'' Mehta says. ``Why should we disturb that?''