AS TAJ MAHAL YELLOWS, AGRA'S POLLUTERS PLEAD INNOCENT

The graceful elegance of the Taj Mahal enchants millions of visitors each year. But many Agra, India, residents are beginning to view the 17th-century monument as a threat to their jobs.

They are worried about a decade-long lawsuit that says pollutants are eating away at the mausoleum and yellowing its white marble. Many people fear a court-ordered crackdown on emissions could force industry out of Agra.

M. C. Mehta, the lawyer who filed the suit now before India's Supreme Court, says the Taj Mahal is a national - even a world - treasure and its well-being should take precedence over other concerns.

That angers business owners and workers in this city. They argue that the engineering and handicrafts industries that employ hundreds of thousands of people benefit Agra more than the Taj Mahal.

''People come first, not the Taj,'' says S. M. Khandelwal, who heads a lobbying group for factories. He says the factories meet state pollution standards and could not operate if Mehta won. Few could afford to move elsewhere and would have to close, at a cost of 200,000 jobs, he warns.

Mehta says industrialists are whipping up exaggerated fears of unemployment. He says they do not meet government pollution standards, and could do more to reduce emissions.

About 3 million tourists visit the Taj Mahal each year, and find a less-than pristine view.

Foundries pour out thick black smoke, trucks and motorized rickshaws belch gray exhaust, and diesel fumes waft from generators powering 30,000 homes and shops during daily power outages. Many experts think sulfur dioxide from the smoke is combining with moisture in the air to form sulfuric acid, which can eat into marble.

But not everyone agrees that air pollution is the problem. Some say that the yellowing of the Taj Mahal could be caused by age and that its tiny cracks result from normal structural shifting of the bricks and iron clamps supporting the marble.

The debate began when the federal government decided 20 years ago to build a big oil refinery at Mathura, 25 miles north of Agra, despite protests from environmentalists Foundry owners fault the refinery for the pollution problems.

Government studies say the foundries frequently exceed pollution standards, but state regulatory agencies often do not prosecute offenders because of political pressure.

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