350-year-old Taj Mahal pitted by pollution

On his first visit back to the Taj Mahal in 1975 after an 11-year absence, Som N. Chib notice something was wrong with India's most well-known and beautiful monument.

"It didn't have a shine anymore. It looked palish, yellowish," recalls the vice-president of the Indian Heritage Society.

Last month he and other conservationists crawled to the top of the exquisitely proportioned, white marble mausoleum built by 17th century Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan to immortalize his love and longing for his dead empress. To their horror they found black, brown, and gray patches spreading across the marble slabs -- a pitting produced by less than three decades of industrial pollution.

The society has now launched a campaign to warn against what it sees as the gravest danger to the country's leading tourist attraction -- a $250 million government-built oil refinery going up only 25 miles from Agra, where the Taj reigns on the banks of the river Jumna.

The controversial refinery has caused a furor among environmentalists ever since it was first proposed in 1973. Now three-quarters finished, it is scheduled to open late this year with a 6-million-ton capacity. Scientists say that winds will blow refinery emissions toward Agra at least five months of the year.

"It's too late to stop the refinery," says heritage society president R. N. Mirdha, former deputy speaker of the Rajya Sabha, India's upper house of Parliament.

He points out that the government, too, is concerned about damage to the Taj Mahal. It has installed pollution monitoring equipment and agreed to certain antipollution safeguards.But the society says the safeguards are questionable. It is demanding more effective antipollution measures and independent supervision of the monitoring. The planned antipollution measures amount to little more than raising the height of the refinery chimneys to disperse the chemical discharges and using low-sulfur-content crude oil from India's offshore wells rather than higher-sulfur-content crude from the Middle East.

Responsibility for monitoring the pollution would be given to the government-sponsored Indian Oil Corporation, which will operate the refinery.

"There should be an independent body in charge of the monitoring, not the oil corporation which has a certain vested interest," says Mr. Chib.

Tons of sulfur oxides emitted by Agra's existing industrial polluters are already eating away at the marble Taj Mahal and its red sandstone outlying buildings.

They include two coal-burning thermal powerhouses, one 25- and the other 12 -years-old; a concentration of 250 iron foundries, ranging from large-scale to backyard operations; and a large railway shunting yard where locomotives burn coal rather than diesel fuel.

The acids cause sandstone to flake and the marble to develop small holes or pits, which results in a coarse surface and the spreading of dark, discolored patches.

Heritage society officials say the damage is greatest near the top of the Taj , above eye level, where a governmental archaeological team is replacing some marble slabs.

But they contend the juxtaposition of old and new marble will destroy the building's character. They particularly fear the spreading of the damage to the Taj Mahal's lower chambers, where the marble is delicately inlaid with semiprecious stones. Few artisans are left who can do the minutely detailed inlay work, and the costs are prohibitive. Officials estimate the tab for redoing a tiny, 100-square-centimeter patch at $625.

The government has agreed that Agra's thermal power stations and railway yard should be moved, but no dates have been set or alternate sites chosen. The foundries have been asked to relocate five miles away where winds would carry the smoke away from the Taj Mahal. A few have moved, but most are reluctant.

Just last week, Parliament was assured that the government would take all possible steps to protect the Taj Mahal, which is visited by about 1 million tourists each year.

But the conservationists want action, not assurances, in the form of tough antipollution measures at the new refinery and speed in dealing with the existing polluters.

"To make things move quickly is our concern," says Mr. Chib. Adds Mr. Mirdha: "Time is the essence of the whole thing. If we start at the earliest, the damage could be minimized."

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