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Historic Lima gets a new heart

Monument to eternal love

TOXINS AND THE TAJ

T K Rajalakshmi, Delhi-based journalist with the Indian bi-weekly Frontline.
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Foundries in the protected zone around Agra are being urged to switch to more eco-friendly technologies.





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Foundry workers burning an effigy of their factory’s owner to protest relocation.





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“Marble cancer” caused by sulphur dioxide is yellowing the Taj’s once translucent surface.





Monument
to eternal love

The Taj Mahal was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal. Built entirely in white marble, the Taj was constructed over a period of 22 years and was completed in 1647 A.D. It is situated in northern India on the southern bank of the Yamuna river in Agra, about 210 km from the capital, New Delhi. The mausoleum complex is hailed as the finest example of Mughal architecture, a blending of Indian, Persian, and Islamic styles. The Taj was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983.

India’s most celebrated monument continues to be threatened by pollution despite various court orders to close down harmful factories in Agra

“Pollution has managed to do what 350 years of wars, invasions and natural disasters have failed to do. It has begun to mar the magnificent walls of the Taj Mahal,” declared U.S. President Bill Clinton during his visit to the 17th-century monument in the city of Agra earlier this year.
Over the past two decades, the fate of the country’s foremost tourist attraction has repeatedly come into the spotlight. Time and time again, experts have warned that environmental pollution is eating away at the monument and discolouring its once translucent white marble. But the prescription–to control pollution by relocating a number of industries around the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ), a 10,400 sq. km area around the monument–is pitting conservationists and environmentalists against business interests and unions. Besides the Taj Mahal, the zone includes two other world heritage monuments, the Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri. So what should take precedence–the monument or the thousands of workers employed by the factories in the area? The stakes are such that the case is being fought out in the country’s Supreme Court.
The culprits include the Mathura Refinery, iron foundries, glass factories and brick kilns, not to mention the continuous flow of traffic along the highways skirting the city. On repeated occasions, sulphur dioxide emissions from industries in the area have reached levels ten times above the prescribed standard level. Combined with oxygen and moisture, sulphur dioxide settles on the surface of the tomb and corrodes the marble, forming a fungus that experts refer to as “marble cancer”.
Blaming pollution and regulatory negligence for the Taj’s decay, Mahesh Chandra Mehta, a prominent environmental lawyer, filed a case before the Supreme Court of India in 1984. He pointed out that the white marble had blackened in places, while inside, the monument was being eaten by fungus, especially in the inner chamber, where the original graves of Emperor Shah Jahan and his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal lie. Mehta pleaded with the court to order the various industries to take anti-pollution measures or to close. He also stressed that pollution was affecting the health of workers and people living in Agra’s residential areas.

Switch to gas
It was not until 1996 that the Supreme Court finally ruled that the industries in the area were actively contributing to air pollution and ordered major industrial units to install pollution control devices. “Not even a one per cent chance can be taken when–human life apart–the preservation of a prestigious monument like the Taj is involved,” stated the court order. The court ordered 292 coal-based industries to switch to natural gas or else to relocate outside the protected zone by April 30, 1997. Coke, the fuel commonly used in the cupola furnaces in foundries, is known to cause high levels of air pollution. Factories that opted for relocation would be obliged to re-employ workers under favourable terms and to give them a one-year bonus. And if their plant were to close down, workers would be entitled to six years’ worth of wages in compensation.
As a result, the oil refinery and a number of Agra’s foundries installed expensive pollution control devices. Sterling Machine Tools (SMT), the biggest factory in Agra, obtained a gas connection from the Gas Authority of India. But according to a senior personnel manager, it takes time for production to reach the same levels as before and for workers to adjust to the new technology. “The gas furnace costs around Rs50 lakhs ($120,000). While we have the money, small units do not,” he said.
Quite a number of factories did nothing about relocating or switching to natural gas. Some claimed that the cost of these operations was prohibitive: according to one industry representative, the basic equipment runs between Rs30 to Rs40 lakhs ($75,000 and $100,000), almost a quarter of annual sales for a medium-sized company. Smaller firms say that the cost of applying for a gas connection, which includes a pre-payment, cuts into annual sales. Even if they did close down and sell their land, factory owners claim that this would not cover workers’ compensation. Foundry owners also claimed that finding skilled or even semi-skilled replacements for specific tasks in the relocated areas would be difficult.

Delay tactics
In August 1999, the Supreme Court struck again, ordering the closure of 53 iron foundries and 107 other factories in Agra that had not cleaned up their act. The order has become a call to arms for foundry owners, workers, trade union representatives and small-scale industry. However, industry is buying time: it filed a review petition through the Uttar Pradesh State government and obtained a reprieve on the court order’s implementation. The matter comes again before the Supreme Court this summer.
In the meantime, Agra’s Iron Founders’ Association are building up their case. They argue that 3,000 cottage and engineering units depend on the foundries, and that about 300,000 workers are directly or indirectly employed by them. They hold that the technology for using natural gas in their industries is not yet ready. Mehta claims that this is a “delaying tactic”: in 1995, industry experts had said that gas could be used as industrial fuel. “If the technology was not available then, they should have stated so at the time.” According to Mehta, the required technology has been developed by the National Metallurgical Laboratory and would help turn the hundreds of foundries in Agra into more efficient and less polluting units. While Mehta continues with his legal battle, his crusade against industrial pollution earned him the 1996 Goldman Environmental Prize and the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service in 1997.
Although union leaders are firmly opposed to any relocation or factory closures, the battle has brought other concerns to the fore. According to a leader from the Centre for Indian Trade Unions, the entire foundry industry is highly exploitative and the working conditions hazardous. The majority of workers are employed on a contract basis despite having worked for long periods in the foundries–which means they would receive no protection if factories were to close. And a lack of information appears to hang over the whole saga: Ram Sharan, a worker in his mid-thirties from Bihar, said that he had vaguely heard about foundries relocating and was quite certain that he would lose his job as a result. Workers at GT Iron Industries, a casting unit slated for closure, said that they had heard about the court order but didn’t know where they would go if the unit closed down. They had left their villages in Uttar Pradesh and other provinces many years ago and were living in rented accommodation in the city. But despite these conditions, workers state that it is better than being jobless.
Industries aside, the Taj Mahal is an economic asset in and of itself: two million tourists visit the Taj every year, making it a major source of revenue and foreign exchange for the region. It keeps hotels, craftsmen and small businesses thriving. In May this year, the Supreme Court banned cars and parking within 500 metres of the Taj’s boundary walls. It ordered the shifting of about 70 shops from the precincts of the white marble mausoleum. While experts agree that some of these measures have helped to improve air around the Taj, pollution levels have not dropped to safer limits as none of the factories have actually been closed down.
Air pollution, dust, lack of greenery, traffic and the presence of noisy diesel generators around Agra are all harming a prized tourist attraction. To date, politicians have tended to side with industry while the judiciary has backed the cause of the Taj. But in the meantime, the monument to eternal love continues to breathe in the fumes.