The Supreme Court said last week that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) “will have to be thrown out of the picture” if the Taj Mahal was to be saved, and the Centre informed the court that it was considering the suggestion to involve international experts in the conservation of the 17th-century monument. The court had earlier expressed concern over the marble of the Taj changing colour, and asked how the white marble, which had first become yellowish, was now turning brownish and greenish. The court has been hearing a plea filed by M C MEHTA, perhaps India’s best known environmentalist, seeking protection for the Taj from pollution. Acting on a similar petition filed by Mehta, the court had in 1996 ordered a slew of measures, including the closure of factories in the vicinity, to protect the monument. Over two decades later, Mehta tells SOMYA LAKHANI how successive governments in New Delhi and Lucknow, and the Archaeological Survey of India, have failed to implement the court’s order, and how a dying Yamuna and the insects that breed in it are killing the Taj.
What has led to the change of colour of the Taj Mahal’s marble?
There are various factors that have led to the discoloration of the Taj Mahal. Firstly, the polluting industries and the vehicular emissions in the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ) area are a major source of pollution. The second reason is that the Yamuna river, which flows behind the Taj, has become highly polluted. There is no aquatic life in it, and has caused insect and algae infestation on the Taj Mahal and other monuments situated on its banks.
How exactly do insects damage the Taj?
The source of this problem comes from the dry river Yamuna, which has become devoid of any ecological flow. These insects, as has been stated in the Archaeological Survey of India’s report, breed in the polluted matter in the river, and then attack the Taj Mahal in the evening. Earlier, there were fish in the river, which ate the insects and their larvae, but now, due to the serious water pollution, there is no sign of any aquatic species in the river.
And how have the patches on the marble of the Taj appeared?
As stated in the ASI’s A Report on Insect Activities at Taj Mahal And Other Monuments of Agra, the green and black patches developed due to the presence of a specific type of insects, mainly on the northern side of the Taj Mahal. Other monuments that stand on the banks of the river Yamuna, such as the Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah, the Mehtab Bagh, and portions of the Agra Fort, too, have been affected by these insect attacks.
How bad is the problem of air pollution?
Due to the lackadaisical approach of the central and state governments, Agra has become the world’s eighth most polluted city in terms of PM 2.5 levels, as per a WHO Report released this month. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests in its 262nd Report on the effects of pollution on the Taj Mahal, presented to Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha in 2015, pointed out that air pollution has become a concern not only for reasons of health of the common man, but also for the danger it poses to cultural heritage. Rampant construction and encroachments compound the problem.
The Supreme Court has said that the “ASI will have to be thrown out of the picture” if the Taj is to be saved. What can foreign experts do to save the Taj that the ASI cannot?
The experience shows that the situation, instead of getting remedied, has worsened, and has reached a critical point. It needs thorough investigation and solutions from renowned experts and institutions working in the field of conservation and preservation. Since the Taj Mahal is a World Heritage Site, if an opinion is sought from both national and international experts and institutions, it will give a broader perspective and vision to protect the monument.
How is the situation today compared to what it was when you first brought out the problems with the Taj?
In 1984, when the case was filed in the Supreme Court for the protection of the Taj Mahal, the situation was much better as compared to the present. The Hon’ble Supreme Court gave a clear roadmap by issuing various directions, including declaring Agra a Heritage City. Had successive central and state governments taken all measures to declare Agra a Heritage City, the situation would perhaps have become ideal.
Today, 35 years after you first approached the Supreme Court, we seem to be still debating the same issues that we started out with. What went wrong with the conservation effort?
Rather than taking measures to declare Agra a Heritage City, the authorities have actually encouraged polluters and allowed projects that were detrimental to environment protection and the conservation of monuments within the Taj Trapezium Zone.