Haze over a trapezium

Print edition : January 15, 2010

AN unquiet white haze surrounds the Taj Mahal on full moon nights of late. It is no romantic mist rising from the Yamuna, but highly corrosive acid fog.

In July, the National Environmental Engineering and Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur, reported that every cubic metre of air around the 350-year-old Mughal monument of love contains 519 micrograms (ug) of Suspended Particulate Matter (SPM) and over 50 ug of sulphur dioxide, over twice the permissible limit. This mist descends on to the marble structure along with precipitation, covering it in a layer of grime and acid. The long-term consequences will be what archaeologists call marble cancer (Frontline, February 21-March 6, 1987).

If the Taj Mahal still appears normal to the casual eye of the tourist, the first signs of decay were visible to researchers in 1984. A sickly yellow pallor pervades the entire monument, the report of investigators from the Department of Engineering, San Jose, and the Regional Research Laboratory, Bhopal, stated that year. The sulphuric acid film on the marble was leaving it discoloured and flaky. The grime from the SPM precipitation, in turn, left dark blotches and spots on the white surface. While these blotches can be removed through chemical scouring, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) experts say this renders the Taj even more vulnerable in the long term. The inner chambers of the monument, where the graves of the builder, Shah Jehan, and his consort, Mumtaz Mahal, are located, face a particularly high threat of deterioration owing to a high humidity level.

In September, the Supreme Court, acting on a decade-old petition by environmental lawyer M.C. Mehta, closed down 212 of the 1,715 small industries believed to be the key contributors to the pollution. These industries, which had ignored repeated notices issued by the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB) asking them to disclose their toxic emission levels, cannot reopen until they install pollution control devices. Another 299 units have been given time until November to install these devices, failing which they too will face closure.

The UPPCB, too, was ordered to lay down emission guidelines, and advise polluting units on the precise nature of pollution control equipment they would need to acquire.

The history of efforts to curb pollution in the 10,400 sq km Taj Trapezium zone, encompassing Agra, Firozabad, Mathura and Bharatpur, dates back to 1974. That year, the Expert Committee on the Environmental Impact of the Mathura Refinery, headed by Dr S. Vardarajan, submitted its report to the Central government. The refinery project, the committee said, would constitute a major threat to the Taj unless stringent pollution control measures were adopted. Agras 250-odd cast iron foundries already significantly polluted the air, the report stated, as did the two obsolete power plants at Agra Fort and Itmat ud-Daulah, and the steam locomotives in the railway yard. These sources of pollution, the committee recommended, would have to be controlled before trying to tackle the impact of the refinery. A 1977 Joint Parliamentary Committee went one step further and suggested that the more dangerous units of the refinery be relocated at Etawah.

The Central government was unwilling to spend the estimated Rs.15 crore this radical relocation would have cost. The refinery became fully operational in 1983, despite the strong reservations expressed by environmentalists, warning of the consequences not only for the Taj but for the Bharatpur bird sanctuary. Four years later, the capacity of the refinery was expanded from six million tonnes a day to 7.5 million tonnes.

Some of the Vardarajan Committees recommendations were, however, put into effect. A ban on further industrial development was imposed in the area and the power plants were shut down. The railway yards steam locomotives were gradually replaced by diesel ones. These moves, according to the committees figures, did away with the sources of 38.9 per cent of the air pollution in Agra.

The foundries, however, remained. Their numbers swelled, despite the ban on industrial growth, from 250 in 1977 to 283 now, according to NEERIs July report. This found amplified expression in Firozabad, an hours drive from Agra. The NEERI study shows the gradual expansion of furnaces in the town, serving its booming glass industry, from 1,000 in 1981 to 1,432 in 1993. The Central government failed to act during this period. In the absence of state intervention, industrialists, predictably enough, saw no reason to spend money on reducing their toxic emissions.

M.C. Mehtas legal time bomb was ticking away during this decade of complacency and it finally exploded in the face of both the Trapezium areas industrialists and an unprepared UPPCB in September. The UPPCB is now working overtime to meet its court-mandated tasks: to define the acceptable levels of emission from the iron foundries in Agra and the glass industry in Firozabad, and to suggest schemes to reduce the existing levels.

The industrialists, however, are preparing to challenge the order on scientific grounds. If you look at the history of pollution studies at the Taj, argues Yogendra Kaushal, president of the National Chamber of Industries and Commerce, Agra, you will find that the idea of iron foundries being major pollutants dates back to the Vardarajan Committee. Our contention is that the committees report itself was flawed, and that this basic flaw has led other studies into error as well.

The Taj Mahal at sunrise.-PTI

In defining Agras iron foundries as contributors of 32 per cent of the pollution in the city, the Vardarajan Committee had relied not on factory-by-factory data, since none existed, but on the estimated fuel consumption of these industries for computing their sulphur dioxide emissions. There is a gross flaw in the computations. The committee thought steam coal was used by the foundries to melt pig iron, but the foundries used coke, which has a much lower sulphur content than steam coal, a fact which implies that the foundries contributed substantially less to the pollution than was estimated.

NEERIs July report identifies the ferrous casting industry as the principal villain behind the pollution affecting the Taj. Table 112, IV-13, records that a total of 131 units in the city, consuming 1,048 million tonnes of coke each day, spew 3,373 kg of suspended particulate matter, 616 kg of sulphur dioxide and 70,530 kg of carbon monoxide each hour. These figures place the foundries at the top of the list of polluters in the city, legitimising the Supreme Courts order. Yet, the NEERI interim report, submitted to the Ministry of Environment and Forests in January, reveals that these figures are massively overstated. They are in fact worst-case scenarios, based on the assumption that all the foundries are functioning eight hours a day. Normal emissions, recorded in Table 4.2 of the interim report, amount to only a quarter of the worst case figure, for only a quarter of the foundries function at any given time.

The foundry owners case is that the real sulphur dioxide emissions from their plants as a collective whole is in fact lower than, or similar to, those from other sources in the Taj Trapezium. The refinery, for example, releases around 600 kg of sulphur dioxide every hour, within the permissible limit, but four times more than the actual emission from all foundries put together, according to NEERIs interim report.

The organisation has now been ordered by the court to investigate the refinerys contribution to pollution around the Taj further.

Laws are apparently irrelevant in Agra. In a key sense, though, the very sustainability of the foundries and the glass industry depends on dispensing with environmental and workplace safety requirements. The structural links between the technologies used at these factories and both work conditions and the environment are evident. The foundries, for example, manage to acquire contracts to supply components to pipe, generator, spare parts and diesel engine manufacturers because they are able to supply at rock bottom prices.

These low prices are made possible by not having to pay for environmental damage. Fly ash deposited in the foundries cupolas, the residue from the burnt coke, is routinely dumped on any spare land available. The toxic discharge from this ash, along with that from other polluting industries, has devastated Agras water supply system. Taps in the city often spew out a vile yellow liquid, and groundwater supplies are toxic.

Work conditions are just as grim. Most foundry workers are hired by contractors, and paid one rupee for every inch length of finished product. This works out to around Rs.1,000 a month for a skilled worker, and as little as Rs.100 for an apprentice.

In Firozabad, small children, some as young as 12, continue to be employed in glass-blowing and bangle works, despite major media coverage of the issue two years ago. Workers here, as in Agra, are underpaid, despite the hazardous and highly skilled nature of the work.

Yet, most workers in both Firozabad and Agra are deeply resentful about the Supreme Courts decision. An estimated 20,000 workers were rendered unemployed by the interim closure order, and while some have found employment in other sectors, they clearly understand that further closures will mean great hardships. Eventually, Agra industry sources say, closure orders could affect over two lakh workers. This apprehension is shared by both workers at the other key polluters in the area, including the growing numbers of brick kilns, chemical industries, rubber products factories and tanneries, and the Dalmia Dairy next to the Bharatpur bird sanctuary.

While the industrialists fight to keep their units alive has nothing to do with concern for workers, it does raise questions regarding the approach governments need to take to deal with the growing number of environmental crises confronting them. The root cause of the threat to the Taj Mahal and to the towns workers is the same: obsolete technology. If the workers in these plants are not to be euthenised by unemployment, a dangerous environment, or by hazardous working conditions, further research will be required, directed towards making the Trapeziums small units viable in the new context.

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