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Has Agra lost the battle against pollution?
Though Taj Mahal is in the news for several reasons, but what needs our immediate attention is the air and water pollution that is hurting the world heritage monument that is India's pride and a star tourist attraction.
Agra: Though Taj Mahal is in the news for several reasons, but what needs our immediate attention is the air and water pollution that is hurting the world heritage monument that is India's pride and a star tourist attraction.
Despite thousands of crores spent on fighting pollution following Supreme Court's intervention in the 1990s, neither the air pollution level has come down nor has water of the river Yamuna become safe.
Even three decades after the Supreme Court intervention and the continued war against environmental pollution, to secure precious world heritage monuments in the Taj Trapezium Zone, (TTZ) conditions have not significantly improved. Rather, the accelerated urbanisation process has further compounded the crisis.
In fact with the green cover continuously decreasing and water bodies either dry or heavily polluted, the overall scenario is depressing, pointing to the utter failure of the government bodies to handle the alarming ecological crisis building up.
The apex court ordered in 1993 a slew of measures while considering the high powered experts committee, headed by senior scientist Dr S Varadrajan's report in the MC Mehta PIL on pollution threats to the Taj Mahal. Over the years thousands of crores of rupees have been spent without discernible changes to the overall environmental scenario in the 10,400 sq km eco-sensitive Taj Trapezium Zone.
Agra fares poorly in the air quality index. The ambient air quality has gone worse from being poor, as Agra continued to be among the top polluted cities in India. The dust level (SPM and RSPM) has gone up and the share of noxious gases in the ambient air has remained high posing a grave threat to humans and monuments.
Although the city claims serious participation in the Smart city race, the results do not instill confidence or indicate any positive shift in the eco-equilibrium. All parameters suggest Agra is nowhere close to winning the pollution war, despite international concern and claimed governmental efforts to halt the increasing pollution level.
Neither the pollution standards applicable in eco-sensitive zones have been achieved nor has the city made any progress in extending the green cover. The forest area has in fact come down to a meager six per cent or less, against the national target of 33 per cent. The suspended particulate matter (SPM) level remains over 350 micrograms per cubic metre, while going above 600 in summer, against the 100 microgram standard. This summer has been truly cruel to both nature and stones, says green activist Devashish Bhattacharya.
The level of noxious gases has continued to rise as a result of automobile explosion. "In the early 1980s when Firozabad was part of Agra district, the number of registered vehicles was only 40,000. But now the number has crossed a million in Agra district alone. Add Firozabad, Mathura and neighbouring Hathras districts, the scenario is frightening," Bhattacharya adds.
He wondered why despite continuous monitoring by the apex court and the NGT, there has not been any significant change in the environmental scenario in the TTZ (Taj Trapezium Zone).
One major source of dust and pollution is the dry and polluted river Yamuna. "Yamuna is virtually dead in Agra. The dry river-bed and the highly polluted water that flows down the river pose serious threats to historical monuments along the banks. Decades of judicial activism, major policy pronouncements and projects worth millions of rupees, this Taj city remains pock-marked with mounds of garbage. Air and water pollution threaten the health of people and the world-famous monuments that are visited by millions of tourists every year," say members of the River Connect Campaign.
The SPM rises as the river bed runs dry and the Rajasthan desert gradually expands into Uttar Pradesh. In recent years, there has also been large-scale illegal stone mining in the Aravali ranges, pushing up the particulate matter in the air.
Since the STPs (sewage treatment plants) do not work, most of the city's sewage is discharged through drains into the river or through borings pumped into the earth. In the old city areas, one sees sewer overflowing and untreated waste flowing into municipal drains that open into the river Yamuna. Bhattacharya quotes an RTI application he had filed, sometime ago. "Right now there are 90 drains openly discharging domestic waste and industrial effluents. The state pollution control board officials claim 42 nalas or drains have been tapped."
In the 1990s there was hope the city would transition to a higher level of sustainable development, but the directionless lethargic bureaucratic machinery is still struggling with a questionable agenda that includes another show-piece, the Agra Metro, along with flyovers, expressways, and rural road networks that have collectively reduced the green cover.
The Supreme Court had ordered in 1996 that several rows of trees be planted on the western periphery of the city to filter the dust-laden westerlies that blow from Rajasthan. That has not happened and greenery here has all but vanished as tall buildings now stand where community ponds once existed. "The builders and colonizers have grabbed all water bodies to build malls and multi-storey buildings. Parks have been encroached upon. In fact, the historical monuments are dwarfed by illegal structures, and no one really cares," say members of the River Connect Campaign.
Agra was a showpiece of India's serious intent on waging an environmental war to make monuments breathe freely after an alarm was raised over the siting of an oil refinery at Mathura in 1974. But the haphazard growth of the urban clusters in the TTZ has created more problems than the resources could address. And the war against the fallouts of directionless urbanization has been lost before beginning.