The Slow Decay of the Taj Mahal

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The Slow Decay of the Taj Mahal

How pollution and bureaucratic incompetence threaten to destroy India’s greatest monument.

The Slow Decay of the Taj Mahal
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Yann

Every year eight million visitors flock to the Taj Mahal, drawn to its marble face, towering spires, and green gardens. But this monument to love, famously described as “a teardrop on the cheek of time” by India’s first Nobel laureate, is now at risk of being lost forever. Dense smog created by human activity is starting to discolor the marble, turning that once-pristine teardrop a sickly shade of yellow.

Besides inflicting devastating losses on India’s cultural history and economy, these airborne impurities also threaten the people of Agra, the city in which the Taj Mahal resides.

So who’s to blame? There are several factors: heavy traffic, wood-burning crematoriums, smoke from neighboring factories, and Agra’s growing population, the last of which demands more and more water. As the Yamuna River dries up, it risks sliding the Taj Mahal off its picturesque banks into a sea of mud.

But perhaps the biggest concern to the Taj Mahal’s future is bureaucratic incompetence, a point vividly illustrated by the threat of municipal solid waste (MSW), everyday items like plastic bottles, newspapers, clothes, and food. Instead of being properly deposited at landfills, much of this trash is burnt out in the open. What results is a thick blanket of toxic smog, some of which gets into the lungs of Agra’s residents, and some of which eventually finds its way to the Taj Mahal.

Dr. Ajay Nagpure from the University of Minnesota published a paper on India’s MSW problem in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

“We studied the open burning of municipal solid waste in Delhi and Agra,” Nagpure said in an interview. “According to our results, Delhi burns about 190 to 246 tons of MSW everyday, which is 2−3 percent of the total MSW generated…For Agra, this number is alarming: 223 tons/day, which is 24 percent of the total.”

The findings are worrisome. New Delhi, the capital of India, burns only 3 percent of its municipal solid waste, whereas Agra burns about a quarter. The resulting smoke directly impacts Agra’s great monument.

“We found that black carbon gives a greyish colour to the [Taj Mahal’s] surface while… brown carbon and dust results in yellowish-brown hues,” says Dr. S.N. Tripathi of the Indian Institute of Technology.

But surface discolouration isn’t the only problem. Parts of the mausoleum are full of holes, and in some places the facade has actually crumbled. Insects and acid rain have eaten away at portions of the exterior.

Faced with the irreparable loss of India’s most popular monument, the government has taken measures to preserve it. Last year, the Supreme Court ordered all wood-burning crematoriums near the Taj Mahal to be removed and replaced with cleaner electric ones, while Agra’s state of Uttar Pradesh banned the burning of cow dung, which serves as a cheap source of fuel but generates significant levels of brown carbon, the same kind that’s turning the Taj Mahal yellowish-brown.

In addition to preservation, restoration work has also been undertaken. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) periodically applies Fuller’s earth, a lime-rich plaster which soaks up dirt and grime from the marble pores in an attempt to revive its original luster.

Like most beauty treatments, however, this one is superficial. Professor R. Nath, a noted historian and one of the most prominent voices calling for better conservation of the Taj Mahal, warned that applying Fuller’s earth “would only deface the monument.” And it has, causing portions of the marble to become patchy and “leukodermic.”

The effects of Agra’s airborne pollution aren’t confined to the Taj Mahal. “The situation of Agra with respect to air pollution is bad,” says Nagpure. “We have PM10 data from 2006 to 2012 [including] six air-quality monitoring stations data for Agra….None of the monitoring stations meet the World Health Organization guidelines or Central Pollution Control Board of India standards.”

PM or particulate matter is released by the burning of municipal solid waste. Not only does it discolor the Taj Mahal’s marble, but its impact on humans is potentially lethal. “MSW… often includes plastics, rubber, and metal-containing refuse, the burning of which releases toxic emissions,” says Nagpure in his study. “[Exposure] to these pollutants is associated with a number of health impacts, including respiratory and cardiovascular disease, adverse birth outcomes, and cancer.”

When it comes to meaningful solutions, Nagpure believes the government has fallen short. “I don’t think this is a good initiative,” he says about the recent ban on burning cow dung. “It is very hard to implement the ban at ground level. Since most of the people who use cow dung for cooking are from a low socio-economic status… it is very hard for them to opt for other expensive fuels.”

He does, however, offer some suggestions: “Authorities need to concentrate on all sectors which are responsible for the air pollution… transport, household, MSW, commercial industry, etc.” Nagpure also advocates a strict clean fuel policy for all public and private vehicles, along with an environmental tax for traffic coming from other cities to Agra. “For example, all external vehicles must follow some criteria like age limits or pay extra tax if they violate this rule,” Nagpure suggests. “It would certainly reduce the amount of pollution.”

So far the lack of government oversight has only made things worse. In fact, India’s Supreme Court recently berated the Uttar Pradesh government for the shoddiness of its repair work.  “[Your] engineers should be ashamed of themselves,” said the court about a new road leading up to the Taj Mahal. “People from all over the world come to see the monument and any construction done near Taj should be as good as Taj. You messed it up. It is unacceptable.”

Whether it’s due to political ineptitude or a lack of environmental regulation, with every passing minute this teardrop on the cheek of time wastes away. If the Taj Mahal is to survive or return to its former glory, then bold new solutions are needed, and needed fast.

Heenay Patel is a freelance writer, editor, and researcher from Ontario, Canada.