Ravaged by a toxic cocktail of environmental pollution, gross governmental neglect, and bureaucratic apathy, India’s most iconic monument — the Taj Mahal — should be “demolished,” an irate Supreme Court suggested on July 11, sending shockwaves through the nation of 1.3 billion people.
What led to the apex court’s uncharacteristically harsh outburst was frustration at the central and state authorities’ failure to preserve and protect the 17th-century monument located in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, and considered one of the masterpieces of world heritage. Upbraiding the authorities, the judges remarked that the mausoleum is a “hopeless cause” and threatened to “shut it down,” adding that the center and Uttar Pradesh government can demolish the iconic building — or restore it.
Drawing a parallel between the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Taj Mahal, the judges observed that “80 million go to see Eiffel Tower, which looks like a TV tower. Our Taj is more beautiful. If you had looked after it, your foreign exchange problem would have been solved. Do you realize the loss caused to the country due to your apathy?”
The Taj Mahal (also known as the “monument of love”) was built between 1631 and 1648 by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. For its construction, the best masons, stonecutters, inlayers, carvers, painters, calligraphers, dome builders, and other artisans were invited by Shah Jahan not only from his own empire but also from far-flung Central Asia and Iran. Such was the dazzling beauty of the final constructed monument that, according to legend, the emperor ordered that the hands of the artisans be chopped off to prevent them from replicating the tomb’s beauty elsewhere.
Today, the mausoleum’s white marble face, towering spires, exquisite Quranic inscriptions engraved in Arabic script, and lush lawns draw 8 million visitors each year, earning millions in revenue while according it a place among the world’s seven wonders.
However, as it nears 400 years old, the famed tribute to Mumtaz Mahal is at the risk of being lost forever. It is engulfed by a dense smog created by human activity that is discoloring its marble face, turning the once-pristine teardrop facade to a bile yellow. A parliamentary standing committee report in 2015 highlighted the threat posed by surging air pollution and Agra’s exponentially growing population to the Taj Mahal. Agra is the eighth most polluted city in the world in terms of PM 2.5 levels, according to a World Health Organization report.
According to a 2017 report by National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), the country’s premier engineering research body, the status of solid waste management around Taj Mahal is also eroding its heritage value. The report stated that the open burning of waste by Agra Municipal Corporation should be immediately stopped as it is breeding unhygienic conditions with serious ramifications for the monument’s health.
During the study, the NEERI team found that household waste generated by hotels and restaurants was disposed of “in an uncontrolled dumpsite polluting water resources and the air. The municipal solid waste contains human and animal excrement as well as hazardous chemical pollutants and sharps,” the report revealed.
The sullied condition of water bodies surrounding the Taj Mahal is also worrying environmentalists. The Yamuna River, which flows behind the tomb (often referred to as an “open gutter”), is one of the world’s filthiest with practically zero aquatic life left in it. This ecological disaster has triggered unbridled breeding of insects, algae, and weeds, which — combined with spiraling air pollution levels in the city — has serious ramifications for the Taj’s health, say experts.
As far back as 1978, the central government had published its first report on damage to the Taj Mahal caused by pollution. An expert committee headed by Dr. S. Varadharajan issued a “Report on Environmental Impact of Mathura Refinery,” which raised an alarm about pollution in areas surrounding the Taj Mahal.
In 1984, environmentalist MC Mehta — also a Supreme Court lawyer — moved the apex court with a writ petition seeking protection of the Taj Mahal. Twelve years later, in 1996, the Supreme Court directed the government to undertake a slew of measures to protect the mausoleum.
An area of 10,400 square kilometers around the Taj Mahal was demarcated to be free from pollution. The apex court also issued a ruling banning use of coal or coke in industries located in the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ) — a roughly 50 km zone created around Taj Mahal complex for its protection — ordering businesses to switch to natural gas or relocate outside the TTZ. The TTZ contains 40 protected monuments, including three World Heritage Sites — the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, and Fatehpur Sikri. Ironically, the TTZ today is one of the most polluted belts in the world.
Who is to blame? Several complex factors are at play here, say experts. While the management of the Taj Mahal complex is the responsibility of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the legal protection of the monument and the control over the regulated area around it is orchestrated through a network of legislative and regulatory frameworks, including the Ancient Monument and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act (AMASR) of 1958 and the AMASR (Amendment and Validation) Act 2010. And the ASI, as its management has often pleaded, is bottlenecked by a paucity of funds and manpower.
Be that as it may, shutting down the Taj Mahal — which the Supreme Court judges have threatened to do — is hardly the way to go about solving the problem. What needs to be done is to combine political will with citizens’ engagement and regulating the footfalls at the monument.
Toward that end, the ASI is considering imposing a daily limit of 40,000 on the number of domestic tourists permitted to visit the Taj Mahal. Visitors may also be restricted to three hours within the Mughal-era complex under proposals by the ASI currently being examined by Indian tourism minister Dr. Mahesh Sharma.
Other solutions include handing over the Taj for “adoption” under the government’s freshly-minted “Adopt a Heritage” scheme. Launched in September 2017, the initiative will allow private and public sector corporations to adopt most of India’s top heritage sites, becoming responsible for the upkeep, operations, as well as maintenance of tourism infrastructure at any of 105 monuments and natural heritage sites up for adoption.
The infrastructure will include providing amenities like toilets, drinking water, accessibility for the disabled, signage, audio guides, illumination, canteens, ticketing, and maintenance of cleanliness and security, says an ASI official. In exchange, the companies will get brand visibility at the sites and an opportunity to “share the responsibility” of improving India’s heritage tourism as a part of their corporate social responsibility obligations while bolstering domestic and international tourism. Infrastructure conglomerate GMR and tobacco company ITC Ltd have already bid to adopt the Taj Mahal.
This outsourcing of the preservation of India’s priceless heritage to private companies has attracted both criticism and support. While some feel privatization of tourism amenities is a good idea against the backdrop of a resource-strapped ASI, others feel it is a risky proposition to outsource precious heritage to entities driven more by profit than patriotism. Testing the waters with smaller monuments to see how they are nurtured by their sponsors, skeptics say, is a better bet than taking a plunge straight away with the most important sites.
“In theory heritage adoption sounds like a great idea,” says Dr. Rakesh Behari, an Agra-based conservationist. “But it also makes the country’s priceless heritage vulnerable to exploitation. Tomorrow, if the adoptive company wants to allow raucous private weddings at the venue, how will the government control that? There needs to be a solid system of checks and balances in place before such a big step is taken.”
Emperor Shah Jahan would second that.
Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based editor and journalist