Saving the Taj Mahal
The polished marble, a material that has helped make the building an icon of Indian architecture, bears the signs of environmental damage from air pollution. The Taj Mahal's walls have cracked, and its marble has become tarnished.
When visiting Agra in 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton remarked: "Pollution has managed to do what 350 years of wars, invasions, and natural disasters have failed to do. It has begun to mar the magnificent walls of the Taj Mahal."
Despite being awarded UNESCO world heritage status in 1983, the Taj Mahal is still threatened. Designed as an icon of love, the building has become, due to smog and acid rain, an icon of environmental damage.
In response, the Indian government has tried to alter this modern iconography to something more positive, making the Taj Mahal an icon of environmentalism and cultural preservation. In some respects they have been successful.
While the effects of acid rain and smog are now well known and can be as devastating to stone as to human lungs, air pollution has a long urban history. In 1661, for instance, London's air was described by John Evelyn as a "hellish and dismal cloud of sea coal."
Smog has increased worldwide given the rise of the chimney as a symbol of societal advancement, just as urbanization has become an indicator of economic and social progress. Chimneys have thus become embedded in the evolving identity and the vistas of modern cities.
Since the 1980s, however, Indian lawyers have tried to argue this is no excuse for a legal ignorance of the costs of urban and economic advancement. One of them, M.C. Mehta, has tried valiantly, and somewhat successfully, to find an equilibrium that would allow industry to drive the wheels of the economy while affording legal protection for society's cultural emblems that are at risk from air pollution.
In 1996, India's Supreme Court acknowledged the contribution of local industry to the damage to the Taj Mahal. The court order ruled: "Not even a one percent chance can be taken when — human life apart — the preservation of a prestigious monument like the Taj is involved."
Nearly 300 coal-based industries were immediately ordered to switch from coke to natural gas for fuel, or to relocate under favorable governmental terms, or to continue polluting and run the risk of heavy financial penalties and closure. This was a call to arms, an act supported in subsequent years by India's governments at all levels.
For instance, the regional government of the coal-rich Uttar Pradesh has also unfolded a number of projects, some costing as much as US$200 million, to clean up the air around the Taj Mahal. Fundamental to the protection strategy has been the creation of the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ).
The protected TTZ has an area 4,040 square miles (10,460 square kilometers). Notions of environmental protection have been fused with poverty intervention in establishing the TTZ so the quality of life for eight million citizens — 30 percent of whom live below the poverty line — can improve and so they can better live and work in harmony with their natural and cultural environments.
However the image of the regional government was blotted in 2003 when a plan, labeled a "misadventure in greed and corruption," was announced that would establish an amusement complex next to the Taj Mahal. UNESCO threatened to remove the Taj's world heritage status, and politicians in New Delhi frantically tried to smooth things over.
Several strategies are now in place to help protect the Taj Mahal. For example, all nearby transport must run only on electric battery power and may not come within a third of a mile (500 meters) of the monument. Investment in urban infrastructure has been used to reduce both water and air pollution.
In 2005, a new air monitoring system was adopted at the Taj Mahal to continuously measure air quality. Importantly, this new system will enable those protecting the building to better understand local wind patterns, the precise pollution load of the air, and the direction the wind is coming from. But because wind can carry pollution great distances, there is still the challenging political and legal question of how particular industries can be held accountable.
Local and regional governments in India have tried in their own way to watch over the Taj Mahal. So too has the national government's Ministry of Petroleum and National Gas, via the introduction of a 10-point plan to clean up Agra's air.
Their objectives include reducing lead and sulfur emissions, and they are initiating sales of low-lead or lead-free gasoline in Agra. Such ideas are admirable but are arguably not addressing the real problems in India — growing population, rapacious industrial development, and massive energy deficiencies. To generate power and avoid blackouts in cities like Agra, pollution is being generated at an unlawful scale.
Luxuries to Rights
Ultimately, it is not just the marble icon in Agra that's at stake but the very advancement of Indian society and its cultural legacy. While India's Supreme Court has been instrumental in closing factories, the true measure of India's ability to deal with pollution is whether governments can execute the needed preservation policies.
But if a government today cannot ensure the basic human right to clean air, what chance has it of providing environmental protection for buildings? In Victorian London, good health eventually evolved from a luxury for the rich to a basic right for all. Let's hope this ethos can be carried too into preserving the architectural icons of the world before their history becomes lost as the price for modernization.
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Dr. Ian Morley is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and is author of numerous papers on urbanism and civic design.