Impacting livelihoods: Man versus monument

Impacting livelihoods: Man versus monument
Honeybees and tourists hovering in petha shops is a common sight across the bazaars of Agra. After Taj Mahal, Agra is famous for petha, candied ash gourd, sold dry, in syrup and other forms. But these juicy delights are now facing a threat. When a recent study pointed to dust and carbonaceous particles discolouring the marble veneer of the Taj, the authorities had a knee-jerk reaction. They asked petha-making units within an area spread over 10,400 sq km around the Taj to either switch from using coal to LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) or shut shop, without ensuring proper alternatives.

Nearly 1,000 petha-making units exist in Taj Trapezium Zone, according to the data with the Agra Development Authority (ADA) for 2011-12, the last time it estimated the number. According to a December 2013 report by ADA, titled The Comprehensive Environmental Management Plan for Taj Trapezium Zone Area, the average wood consumption in each petha unit is five kg per day, whereas coal used is about four kg per hour. Thus, the total daily consumption of all the petha units is estimated to be 500 kg wood and 4.7 tonnes of coal, which emit nearly 7.5 tonnes of CO2 a day. This is equivalent to the CO2 emission by three diesel-run SUVs in a month.

The manufacturers have applied for an LPG line. “But we have been told that it will take eight months. How can we stop work for so long? We’ll lose all the trained workers,” says Shanu Yadav of Noori Darwaza Petha Union. “This will adversely affect the petha industry for a long period.”

Many workers have already lost their jobs. Shankar Lal, 46, had worked in the industry for 22 years. “I was earning Rs 9,000 a month till two months ago,” he says. Now Lal is working as a daily wage labourer in the fields of Khanda village, earning a maximum of Rs 2,000 a month. Over 800 people have been rendered jobless in the village, which is just 40 km from the Agra city.

Raju Yadav, 22, and his father Bachchu Singh, 52, were also rendered unemployed by the state government’s recent actions. They were working in a small petha unit at Noori Darwaza, the hub of petha making in the city. “We own two to three bigha of land (less than half a hectare). That is not sufficient for a family of six,” says Yadav. Singh had been making the popular sweet of Agra for three decades, having risen from being a helper to a kaarigar (chief). He does not know where to look for a job now. Lal, Yadav and Singh worked in small units that produced 400-500 kg pethas a day, usually employing 15 workers. When asked about loss of livelihood caused by the crackdown, ADA officials denied it and said they were merely following the 1996 judgement of the Supreme Court which barred burning coal in a 50 km radius of the 363-year-old building.

Availability of LPG is not the only issue. “Making petha with LPG costs Rs 5-6 more per kg. It is an inexpensive sweet; a simple preparation costs Rs 40-50 per kg. Sales of those manufacturers who increased the price dipped,” says Yadav of the union.

Rehabilitation sham
ADA has a rehabilitation plan for the petha makers but that hardly addresses their problems. The civic authority has set up a Petha Nagari at Kalindi Vihar, some 18 km from the Taj Mahal. It has 156 plots, of which 92 have been sold, and 20-odd units have shifted there. “Even if all plots are taken, what will happen to the remaining 850 units?” asks Yadav.

Kalindi Vihar does not even have a gas connection, which was the primary reason petha manufacturers were asked to shift in the first place. “I shifted here five years ago after the government promised LPG pipeline. That has still not happened. I have to make petha at a high cost and pay extra for transport,” complains Pradeep Kumar, owner of Om Sai Petha Udyog. Their union has submitted memorandums to the state government for cheap fuel.

The site does not fulfil one primary need of petha-making—sweet water. The water in the area is salty. Pethas made in the area are not considered tasty. “We are working to bring quality water and LPG pipeline to Petha Nagari,” says an ADA official, requesting not to be named.

Kumar says, “The Taj Mahal should be removed from Agra and taken elsewhere, so that people can live normal lives.”

History of high-handedness
Petha makers are not the only ones suffering. Ever since the Supreme Court passed an order in 1996 to reduce pollution in Agra and surrounding areas to protect India’s star tourist attraction, the administration’s response has been typical. It has gone about shutting industries in Agra without properly planning alternative means of livelihood and ensuring that the transition to better technology and manufacturing practices causes least pain to the people.

This has led to a sharp increase in the unemployment rate in the city. According to the 66th round of National Sample Survey Office, Agra was one of the top three cities that saw maximum increase in unemployment rate in the 2000s. The rate increased from 0.2 per cent in 2004-05 to 5.5 per cent in 2009-10. When the relocation of industries from Taj Trapezium Zone was in discussion in the mid-1990s, the city witnessed agitations. “Taj hatao, Agra bachao (remove the Taj, save Agra),” shouted workers who took to the streets.

Agra was an industrial hub until the Supreme Court asked 292 units, majority of them foundries, to shift to gas fuel or relocate. Acting on the court verdict, ADA started shutting down polluting foundries and tanneries in the city. While the big foundries relocated to Etah, Firozabad and Hathras, the small ones were forced to shut shop. While the government did not assess the impact of the 2001 shutdown, foundry association members claim that over 300,000 people were directly and indirectly affected by it. Government data, however, shows only 58,000 workers were employed in the city’s foundry units before the court verdict.

Twenty years on, the Jeevni Mandi area, the city’s foundry hub, still has no LPG connection. The area that had over 180 units before the crackdown has only 80 units today. Babulal Verma had set up a small unit in a room in his house in Jeevni Mandi. “I could not shift anywhere else,” says Verma. After his unit shut down, he started working in someone else’s factory which has switched to gas as fuel. “But my sons, who were also involved with our foundry, could not find any job. Our family income reduced by one-fifth in those days,” Verma says. “Workers in many foundries went back to their villages.” Atul Gupta, former president of the National Chamber of Industry and Commerce (NCIC), Agra, says gas technology came to the city in 2005-06. “That was because of the efforts of the industry,” he adds. NCIC is demanding subsidy on LPG in Agra.

Sullied heritage
The condition of the residents of Taj Ganj, right outside the Taj Mahal, also shows the callous attitude of the administration. In the original plan of Shah Jahan, Taj Ganj was an integral part of the Taj Mahal complex. It housed artisans, was a marketplace and had inns for travellers. Today the area is reduced to a slum.

The once thriving economy of Taj Ganj is doddering. Its resident Sanjay Kumar worked at a shoe factory till 20 years ago. His father also worked in a factory, while his mother helped with shoe-making at home. “I worked for a company which exported shoes. The factories in the area closed down and shifted to other cities. Workers were not given any compensation or rehabilitated,” says Kumar. He now makes shoes in a room in his house for local consumption.

Earlier, factory used to provide the raw material and give a commission of Rs 10-15 per pair. He would earn Rs 2,000 a week on making 400 shoes. “Now I have to buy the raw material myself. The demand is not for more than 250 pairs a week which I sell at Hing ki Mandi market. My earning is the same as it was 20 years ago,” says Kumar. His mother still helps by stitching shoes.

Taj Ganj, which should have benefitted from its heritage beginnings, faces many civic problems. In many parts, residents are dependent on hand pumps for drinking water, and groundwater in Agra is contaminated and high on fluoride. Sanitation is a big problem. 

“We are working on a project in which we will identify houses without toilets. Then, with the help of the government, we will fund construction of toilets,” says Monu Khan of non-profit CURE International, which has been working in the area to improve health, sanitation and education. “But the final push has to come from the government for the whole of Taj Ganj,” Khan says.(With inputs from Shirin Bithal)

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