Unfinished agenda, lack of clean-up
The Taj Trapezium case, seeking the Supreme Court’s intervention to protect the Taj Mahal from the adverse effects of harmful air pollutants, is one of the longest-running environment court cases in India. Filed a year after the monument was declared a World Heritage Site in 1983, the petition blamed Agra’s foundries, hazardous chemical industries, and the oil refinery at Mathura as the major sources of pollutants damaging and discolouring the Taj. It said sulphur dioxide (SO2) emitted by the refinery and the industries, when combined with oxygen and moisture, formed sulphuric acid which had a corroding effect on the white marble of the building. The petition led to the apex court passing a series of orders to protect the air, water and land around the Taj Mahal as well as in the entire Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ).
The turning point in the case came on December 30, 1996, when the Supreme Court (SC) asked 292 small industries in Agra to either shift to natural gas or shift out of TTZ by February 1997, failing which they would be closed. While passing the order, the court mainly relied on the report prepared by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) in 1993, which held small-scale industries of Agra (mostly foundries) and glass industries of the neighbouring town of Firozabad responsible for the pollution. Factory owners and workers protested, saying they were unfairly targeted and that the Mathura Refinery was to be blamed (see ‘The trouble with the Trapezium’, Down To Earth, April 15, 1996). In its December 1996 verdict, SC said it would monitor TTZ-related projects and proposals. These include:
Setting up of hydrocracker unit in the Mathura Refinery
Construction of a 24 km Agra bypass road to divert traffic passing through the city
Provision of uninterrupted power supply in TTZ to check use of polluting diesel generators
Construction of Gokul barrage on the Yamuna in Mathura to improve supply of drinking water and to bring life to the river
Development of a green belt around Agra as recommended by NEERI
Creation of a separate cell under the Union environment ministry to safeguard and preserve the Taj, the city of Agra and national heritage monuments in TTZ
Shifting of emporia and shops functioning within Taj premises
Declaration of Agra as heritage city.
The court closely monitored compliance of its orders. From 1993 to 1996, when Justice Kuldip Singh was heading the Bench, hearings were held almost on a weekly basis. The court also deputed an amicus curiae and appointed court committees to report on ground reality.
A perusal of court orders and official documents in the public domain in the Taj case shows that many court directions, especially those relating to controlling air pollution, have been complied with. But other directions are yet to be fully implemented.
About 10 years after the 1996 judgement, SC reviewed the status of some of the projects it was monitoring and sought reports on Agra bypass road, green belt and provision of uninterrupted electricity supply in its order dated August 7, 2006. The status of the compliance with various SC directions was finally brought out by two reports published by NEERI—an evaluation of TTZ projects in 2010 and a comprehensive environment management plan for TTZ in 2013. These were prepared for the Agra Municipal Corporation and the Agra Development Authority respectively and throw light on the current status of TTZ-related projects.
Emissions control: The units that were supposed to shut in 1997, as per the 1996 judgement, eventually closed in 2001. A Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) newsletter of 2002 says that 187 units closed as a result of the order, 53 started using electricity and 42 compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied petroleum gas or electricity. Ten factories were either not found or were not using any fuel. To monitor the gains in air quality, the court, on November 7, 2000, accepted CPCB’s recommendations to set up four stations in Agra. These became functional by 2002.
Mathura Refinery: Meanwhile, the Mathura Refinery, which was the trigger for the court case, installed a hydrocracker unit in 2000, according to the website of Indian Oil Corporation, which runs the refinery. It also says that the switch to CNG was achieved in a phased manner by 2005.
Brick kilns: In an order dated May 10, 1996, SC had asked for closure of all brick kilns in the 20 km radius of the Taj. The May 2013 report of NEERI says 450 brick kilns in TTZ have closed operations. “Now only the registered units, which are beyond the 20 km radius of the Taj Mahal, remain in TTZ,” says Nazimuddin, scientist with the small-scale industries branch of CPCB.
Agra bypass road: In the wake of SC orders on infrastructure development in 1996, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs approved schemes worth Rs 222.21 crore for TTZ. One part of the Agra bypass was constructed at a cost of Rs 26.91 crore. The bypass is functional now. The city also spent Rs 21.22 on improvement of roads.
Uninterrupted power supply: SC had put great emphasis on providing uninterrupted power supply in TTZ. The Agra authorities have implemented projects worth Rs 39.09 crore for rural areas and Fatehpur Sikri and Rs 9.11 crore for Agra, says NEERI’s evaluation report of 2010. It also notes 27-41 per cent reduction in suspended particulate matter, 70-82 per cent reduction in concentration of ambient SO2 and 46-74 per cent reduction in ambient nitrogen dioxide (NO2) during 2002 to 2003 over 1996-98 levels because of improved power supply. Agra Development Authority chairperson Pradeep Bhatnagar says the city is getting 19-20 hours of power supply at present. “Round-the-clock supply is not possible because there is a general power shortage in Uttar Pradesh,” he says.
Gokul barrage: Construction of the barrage in Mathura, 204 km downstream of Wazirabad barrage in Delhi, was initiated in 1990 and completed in 2001; Rs 92.20 crore was sanctioned for it. The project has helped augment water supply in the region—73.5 million litres a day (MLD) water is supplied to Mathura and 282 MLD to Agra. However, NEERI’S 2010 report says the quality of water is not good and the barrage has reduced the flow of water downstream, near the Taj. The report also mentions worsening of river pollution since the barrage became operational. Work on the second barrage, 8 km upstream of the Taj Mahal, for increasing water on the stretch of the Yamuna behind the Taj has not started yet.
Solid waste management: The Union environment ministry had released Rs 7.49 crore for improving solid waste management, as per NEERI’s reports. Agra produces over 700 tonnes of solid waste and the reports say there is slight improvement in garbage collection, especially around the Taj, but the city does not have a sanitary landfill. The Down To Earth team, which visited Agra, found dumping and burning of garbage in open sites just outside the Taj.
Sewerage: Only 17 per cent (1,400 ha out of 8,360 ha) of the city is covered by sewerage network, says NEERI report of 2013. However, according to Agra authorities, it has increased to 30 per cent after implementation of two phases of Yamuna Action Plan and projects under Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. NEERI says 254 MLD wastewater flows through the city drains against the treatment capacity of 90.25 MLD. Only 10 per cent of sewagegets treated.
Green belt: On March 9 this year, SC stopped short of ordering an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into compensatory afforestation carried out by the Uttar Pradesh forest department. This happened after a court-appointed committee found that the state government had submitted wrong information about the number of saplings planted in lieu of trees cut with court’s permission since 1996 for development projects. The court wanted an inquiry to ascertain if funds had been misappropriated and gave an opportunity to the state to explain. K K Singh, divisional forest officer (in charge) of Agra, says only 5,000 trees could be planted in place of 250,000 because of non- release of funds. There is no official status report on the green belt around the Taj Mahal.
Centre’s cell for Taj preservation: The Court’s mandate to the Centre to develop TTZ in a sustainable manner does not appear to have made much headway of late. The Union environment ministry’s annual report for 2013-14 says only a token of Rs 1 lakh is available for its Taj Protection Mission and that the Uttar Pradesh government had been asked to formulate fresh proposals to seek provision of more funds under the 12th Five Year Plan. “Till date no comprehensive proposal has been received from Uttar Pradesh government,” says the report.
Impact on air quality: The court-monitored actions have had a noticeable effect on Agra’s air quality. According to NEERI’s 2013 report, annual average concentration of SO2 was in the range of 4-9 µg/m3,NO2 was 18-23 µg/m3 and PM10 was 133-167 µg/m3 in TTZ between 2002 and 2010. These are below the CPCB’s permissible norms for SO2 (20 µg/m3) and NO2 (30 µg/m3).
While sulphur and nitrogen emissions in Agra may be under control, the level of PM10 is still more than double the prescribed limit. This may be because of rising number of vehicles. According to the regional transport authority data, the number of vehicles (two wheelers, cars, buses and heavy vehicles) in Agra district, has nearly tripled from about 326,000 in 2002 to over 915,000 this year. Add to this the few thousand trucks that pass through the city every day via the National Highway-2 , the tourist buses and cars that bring in 20,000-odd visitors to Taj Mahal and the vehicular emissions would work out much higher. NEERI’S 2013 report mentions that over 48,000 diesel generators also contribute to the city’s pollution.
“The second generation challenge in Taj Trapezium demands assessment of all sources of pollution and more stringent action not just around the Taj Mahal, but across the airshed of Agra and beyond,” says Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of Delhi-based non-profit, Centre for Science and Environment.