Taj Mahal threatened
A new Indian government survey has revealed that the Taj Mahal, the nation's best-known monument, is again facing a major threat from pollution.
The report, compiled by India's National Environment Engineering Research Institute, shows that measures taken after previous scares that the 17th-century tomb was being irreparably damaged by air and water pollution are failing.
The survey, commissioned by the Ministry of Environment, found that pollution levels in the city of Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located, had risen significantly over recent years as a result of growth in industry, traffic and population.
The £90m government programme, launched between 1998 and 2000 after the monument's famous white marble was seen to be turning yellow, has had some impact, the report says, but not enough to keep up with pollution around the site.
When launched, the programme received global attention, with President Bill Clinton saying that pollution had done "what 350 years of wars, invasions and natural disasters have failed to dobegun to mar the magnificent walls of the Taj Mahal".
Vehicles are now banned from within 500 metres of the monument and an LED display gives a running count of air pollution.
But the new report found that emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulates, for example, had reached levels higher than those that prompted a supreme court intervention to force authorities to act a decade ago.
Environmental campaigners in Agra, a bustling manufacturing centre in the populous and poor northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, said that the Taj Mahal was also threatened by dropping water tables and pollution from the river Yamuna, which runs alongside the structure. "The levels are much lower than they were when it was built and there is a serious risk that the whole construction will be destabilised as its foundations are made of wood and need to be kept moist to avoid subsiding," said Ashwina Kumar Mishra, a local activist.
"It is the most beautiful place in India and it will be a tragedy if something bad happens to it."
Government archeologists working at the Taj Mahal dismissed the claims of activists as "rumours". "These stories keep coming up without facts," said ID Diwedi, a senior archeologist at the site.
However, the report confirmed that an increasing demand for water in Agra had meant a drop in the underground water level by four metres over recent years. The water is heavily polluted due to the continuing discharge of effluents from industry and to rubbish clogging drains around the monument, it said.
The effects of the pollution have led to repeated attempts to use a clay pack treatment to maintain the shimmering, pristine appearance of the marble. The report added that measures such as a natural gas pipeline laid to supply clean fuel to industries in Agra, street-widening projects, the construction of a bypass, the replacement of diesel-run rickshaws by cleaner vehicles, heavy investment in a refinery to reduce emissions and an improved power supply that has meant less reliance on dirty diesel generators have had a positive impact, but could only mitigate the threat.
Agra lies downstream of Delhi, and water from the Yamuna river reaches the city heavily contaminated by chemical and human waste. A recent £30m effort to clean the Yamuna has largely failed. In Agra, untreated sewage and solid waste is discharged directly into the river, the report said, while an upstream barrage has dramatically reduced its flow.
Each year hundreds of thousands of foreigners pay around £10 each to view the Taj Mahal, built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died having the couple's 14th child.
President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, are due to visit next week.
DK Joshi, a member of a court-appointed committee created to monitor environmental threats to the Taj Mahal, told the Guardian that "collusion between a land mafia and dishonest bureaucrats" had meant the misuse of much of the money designated to protect the site and its surroundings.
"I am just a simple man. I just want to see my country and my city and my monuments neat and clean," Joshi said.