Losing its Shine
After almost 400 years as India’s most visited, most famous, and most symbolic national monument, the Taj Mahal has begun to show some wear and tear. Cracks and colored smudges are becoming more pronounced, it has lost a few shades of what was once a pearl white marble, and visitors are beginning to ask questions about the seeming decline with increasing frequency.
In addition to spouting the usual string of interesting facts (it was commissioned by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, and the building materials were supposedly transported by 1,000 elephants), guides are having to answer difficult questions about the visible damage, and why the government hasn’t stepped in to preserve its beauty. After decades of a push-and-pull debate between environmentalists, government agencies, and private industries, the issue has bubbled to the international consciousness. While on the surface the discussion is about maintaining one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world, it’s more broadly about climate change, government regulations, and private interests.
India as a whole has one of the most pressing pollution problems in the world, and the air quality in Agra (where the Taj Mahal is located) is no exception. Over 40 years ago in 1978, studies found high levels of sulfur dioxide in the air. Sulfur dioxide is inherently problematic for respiration and public health, but it also combines with moisture in the air to cause acid rain, which has resulted in much of the Taj Mahal’s decay. In 1984, it took less than six years for scientists to attribute the acid rain and the tomb’s discoloration to the nearby chemical industries and refineries.
Water Pollution and Lowering Water Levels
The Taj Mahal sits alongside the Yamuna river, a massive tributary that stretches almost 900 miles from the Himalayas (near Mussoorie), through New Delhi, and eventually through Agra. The stretch that passes by the Taj Mahal is one of the most polluted waterways in the world. There are around 90 industrial facilities in Agra alone that dump their sewage into the river. As a result, the fish population has greatly diminished, and so flies, mosquitos, and other insect populations (which fish usually consume) have run rampant. Their droppings are another huge reason for the slow deterioration of the Taj Mahal.
As populations have boomed in the surrounding areas, the Yamuna river has been diverted and dammed numerous times. What now flows by the building is just a trickling stream of what it used to be. Surprisingly, this has had ramifications on the building’s structural integrity. The foundation of the Taj Mahal was built with wooden planks which need to be submerged in water. As much of the wood has spent significant time above water, they have begun to splinter, crack, and break. In the 1980s, the pre-monsoon water was 49 feet below ground level. Today, according to the Uttar Pradesh government, the level hovers around 114 feet below ground level. Many of the planks are now exposed and losing their strength.
Attempted Government Regulations
Back in the 1980s after years of activism from the environmental community, the Supreme Court of India drew up a list of measures to mitigate the impacts of pollution. Industries were ordered to only use natural gas, a ban was placed on diesel fuel and coal, and doing laundry in the nearby river was also outlawed. There was even a “special exclusion area” set up in the miles surrounding the Taj Mahal which kept heavy industry at a distance.
Unfortunately, nothing changed. Diesel-operated cars and industries keep chugging along, toxic elements continue to go airborne, and there has even been a local movement with the slogan “Remove Taj, Save Industry.”
It’s clear that when considering the deterioration of the Taj Mahal, the roadblocks to maintenance and preservation have to do with the implementation of laws. The science is there, the government decrees are there, but it’s the enforcement that struggles to gain traction. Several committees have been formed to tackle waste management, but many local residents are not optimistic. Unless true action is taken, it’s possible that the Taj Mahal could end up in shambles.