At the very last minute, his predecessor, Barrack Obama, had to cancel his trip to the Taj Mahal during his India visit in 2015, and rush to Saudi Arabia at the news of King Abdullah’s passing. But POTUS 45 managed to fit the trip into his schedule today and will visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site, with first lady Melania and daughter Ivanka, en route to Delhi.
Trump’s visit is a blessing in disguise to an Agra that was craving for a beautification drive, which has happened over last week at breakneck speed (read: floral saplings planted on road dividers, shops given a fresh coat of paint and new hoardings, and even paan stains vehemently scrubbed off public dustbins) But larger environmental concerns continue to corrode the Makrana marble of the edified 17th-century love story that continues to warm the cockles of one’s heart. This despite, a 10,400 sq km Taj Trapezium Zone’ (TTZ) being implemented in 1996 after a Supreme Court order acted on 1984 Writ Petition filed by attorney MC Mehta to save Taj from yellowing under polluting emissions from industries and vehicles, and application of the age-old beauty secret – multani mitti (Fullers Earth) – to the façade, dragging on from 2017.
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Convener Ram Pratap Singh (RPS) and Co-Convener Rajiv Saxena (RS) of INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art & Cultural Heritage), Agra Chapter helm the Tourism Guild of Agra – an apex body of over 70 members from Agra’s Tourism & Hospitality segments. Last week, the board organised a Media & Bloggers tour around Agra titled ‘Agra Beyond Taj’ which is also INTACH’s primary mandate, ie the conservation of other protected monuments, given that the focus of ASI [Archaeological Survey of India] is on the Taj and Agra’s other crown jewels. The two gentlemen, however, have a lot to say about why the Taj Mahal and The Yamuna it stands on continue to ail, and offer possible solutions. Excerpts:
Is the green belt around the Taj Mahal still being implemented?
RS: After MC Mehta’s intervening in the Supreme Court, 60kms around the Taj Mahal, was declared as Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ), which it still is. The SC also said Agra needed a circular driven road so gasoline-driven traffic could not enter Agra and excess carbonised fumes were left at the outer periphery. Brick kilns, iron industry, foundries, shoe tanneries all were moved out of this green belt. It became a huge thing as people in Agra were losing jobs because of Taj Mahal.
But each time the governments changed, the long-term blueprint by the SC of the green belt around Taj Mahal was also tempered. Now, you have the Kalakriti [Cultural Centre popular for its Bollywood-ish Mohabbat the Taj musical] and a few hotels sitting on this green belt and there are still air-conditioning fumes. The high AQI levels puts off the modern-day tourist. Suspended Particulate Matter [SPM] is the biggest trouble because it is sandblasting Taj Mahal’s surface… Now, the ASI will do a clay packing of the Taj. We had suggested the water-vapour treatment – a technique invented in the US, which cleaned up the monuments and cathedrals in Italy. But ASI has its own chemical brands, it takes the approval from National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) .
Was it disapproved because it’s a costlier technique?
RPS: No. ASI is possibly the most archived organisation in terms of their regulations and laws that have not been amended since 1919. To bring in any change, they have to approach the Parliament.
Any other issues?
RPS: The number of visitors. For a few months we’ll have huge numbers, which then suddenly drops. So, we can’t issue a blanket ban and say we won’t allow beyond X number of tourists. Our aim is that someone staying in Agra for 2-3 days shouldn’t make multiple visits to the Taj Mahal because there’s so much more to see. Back then, life was on the Yamuna. In William Dalrymple’s Begums, Thugs and White Mughals… he describes one scene during Shah Jahan’s time where the noblemen living on the riverfront would compete with each other in who lit up their haveli the best. But one part of this lifeline with the havelis on the side of the Agra Fort was demolished by the British to build a road, followed by a factory.
RS: Back then, the riverfront gardens were only accessible through boats, the river was the thoroughfare as there were narrow roads, and boats were faster even while going upstream. Today, we’ve been lobbying for more water in the river. Don’t build a dam, but create an eco-system with an inflatable rubber dam structure and offer boat trips to guests.
RPS: Under the Namami Gange ministry [an Integrated Conservation Mission by the Union government to clean Ganga], what we had been lobbying for is that you can’t clean the Ganga unless you clean the Yamuna and all the tributaries, which even the central government has accepted.
RS: When you clean one river, it automatically generates fire in the belly of the common man to clean other rivers, along with the awareness of how to do so. If there’s enough clean water in the Yamuna, it will recharge the foundations of the Taj, which are wood-based and rotting due to the declining river.
How deep is the wooden foundation?
RS: It was about 46-feet deep from the riverbed. And the riverbed, what you see, was not the original; it has at least come up at least 15 feet, which is not a good sign. So today, the foundations are nearly 60 feet. Without the foundation and the river, the Taj Mahal will not exist.