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Above: Solid waste management around the monument is a concern for environmentalists/Photo: UNI

Despite being rapped on the knuckles by courts, the UP government has done little to ameliorate the pollution crisis in this area, leading the NGT to impose a performance guarantee of Rs 25 crore on it

By Atul Chandra in Lucknow

Despite the Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal (NGT) keeping a close watch, the Taj Mahal, the monument of love, is fighting a losing battle against pollution due to the callous and corrupt ways of agencies responsible for protecting it.

The NGT found the situation in the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ) “grave” and recently imposed a performance guarantee of Rs 25 crore on the Uttar Pradesh government to ensure proper management of solid waste in the area around the monument.

The Taj Trapezium Zone is an area of about 10,400 km spread over the districts of Agra, Firozabad, Hathras, Mathura and Etah in Uttar Pradesh and Bharatpur in Rajasthan.

Slamming the state government for its failure to curb open dumping and garbage burning, a bench headed by NGT Chairman Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel said: “Mere passing of orders by the Tribunal are of no value unless the same are faithfully executed. The authorities have not been fully successful in their performance of duties to protect the environment.”

“In view of the grave situation affecting public health in a big way and the failure of authorities in discharging their duties, we direct the State of UP to furnish a performance guarantee of Rs 25 crore to comply with timelines in the action plan to be submitted,” the Bench ordered.

The NGT also directed the government to fix accountability on polluters and non-performing officials and added that “damages can be recovered not only from polluters but state functionaries who collude with polluters”. The state authorities concerned, the NGT Bench said, “may take steps to recover appropriate compensation from the identified polluters in accordance with law and furnish an action taken report within three months”. The state chief secretary has been directed to be personally present before the Tribunal on March 12.

This is not the first time the NGT has pulled up authorities in this regard. In October 2018, a bench headed by Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel had described the drinking water sewerage, drainage system and solid waste disposal in Agra as “shocking”. He had then formed a three-member committee comprising the chairman of the Central Pollution Control Board, a nominee of the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and the district magistrate of Agra to find out the factual position.

The state government had then informed the Court that the “problem of drinking water supply, sewerage drainage system and solid waste disposal had been considered and instructions issued”. About sewerage, the state government’s statement was that “514 km sewer line has been laid and 336 km remains, while nine sewerage treatment plants are operating as on date”. On solid waste disposal, it said that 19 drains were proposed to be diverted to sewage treatment plants. The government also informed the Court that there was a waste to compost plant which was in operation for disposal of municipal solid waste.

Going by the imposition of this hefty performance guarantee, the state government failed to change the ground reality regarding pollution from sewage and solid waste. According to data released by the Central Pollution Control Board, the air quality continued to deteriorate in Agra and was in the “very poor” category some days after the fact-finding committee was constituted. A member of the Supreme Court monitoring committee assisting the three-member NGT panel told a newspaper that solid waste was being burned in the open.

Air and water pollution around the Taj Mahal due to lack of proper solid waste management has been an area of concern for environmentalists, the Supreme Court and the NGT. In June 2016, the NGT had restrained Agra civic authorities from burning municipal solid waste in the city and in the eco-sensitive TTZ.

The restraint order was passed by a bench headed by then NGT chairman Justice Swatanter Kumar on a plea filed by a green activist of Agra, DK Joshi. The plaintiff claimed that a joint study by IIT-Kanpur, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Wisconsin found that “brown and black carbons along with dust” was turning the white-marble monument yellow. The plea said that “subsequent to the report the parliamentary standing committee on environment passed several directions to the Agra administration to curb pollution in the city. According to a study carried out by Ajay Nagpure, the burning of municipal solid waste releases a high amount of particulate matter (PM 10 and PM 2.5), which is responsible for damaging the aesthetics of a culturally important monument, like the Taj Mahal”.

The plea argued that civic bodies in Agra were daily dumping more than 2,000 metric tonnes of solid waste in different parts of the city in blatant violation of the Solid Waste Management Rules. The large-scale burning of this solid waste released high levels of particulate matter which was posing a threat to the beauty of the monument, the plaintiff said.

That the state government continues to neglect the monument, which some BJP leaders claim to be a temple and was once described by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath as a symbol of Mughal invasion, despite occasional raps from the NGT and the Supreme Court, is a cause of worry.

On July 11 last year, the apex court had lashed out at the state government for its apathy towards the Taj Mahal. Following this, the government filed a draft report of its vision document on protection and preservation of the monument. Besides some other suggestions, the document advocated closing down all polluting industries in the region and declaring the TTZ as a no-plastic zone, with no plastic water bottles in the Taj precincts.

The Supreme Court had earlier told the government that while preparing the vision document, it should “take a larger perspective on issues of pollution and green cover” as there won’t be a “second chance” to preserve the monument. A three-judge bench headed by Justice Madan B Lokur said that the Taj Mahal was the “centrepiece” and there was also a need to protect the forest cover, the Yamuna and the grounds.

When the project coordinator for the vision document, Prof Meenakshi Dhote, pointed out that her team had not been given correct data on the polluting industries in the TTZ, the judges said that if the government gave incorrect data to the panel, “it will come up with an incorrect vision document. If Taj Mahal goes, you will not get a second chance to retrieve it”.

As far as waste disposal is concerned, the situation in the state capital, Lucknow, and other districts is no better. According to the chairman of the UP Solid Waste Management Monitoring Committee, which has been constituted by the NGT, the situation in Lucknow is dismal as not only sewage but also solid waste is flowing into the Gomti river.

Pollution, a source claimed, is a big money-spinner for unscrupulous bureaucrats and officials. Tackling the problem, whether in the TTZ or Lucknow, will be a big challenge.

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