The Sinking of the Taj Mahal

One of India’s most enduring symbols, the Taj Mahal at Agra, could sink as a result of damage to its supporting structure if the depletion and drying of the Yamuna River continues, experts and activists fear.

Built by Mughal emperor Shah Jehan in memory of his beloved wife Mumtaj, the marble mausoleum is propped on an ebony wood base that needs moisture to retain its strength. The nearby Yamuna River was meant to provide such moisture and is integral to the structure’s life. But pollution is taking a toll on the once-pure river that runs along the northern plains.

Shah Jehan and the architects of the monument could never have envisaged the drying of the Yamuna. Its pristine waters originate in the Himalayas and flow through New Delhi in the heart of the country. Like other rivers in India, it is integral to the culture and life of people along its path. But over time, dams, and canals have restricted the water flow, while deforestation has led to soil erosion and blockages.

The main damage is caused by the drawing of water for industrial purposes and use by the growing populations of Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. The unplanned industrialization and urbanization also has resulted in sewage, waste and poisonous material being spewed back into the river.

The undermining has continued despite the Yamuna Action Plan, which was launched two decades ago with help from Japan with the aim of restoring the river. Today, nearly 60 % of Delhi’s sewage continues to be dumped into the river rendering the Yamuna little more than a “drain.”

On a recent visit to Agra, this writer found that the river was a trickle of viscous dark grey in which it would be hard to imagine any aquatic life surviving. The biggest threat is the fact that the river dries up completely at Agra during the summer months.

The Times of India reported recently that a Save Taj campaign is gathering strength as a result of alarm over the possible undermining of the building’s foundations. Environmentalists, activists, politicians and businessmen have joined the campaign to bring the threat to the Taj to a wider audience.

Last month, the Member of Parliament from Agra, R S Katheria of the Bharatiya Janata Party, led a delegation to President Pratibha Patil in New Delhi and apprised her of the situation.

The group pressed for “a decent water level in Yamuna’’ to save the Taj from permanent damage, the Times reported. They have asked that the basement underpinnings of the Taj be inspected by independent agencies and the findings made public.

The official Archaeological Survey of India is the only body authorized to access the underground chambers. The ASI insists that all is well, but activists counter that official agencies have a poor track record in India of owning up to mistakes and often only move when matters reach a crisis point or the media demand investigations.

A recent book by social activist Professor R Nath, “Taj Mahal History and Architecture,” claims that the drying of the Yamuna will weaken and crack the wood on which the Taj stands, making the entire edifice unstable.

The river’s deterioration, of course, is just one of many environmental issues that India faces in the absence of planned development and the country’s reckless approach to the environment.

Environmentalists cite mounting problem areas, from illegal mining in mountain ranges such as the Aravali Hills to rampant deforestation, ground water depletion and the pollution of numerous river systems, including the sacred Ganges, which was once thought by Hindus to be self-cleaning.

Environment minister Jairam Ramesh has surprised many by taking on numerous big corporations and entrenched interests in recent years on a number of fronts, including the rights of minorities to their ancestral lands in the face of mining claims. His battles with the powerful Vedanta mining group and others have caught the public imagination, and in 2010 he was named India’s Person of the Year by Forbes Magazine.

He and others are criticized by business interests for hindering India’s growth and pro-green critics say that Ramesh needs to establish a strong institutional framework if his work is to have a lasting impact on the movement for sustainable development.

In Agra, the worry is clear: India needs to protect the Taj. While regulations have been put in place to ensure that pollution from factories and cars is minimized in the vicinity of the Taj, the city of Agra itself continues to suffer from chronic overcrowding, bad roads, power outrages and inadequate sewage systems.

The city remains a global tourist hub due to the Taj and Agra Fort, which provides a beautiful view of the monument nestled on the river bank. Yet unless urgent action is taken, time could run out for India’s – and the world’s ‑ symbol of eternal love.