A refinery of troubles
The controversy began in 1973 as a debate over the suitability of setting up the Mathura refinery (MR) about 40 km from Taj Mahal. Successive expert committees have, since then, defeated all efforts to put the MR on the pollution map of Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ). The first Varadarajan Committee of 1977 (the 1994 committee was the second), with the help of studies conducted by NEERI and Teneco of Italy, had found that existing levels of pollution in TTZ were within limits and that long-term impact of MR on Agra's air quality was negligible.
The issue surfaced again in 1978 when a joint parliamentary committee headed by Karan Singh strongly opposed clearance to MR. Then it was the turn of the M G K Menon committee (1979) to give the refinery a clean chit. The MR was finally commissioned in 1982 With a few design modifications. Within two years, S02 around the Tai increased three-fold, in spite of measures like closure of coal-based thermal power plants, dieselisation of the railway shunting yard and relocation of local foundries, along with a total ban on starting any new fossil fuel consuming industries in TTZ. Instead, acute power shortage in Agra led to the proliferation of diesel gensets and pumps which became a major source of pollution.
The current annual mean level of S02 is said to have reached the 30 pg/m3 mark, the critical limit set by the Central Pollution Control Board, while NOx has been on the decline over the last several years. On the other hand, suspended particulate matter amounts have always been above the prescribed limit of 100 pg/m3, sometimes reaching upto 500 pg/m3.
Who is to blame? The problem before NEERI was different from that confronting the earlier 'expert' committees in the sense that today, high pollution levels in TTZ are as real as the existence of MR or the (virtual) nonexistence of power supply in the region. However, NEERI's answer has not been any different. The MR could continue, but the smaliscale industries must go. This is inspite of NEERI's own admission that smalIscale industry has not grown at all since 1977, when NEERI had found the levels of pollution to be well within limits ironically, one of the main arguments used in the '70s for the location of MR was that it would boost industrial development in the region. H N Bahuguna, the then petroleum minister, made a statement to this effect in the Parliament. Today, however, no political party seems to ask the question as to why the existing smallscale industries have to face a death sentence.