Trouble over the Taj Mahal

  • 14/02/1998

Trouble over the Taj Mahal DOES a magazine like Down To Earth (DTE) have the right to critique the research of a "prestigious national institution" like the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute? NEERI, which belongs to the massive, government-funded CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) family does not appear to think that way.

With the environmental concern growing in India, NEERI has been called upon by the Supreme Court and various government agencies to investigate many contentious issues and its reports have formed the basis of several government decisions and court orders. A series of reports had been produced by NEERI for the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Supreme Court on the sources of pollution that could affect the Taj Mahal.

These reports played an important part in the decisions of these institutions. But when DTE correspondent, N Raghuram, found that many scientists, which included eminent environmental scientist and former deputy director of NEERI, J M Dave, and a retired professor of environmental sciences and a resident of Agra, S C Pandya, were not happy with the quality of NEERI"s report, he sought the permission of the editor to investigate this controversy.

I gave this permission because my position was a very simple and straightforward one. If India has to reconcile the conflict between industrialisation and environmental sustainability, its technological and other choices will necessarily have to be built on good science, so that the pain of industrial closure and joblessness is reduced to an absolute minimum.

Therefore, a magazine like DTE must bring to the attention of the public and decision-makers all such debates and controversies within the scientific community which deal with the quality of scientific advice. Moreover, DTE would not be doing anything unique by taking up this function. Leading scientific publications like Nature and Science do this all the time. We, therefore, published in our April 15, 1996 issue an article by N Raghuram entitled "The trouble with the trapezium".

NEERI reacted with anger and asked us either to apologise or publish a 20-page typed rejoinder. I took the position that there was no question of apologising but I would be quite happy to publish their rejoinder, as long as it was of reasonable length, together with our rebuttal. All this would be in the interest of a public debate on a very important issue. NEERI, however, decided to complain to the Press Council. My own letter to the director-general of CSIR, R A Mashelkar, arguing that the behaviour of NEERI did not reflect a "scientific temper" on the part of that institution went unreplied.

Let me give DTE readers an idea of what transpired at the hearing in front of the Press Council which did not last more than 45 minutes, as conveyed to us by our counsel. In view of the argument put forward by NEERI"s counsel, Justice P B Sawant asked whether it was NEERI"s contention that it could not be criticised. NEERI"s lawyer answered that NEERI was a government organisation and the report in question had been prepared by it after much hard work and it was very proud of it. While she did not say so explicitly, her suggestion clearly was that DTE had no business to criticise such a report.

In response, the members of the council made it very clear that merely the fact that NEERI had been criticised would not give it a cause of action against DTE. The members told NEERI"s counsel to advise NEERI to be more accepting of criticism since in scientific matters there could be a genuine difference of opinion and, ultimately, it is for the people to judge which is the correct view.

When further asked whether it was NEERI"s contention that DTE had alleged malafide intentions on the part of NEERI"s officers in preparing the report in question, her response was in the affirmative but she could not point out specific portions of the article which she found to be such. She did, however, point out to the contention in DTE"s article that NEERI had not scientifically measured the ambient air quality in Agra and that there was evidence to suggest that in some cases the instruments had been placed right inside the factories which generated a high reading. She showed NEERI"s report which provides the locations where the measurements had been made. But DTE"s counsel pointed out that the exact locations were indeed not given in the report. Only the general area was indicated.

In reply, the DTE counsel pointed out that DTE had definitely tried to present NEERI"s version in the article. But NEERI had contended that N Raghuram had distorted the statement of NEERI"s A L Aggarwal. However, our counsel pointed out that NEERI had not clearly stated what he had or had not said and, therefore, it was difficult to ascertain what distortion had been made. Moreover, he pointed out that the editor was quite happy to publish NEERI"s rejoinder as long as it was of reasonable length. Accordingly, the council asked NEERI to state their case in a concise manner so that it could be carried in DTE.

We are carrying below the reply of NEERI. Incidentally, the Press Council had asked NEERI that its reply should contain a reply by A L Aggarwal to the statements attributed to him in the DTE article. But no such reply was received. Nor does the point-by-point reply elaborate what he had said. Though the Press Council gave DTE the permission to publish its own rejoinder to this reply, I am refraining from doing so partly because readers can easily read the DTE article and NEERI"s reply to judge the differences in opinion themselves and partly because of space constraints. But if any reader wants our point-by-point reply, I will be happy to send them a copy.

I just want to respond to NEERI"s allegation that the editor has shown "vested interest" by publishing the article. In its first letter, NEERI had alleged that the editor has shown vested interest in the small-scale industries in the Taj Trapezium.

My simple reply to this is that I have a vested interest in not just small-scale industries of the Taj Trapezium but in all industries of India. I am all in favour of India"s industrialisation as long as it is in harmony with environmental conservation. Which brings me back to the same old point. That this reconciliation will need good scientific advice.

Readers can see for themselves the intemperate language used by NEERI in its reply.

- Editor

In NEERI"s words…
THE Ministry of Environment and Forests (MEF), Government of India, sponsored a project for the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur, in November 1992, for a period of six months at the cost of Rs 15.80 lakh for conducting studies to redefine Taj Trapezium (TTZ) coordinates in the Agra-Mathura region. The institute submitted the following report to the ministry in July 1993:

Air Pollution Studies on the Taj Trapezium (This contained the status of ambient air quality current emission scenarios and the predicted ambient air pollutant concentrations in and around the growth centres in the region, and an effective air quality management plan to protect all sensitive receptors within the redefined trapezium, including the Taj Mahal.)

NEERI also submitted the following reports to the Supreme Court (SC) on its directions:

Precision and accuracy checks of ambient air monitoring systems at Mathura Refinery - September 1993

Report on sulphur dioxide emission control measures at Mathura Refinery - October 1993

Technical report on issues associated with fuel supply, alternatives for industries in Agra-Mathura Region - March 1994

Inspection of air pollution control devices in Taj Trapezium - April 1994.

All these reports have been defended by NEERI in the SC on February 20, 1996.

The article published in Down To Earth criticises NEERI and holds that the SC"s directives in Taj Mahal case are based on an inaccuracy-ridden NEERI report. The replies to the allegations levelled against the Institute are summarised below:

In Report-a NEERI has identified all sources of air pollution, and quantified and apportioned the pollution load being generated from various sources. This report is based on field surveys and secondary data obtained from government agencies. No source, in particular, has been brought out as the sole polluter. The studies were carried out with the objective of redefining the Trapezium, as per the terms of reference assigned by the MEF. There is, also, no recommendation on shifting of small-scale industries out of TTZ, as alleged.

It is alleged that the Varadarajan Committee was appointed in 1994 following the criticism of the scientific validity of NEERI"s report. In fact, the Varadarajan Committee was appointed by the MEF as per directives of the SC to obtain another opinion. Supreme Court records bear testimony to this fact. It is alleged that the Varadarajan Committee ruled out pollution related damage to the monuments and that NEERI has attempted to bail out the Mathura Refinery (MR) and target the local small-scale industries. The Varadarajan Committee Report - 1977 had predicted maximum ground-level sulphur dioxide (SO2) concentrations in the range of 2.5 to 7 microgrammes per cubic metre (