Democracy saves Taj

Indian visitors to China are overwhelmed by skyscrapers, flyovers and expressways. China is leaving India far behind. Yet, in one unexpected respect, India is far ahead.

Both countries have a proud architectural heritage. India’s pride is the Taj Mahal, a poetry in marble. Beijing’s pride is its imperial palace, the Forbidden City, replete with ornate pavilions interspersed with marble bridges and carvings.

I was awed by its beauty when I first saw it in 1988. I visited the Forbidden City again this summer, and was aghast at the change since 1988. The marble has turned grey, with black and brown encrustations.

The stone seems diseased with leucoderma. The marble is corroded and encrusted by acid rain.

Former Prime Minister Zhu Rongji said in 1999 that the Beijing air shortened life by five years. China has 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world.

Coal-fired power stations spew sulphur dioxide and soot into the air, and millions of new vehicles spew nitrous oxide. A quarter of the country suffers from acid rain.

The WHO norm for safe air is 50 mcg of sulphur dioxide and 40 mcg of nitrous oxide per cubic metre of air. But Beijing has 90 and 122 mcg respectively of these two pollutants, which corrode and discolour the Forbidden City.

Now, India is very polluted too. Its rivers and canals often run black with untreated sewage and industrial slime. Of all the cities listed in the World Development Indicators 2004, Delhi has the highest suspended particulate matter (187 mcg against Beijing’s 106 mcg and the WHO norm of 90 mcg per cubic metre).

India has many laws to combat pollution, but its third-rate administration is too weak and corrupt to enforce laws.

China, by contrast, has a strong administration. Yet, it has failed to check the corrosion of the Forbidden City, while India’s weak system has managed to preserve the Taj. How so?

Because India has a lively civil society and independent judiciary. In the 1970s, citizens raised an alarm about the possible impact of the Mathura Refinery on the Taj.

Newspaper articles declared that the Taj could be turned black by sulphur pollution from the refinery. I thought then that this was just a figure of speech. But after seeing the Forbidden City this month, I know better.

Public interest litigation brought the courts into the saving of the Taj. Official investigations began, and threw new light on the situation. The main threat to the Taj came not from the Mathura Refinery but from foundries and steam locomotives in Agra itself.

Relentless environmentalist and judicial pressure led to the removal of the foundries and steam locos from Agra, in the face of resistance from industrialists, politicians and trade unions wanting to protect jobs.

Stringent curbs were imposed on emission from the Mathura Refinery. This was not a victory of democracy in the conventional sense of empowering elected politicians.

Most politicians were reluctant to sacrifice jobs in Agra. But they were overwhelmed by NGOs and judicial activism, which are more important ingredients of democracy than most people realise.

Environmentalists and courts are helping revive Delhi too. Some years ago, aircraft could not land here in January because of pollution. The Australian cricket team refused to play a scheduled match because the polluted air was a health hazard.

But now air pollution has been reduced by court orders to run all buses and three-wheelers on CNG. Let us not get euphoric: the winter fog remains bad. Yet, the marble in Humayun’s Tomb and the Bahai Temple look safe.

By contrast, the Forbidden City keeps deteriorating because there is no public protest in China. Dictatorship chokes civil society and the courts. Few Indians realise it, but the Taj has been saved by democracy.

What do you think?