NEW DELHI - India’s iconic Taj Mahal is battling a new threat – swarms of insects that are proliferating in the heavily contaminated waters of the Yamuna River, which flows behind the 17th century monument. Officials say the bugs settle on ledges and leave behind poop which is staining the pearl white marble of the monument with green patches.
“During the evening time they get attracted towards the white surface of the Taj Mahal and during the night they stay over there and leave those green deposits,” says Bhuvan Vikram, the top official at the Archeological Survey of India in the northern city of Agra, where the Taj is located.
Although workers clean the droppings, experts fear the heavy doses of scrubbing could damage the delicate inlay work that embellishes the Taj Mahal.
Recent discovery of the problem
Vikram explained that they first encountered the problem last year but only recently identified the cause – a type of elongated fly known as the genus Geoldichironomus.
“We found they are breeding in the brackish water of the river which is heavily contaminated,” he said. The insects thrive in the hot weather in the algae that has deposited on the sides of the river.
Environmentalists have struggled for years to protect the white marble of the monument from turning yellow due to high levels of air pollution in Agra – a crowded, industrial city that once served as the capital of the Mughal dynasty.
While air pollution levels dropped after coal-based power plants and some polluting industries were shut down, the waters of the Yamuna river have not improved.
Yamura river is the source of the insects
Environmental campaigners like D.K. Joshi, who is based in Agra, said the key to warding off the latest threat is to revive the dying river. He has filed a petition with the National Green Tribunal, an environmental court.
Joshi said the Yamuna is choking from the effluents of 52 open drains in the city that empty into the river.
“Hazardous waste, industrial waste, solid waste, all this empties into the river. Millions of dollars has been spent to clean the river, but nothing has happened,” he said.
Ash from cremations adds to the problem
Experts say ash deposits from a 200 year-old cremation ground in the vicinity of the Taj Mahal are worsening the problem because they are the primary source of food for this particular insect.
Six months ago, the Supreme Court asked city authorities to relocate the crematorium – there have also been alarm bells about smoke from the funeral pyres discoloring the marble. That has not happened so far and protests from a Hindu group prompted city authorities to say they will encourage people to use the more environmentally- friendly electric cremation method.
Joshi is confident that cleaning the Yamuna can be achieved with a short term program. “Stop the sewage from going into the river, improve its flow. It is not difficult, but the will power is not there,” he said.
Vikram of ASI is hopeful that the latest menace to the Taj Mahal from insects will get attention of the city authorities whose task it is to clean the river.
His other worry is the huge pressure that the steady rise in tourism puts on the monument – six million domestic and foreign tourists visited the Taj in 2014. “So much is the amount of dirt that it creates, these are the hazards of tourism. The tourists, they like to touch the surfaces, for that we are trying to provide some kind of separators,” Vikram said.