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Air pollution affecting India’s glistening Golden Temple

It's unclear how much replacing the gold plating would cost, but it would surely be high

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Golden Temple, Amritsar Image: Wikimedia commons
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The chronic air pollution blanketing much of northern India is now threatening the holiest shrine in the Sikh religion, making the once-gleaming walls of the Golden Temple dingy and dull.

There is little to be done short of replacing the 430-year-old temple’s gold-plated walls — an expensive project already undertaken more than a century ago and then again in 1999.

To cut down on pollution, environmentalists and religious leaders have launched a campaign that includes persuading farmers to stop burning spent crops to clear their fields, removing industry from the area and cutting back on traffic. A community kitchen called a “langar” that serves up to 100,000 people free meals every day at the temple is also switching from burning wood to cooking with gas.

But so far the campaign hasn’t had much impact, with change happening slowly and still no pollution monitoring equipment installed.

“As far as pollution goes, we are paying attention,” said Jaswant Singh, environmental engineer at the State Pollution Control Board, a government regulatory authority. “We are in the process of procuring equipment so that we can check the pollution area, pollution from every source on a day-to-day basis.”

Golden Sikh  Temple, Amritsar. Image: VOA
Image: VOA

Indian Sikh devotees clean the tank early in the morning at the Golden Temple, on the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru in Amritsar, India. The chronic air pollution is now threatening the holiest shrine in the Sikh religion making the once-gleaming walls of the Golden Temple dingy and dull.

Related article: Is it right for Sikhs to oppose the inclusion of Golden Temple in World Heritage Site list?

Officials have also banned burning trash or cooking with certain fuels in restaurants and communities nearby, but enforcement so far remains weak. The city also wants to build an electricity station to stop people from using diesel-fueled generators, but Singh could not say when that might happen.
“The pollution degrading the Golden Temple is growing,” said environmental activist Gunbir Singh, who heads a group called Eco Amritsar. “We need to do a hell of a lot of work to protect the holy city status of this city.”

It’s unclear how much replacing the gold plating would cost, but it would surely be high.

“This is gold. The cost would be huge, but still would not be a problem,” Gunbir Singh said, suggesting Sikh devotees would rally behind the cause if needed. “Most of the activity that goes on there is based on donations — people will take off their bangles and rings and leave them if work needs to be done.”

Thousands of Sikh devotees and tourists every day visit Amritsar, the main city in Punjab state, to see the 17th century shrine, surrounded by a moat known as the “pool of nectar,” or “Sarovar,” and housing the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. Most of the world’s 27 million Sikhs, whose monotheistic religion originated in Punjab in the 15th century, live in India.

The country suffers some of the world’s worst air pollution, thanks to a heavy reliance on burning coal for electricity, diesel in cars and power generators, and kerosene and cow dung for cooking and lighting homes. Heavy construction amid a decade-long economic boom has also kicked up huge clouds of dust, and farmers still regularly clear their fields with fire, sending even more black carbon into the air.

The capital of New Delhi was named by the WHO as the world’s most polluted city, while Amritsar — about 390 kilometers (240 km) to the north — was ranked India’s ninth most polluted.

The Golden Temple is not the only major monument to be affected by pollution. The white marbled Taj Mahal has also become dirty from pollution from the nearby city of Agra, and every few years, workers from the Archaological Survey of India place mud packs on its walls to keep them from turning yellow and brown.

But many across the country remain unaware of the risks in breathing unhealthy air, even as scientists warn it is sickening countless Indians every year. About 1.4 million Indians were killed by illnesses related to air pollution in 2013, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of British Colombia, in Vancouver.

That tally will only rise unless pollution levels are drastically curbed, experts have said. Instead, the pollution is getting worse, according to NASA satellite images revealing particulate matter in the air. An analysis last month by the environmental group Greenpeace showed the overall concentration of PM2.5 — the tiny lung-clogging particulate matter suspended in the air — increasing 13 percent from 2010 to 2015.

With pollution fast damaging the Golden Temple, some in the Sikh heartland said they were reminded of their religious duty to protect nature.

“Our holy book teaches us that the air is the teacher, the water is the father and the earth is the mother. So we have to be mindful of all the elements of nature as true Sikhs,” the environmentalist Gunbir Singh said.

Authorities plan to ban vehicles from the area immediately surrounding the shrine. “Even the devotees will have to come on foot,” said Harcharan Singh, who heads the Shrimoni Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee, which oversees the six major Sikh temples across India.

But efforts have been slow, and officials admit so far incomplete.

Sikh preacher Baba Sewa Singh said he and his devotees have tried to help mitigate the pollution threat by planting more than 100,000 trees in the region.

“If anyone asks about the saplings,” he said, “we plant then for free in their villages.” (VOA)

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  • Akanksha Sharma

    It is very disappointing that the pollution created by us is affecting our health adversely and destroying our heritage and our own creations.

  • Akanksha Sharma

    It is very disappointing that pollution created by us not only affecting our health but also destroying our heritage.

  • Akanksha Sharma

    It is very disappointing that the pollution created by us is affecting our health adversely and destroying our heritage and our own creations.

  • Akanksha Sharma

    It is very disappointing that pollution created by us not only affecting our health but also destroying our heritage.

Next Story

Maharashtra’s climate action plan yielded disappointments

Broadly speaking, the plan discusses the impact of climate change on six sectors -- agriculture, water resources, health, forests and biodiversity, livelihoods, and energy and infrastructure.

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Climate action plans were not up to the mark. Pixabay
Climate action plans were not up to the mark. Pixabay
  • The Maharashtra climate action plan yields huge disappointments as it failed to recognize crucial issues in its implementation.
  • The issues like air pollution and damage through thunderstorms and lightening were ignored.
  • The plan only focused on six major factors.

Mumbai, Jan 1: Eight years after the Centre’s direction to formulate a state action plan on climate change, and seven years after awarding the contract for a comprehensive vulnerability assessment study, the Maharashtra cabinet has finally adopted a plan on climate change.

Titled ‘Assessing Climate Change Vulnerability and Adaptation Strategies for Maharashtra: Maharashtra State Action Plan on Climate Change, and prepared by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), the action plan assesses vulnerability of the state to changing climate and outlines broad and ambitious strategies for building a climate-resilient future.

Rice Farm, Farming, Agriculture, Farm
Action plan focuses on 6 major factors, including agriculture. Pixabay

The action plan, built on high resolution modelling for which TERI entered into a partnership with the UK Met Office, projects changes in temperature and rainfall across the state at a resolution of about 25 km by 25 km for time periods 2030s, 2050s and 2070s — with the average climate during 1970-2000 as the model’s baseline.

An important component of the action plan is the Macro Level Vulnerability Index based on 19 indicators, which has identified the most vulnerable districts in Maharashtra: Nandurbar is the most climate change-vulnerable district, followed by Dhule and Buldhana. Satara is regarded as the least vulnerable district. Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg are also considered less vulnerable to changes in the climate. The state government has announced setting up a panel of experts to oversee the implementation of the report.

India, Mumbai, Bombay, Tourism
Issues related to thunderstorm and lightening were not taken into consideration. Pixabay

But, meteorologists and environment experts aren’t satisfied with the action plan. “The state has taken considerable time to come up with its adaptation plan on climate change. But the plan misses out on some crucial weather events, such as thunderstorm and lightning, that are linked to climatic changes. Air pollution, an important environment factor, is also missing from the plan,” said Akshay Deoras, Nagpur-based meteorologist.

Ashok Jaswal, former scientist with the India Meteorological Department (IMD), Pune, stresses that an effective state action plan should include all direct and indirect climatic parameters.

“Air pollutants are aerosols and have their own different properties. Some are salt-based, whereas others are carbon-based, or dust, or smoke. Some reflect solar radiation, whereas others trap heat,” he said. “These aerosols influence cloud formation, rainfall and the overall climate, and must be a part of the state action plan on climate change.”

Broadly speaking, the plan discusses the impact of climate change on six sectors — agriculture, water resources, health, forests and biodiversity, livelihoods, and energy and infrastructure. It also makes projections for rainfall and temperature in the state; and assesses the future sea level rise. A section in the plan is dedicated to extreme rainfall, flooding and adaptation in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region.

The document shows that temperature and rainfall are projected to increase all over the state with some regional variations. Amravati division (Vidarbha region) and Aurangabad division (Marathwada region) are going to experience greater rise in annual mean temperatures than other parts of the state.

The projected increase in annual mean temperature for Amravati is expected to be 1.44-1.64 degree C, 2.2-2.35 degree C, and 3.06-3.46 degree C in 2030s, 2050s and 2070s, respectively. For the same time periods, the projected annual mean temperature increase for Aurangabad division is 1.44-1.56 degree C, 2.15-2.3 degree C, and 3.14-3.38 degree C, respectively. An increase in temperature is likely to lead to a decrease in yields for some crops, such as rice, sorghum and cotton.

Minimum temperature is also projected to increase, particularly in the divisions of Konkan, Pune and Nashik, which could have an adverse impact on crops sensitive to high night temperatures in the reproductive phase, such as grain growth in rice or tuberisation in potatoes, warns the state action plan.

The government's efforts came up short. Pixabay
The government’s efforts came up short. Pixabay

The action plan notes that an increase in temperature will be conducive to malaria-transmitting mosquitoes in eastern and coastal (Thane and Raigad regions) Maharashtra in 2030s. By the 2050s, a faster rate of parasite development will take place in Aurangabad, Jalna and Nashik districts.

Since a warmer atmosphere has a higher capacity to hold water vapour, it will lead to intense rainfall events with longer dry or low rainfall spells in between. Extreme rainfall is projected to increase in all regions of the state with greater increases in the northern parts of the state.

Meanwhile, parts of south-central Maharashtra are projected to experience more dry days in the 2030s as compared to the baseline. These districts of Marathwada are already prone to recurring droughts and infamous for farmers’ suicides.

“The findings… clearly describe the adverse impacts of climate change on all regions of the state. The report shows the worrying trend of an increase in extreme weather events and heavy precipitation days,” said Parineeta Dandekar, associate co-ordinator of the South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

“Increased rainfall will lead to heavy flooding, which will have a direct bearing on the state’s water infrastructure. But, the action plan fails to elaborate upon ways to manage the water infrastructure in times of climate change.”

Lightning is listed as a state-specific disaster in Maharashtra, but the state action plan makes no mention of lightning, which is linked to climatic changes. “Rising temperature means more evaporation and high moisture content in the atmosphere, which leads to more thunderstorm activity and an increased incidence of lightning,” explained Jaswal.

A recent study, ‘Distribution of Lightning Casualities over Maharashtra’, has examined lightning deaths in the state between 1979 and 2011 and found 2,363 casualties from 455 lighting events. On an average 72 casualties per year have been reported with significant increasing trend.

“It is shocking that in spite of so many lives being lost each year due to lightning, the state action plan does not even mention the terms thunderstorm and lightning. Unless the plan acknowledges these weather events, how will the state government manage such disasters?” questioned Deoras.

The action plan does take note of the adverse impacts of hailstorm on horticulture crops in the state. For instance, it notes that hailstorms destroyed the grape crop in 2008-09. In 2010, almost 15 percent of the orange crop was destroyed due to rising heat and untimely hailstorm. But it fails to provide pointed information on ways to minimise impact on crops.

The action plan also makes no mention of air pollution. “Not including air pollution in the state climate action plan is a major drawback and the same must be rectified at the earliest,” said Jaswal.

Dandekar stresses on the need for translating action points into swift action. “The recommendations should not remain on paper, but must be included in the various state policies for immediate implementation,” she said. Deoras recommends setting up of a committee to reframe the action plan, by including the above-mentioned points, and then working towards the plan’s implementation by providing specific directions. IANS