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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.

SHARE
  • 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.

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Air Pollution Worsens In Western Balkan Cities

Activists say the funds allocated are insufficient and that the government's response is inadequate.

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Smog, Air pollution
General view of the city as smog blankets Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. VOA

When winter arrives in the Western Balkans, it is not unusual for dense smog to envelop its cities, making it hard to breathe and impairing visibility. But this year, air pollution levels are among the highest in the world and public anger is on the rise.

In recent days, the Bosnian, Macedonian and Kosovar capitals topped the charts of the world’s most polluted cities as the smog intensified due to heavy traffic, excessive use of coal, poor spatial planning and solid fuel based heating.

The air quality index measured by the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo hit 383 on Tuesday, a level identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as hazardous to health and almost 10 times the average. In Pristina, the index registered 415 on Monday night and marked air quality in several Macedonian towns as very poor.

“This is all the result of a situation in which political elites treat the city as a construction plot which should be occupied at all costs rather than a place where people live,” Anes Podic of Sarajevo’s Eko Akcija environmental group said.

global warming, air pollution, Asia
The sun is seen through evening air pollution, Feb. 8, 2018. VOA

“You can feel how bad the air smells even inside the car or home,” said a taxi driver Mirsad Pobric.

According to the WHO, pollution costs Bosnia the equivalent of more than a fifth of its annual gross domestic product (GDP) every year — around $3.9 billion — in lost work and school days, healthcare and fuel costs.

Macedonia loses an equivalent of 3.2 percent of GDP a year to pollution, the World Bank said in a report, more than$360 million a year.

As a way of bringing more attention to the issue, the Embassy of Sweden has been using red lighting on its facade in central Sarajevo to reflect air quality each day. The deeper the red, the worse the pollution.

According to the WHO, 230 Bosnians die of air pollution per 100,000 citizens a year, compared to 0.4 in Sweden. The World Bank estimates that in Macedonia there are 1,350 deaths related to air pollution per year.

Air pollution
Sweden has launched a four-year project in Bosnia that will bring together experts from its Environmental Protection Agency .Wikimedia Commons

“Pollution is killing people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, therefore something really needs to be done,” Swedish Ambassador Anders Hagelberg told Reuters.

As part of efforts to combat the issue, Sweden has launched a four-year project in Bosnia that will bring together experts from its Environmental Protection Agency and local hydro-meteorological agencies and governments.

The aim of the program is to help improve air quality monitoring but also to bring more investment into energy efficiency.

Also Read: U.N. Chief Warns The World About Not Doing Enough To Prevent Climate Change

Macedonia has launched its own program to combat air pollution to which the government allocated 1.6 million euros ($1.83 million) in next year’s budget. It aims to halve Skopje’s air pollution within two years by reducing taxes for central heating, restricting traffic and introducing stricter control of industrial emissions.

Activists say the funds allocated are insufficient and that the government’s response is inadequate. (VOA)