No end to eyesores at India’s Taj Mahal as restoration work drags on

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Restoration teams use scaffolding for restoration works at the Taj Mahal facade, blocking views of the ornate Islamic carvings engraved on its walls. (AFP)
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The number of local tourists is also being capped to 40,000 a day in a bid to reduce wear and tear on the monument to love. (AFP)
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Experts warn that iron scaffolding risks leaving irrevocable scars on the fine marble. (AFP)
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Building restoration at India’s most popular tourist attraction is now into its fourth year, with work yet to even begin on its imposing dome. (AFP)
Updated 22 January 2018
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No end to eyesores at India’s Taj Mahal as restoration work drags on

AGRA, India: Tourist Muskan Mahuwakar pictured the Taj Mahal as a dazzling vision of symmetry and beauty but upon reaching the monument, she — like thousands of other visitors — was disappointed to find it covered in scaffolding, its once white marble now yellowing due to pollution.
Building restoration at India’s most popular tourist attraction is now into its fourth year, with work yet to even begin on its imposing dome.
“It’s disappointing not to get a perfect frame of this immaculate structure,” Mahuwakar, a history student, said on her first visit to the Taj, as nearby cleaners armed with colorful plastic buckets and large mops desperately tried to scrub some luster back into the stained stone.
Other restoration teams scale the facade, blocking views to the ornate Islamic carvings engraved on its walls. The interruption to the serenity of visiting one of the seven modern wonders of the world.
“The repair has been going on for so long. Of course, old monuments need to be conserved, but we must find solutions that are quick and effective,” Mahuwakar said, casting a dejected look at the scaffolding around.
Pollution and old age are taking their toll on the 17th century mausoleum, nestled on the south bank of the Yamuna river in Agra, but critics warn that even the options authorities are using to try to fix, may be exacerbating the problem.
Mudpacks have been applied in stages to draw out stains but critics say the process is as damaging as bleaching the fine stone.
Authorities reject this, but admit they are concerned about how to proceed with handling the fragile central dome.
There are fears this inevitable work risks damaging the unmistakable feature of the Taj and will put off tourists.
Experts warn that iron scaffolding risks leaving irrevocable scars on the fine marble. But bamboo frames are inadequate for such heights, leaving few options for those charged with executing the daunting task.
“We have to clean the dome, but the challenge is how to erect the scaffolding,” Bhuvan Vikrama, the government archaeologist overseeing restoration efforts, said.
“The structure is almost 400 years old, so we can’t put any extra load on it. In righting the wrong, we should not wrong the right.”
It remains unclear when work will begin or for how long the central dome will be encased in scaffolding.
Fodor’s Travel, a publisher of tourism guidebooks, has advised readers to avoid the Taj until at least 2019 lest visitors be disappointed.
The number of local tourists is also being capped to 40,000 a day in a bid to reduce wear and tear on the monument to love, which was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth in 1631.Currently daily visitor numbers average 10,000-15,000 but can be much higher at weekends, going up to around 70,000. According to government figures, nearly 6.5 million people — mainly from India — visited the historic complex in 2016.
Anyone wanting to see the main crypt, which houses marble graves inlaid with semi-precious stones, will also have to pay for a pricier ticket.
But critics warn that restoration is only half the solution, pointing to the industrial factories across the river that near continuously belch out noxious fumes, leaving the air thick with smog.
This toxic haze from this and from dung and garbage burning in and around Agra is responsible for discoloring the Taj, experts say.
Efforts to curb these pollutants, including banning motor vehicles within 500 meters of the building, have failed to clear up the air.
M C Mehta, a lawyer, said his battles in court to shift polluting industries — including a huge crematorium — had fallen on deaf ears.
“No one wants to take hard decisions,” Mehta said.
“The Taj used to be surrounded by lush greenery, but now there is nothing. Taj is in the last stage of cancer. It is dying, it is gasping for breath.”


On Thai island’s Phuket, hotel guests check out of plastic waste

Updated 17 August 2018
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On Thai island’s Phuket, hotel guests check out of plastic waste

  • Hotel employees and local school children take part in regular beach clean-ups
  • Hotels are turning their attention to single-use plastics amid growing public awareness about damage to oceans

KUALA LUMPUR: For the millions of sun seekers who head to Thailand’s resort island of Phuket each year in search of stunning beaches and clear waters, cutting down on waste may not be a top priority.
But the island’s hotel association is hoping to change that with a series of initiatives aimed at reducing the use of plastic, tackling the garbage that washes up on its shores, and educating staff, local communities and tourists alike.
“Hotels unchecked are huge consumers and users of single-use plastics,” said Anthony Lark, president of the Phuket Hotels Association and managing director of the Trisara resort.
“Every resort in Southeast Asia has a plastic problem. Until we all make a change, it’s going to get worse and worse,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Established in 2016 and with about 70 members — including all Phuket’s five-star hotels — the association has put tackling environmental issues high on its to-do list.
Last year the group surveyed members’ plastics use and then began looking at ways to shrink their plastics footprint.
As part of this, three months ago the association’s hotels committed to phase out, or put plans in place to stop using plastic water bottles and plastic drinking straws by 2019.
About five years ago, Lark’s own resort with about 40 villas used to dump into landfill about 250,000 plastic water bottles annually. It has now switched to reusable glass bottles.
The hotel association also teamed up with the documentary makers of “A Plastic Ocean,” and now show an edited version with Thai subtitles for staff training.
Meanwhile hotel employees and local school children take part in regular beach clean-ups.
“The association is involved in good and inclusive community-based action, rather than just hotel general managers getting together for a drink,” Lark said.
Phuket, like Bali in Indonesia and Boracay in the Philippines, has become a top holiday destination in Southeast Asia — and faces similar challenges.
Of a similar size to Singapore and at the geographical heart of Southeast Asia, Phuket is easily accessible to tourists from China, India, Malaysia and Australia.
With its white sandy beaches and infamous nightlife, Phuket attracts about 10 million visitors each year, media reports say, helping make the Thai tourism industry one of the few bright spots in an otherwise lackluster economy.
Popular with holiday makers and retirees, Phuket — like many other Southeast Asian resorts — must contend with traffic congestion, poor water management and patchy waste collection services.
Despite these persistent problems, hotels in the region need to follow Phuket’s lead and step up action to cut their dependence on plastics, said Susan Ruffo, a managing director at the US-based non-profit group Ocean Conservancy.
Worldwide, between 8 million and 15 million tons of plastic are dumped in the ocean every year, killing marine life and entering the human food chain, UN Environment says.
Five Asian countries — China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand — account for up to 60 percent of plastic waste leaking into the seas, an Ocean Conservancy study found.
“As both creators and ‘victims’ of waste, the hotel industry has a lot to gain by making efforts to control their own waste and helping their guests do the same,” Ruffo said.
“We are seeing more and more resorts and chains start to take action, but there is a lot more to be done, particularly in the area of ensuring that hotel waste is properly collected and recycled,” she added.
Data on how much plastic is used by hotels and the hospitality industry is hard to find. But packaging accounts for up to 40 percent of an establishment’s waste stream, according to a 2011 study by The Travel Foundation, a UK-based charity.
Water bottles, shampoo bottles, toothbrushes and even food delivered by room service all tend to use throw-away plastics.
In the past, the hospitality industry has looked at how to use less water and energy, said Von Hernandez, global coordinator at the “Break Free From Plastic” movement in Manila.
Now hotels are turning their attention to single-use plastics amid growing public awareness about damage to oceans.
“A lot of hotels are doing good work around plastics,” adopting measures to eliminate or shrink their footprint, said Hernandez.
But hotels in Southeast Asia often have to contend with poor waste management and crumbling infrastructure.
“I’ve seen resorts in Bali that pay staff to rake the beach every morning to get rid of plastic, but then they either dig a hole, and bury it or burn it on the beach,” said Ruffo. “Those are not effective solutions, and can lead to other issues.”
Hotels should look at providing reusable water containers and refill stations, giving guests metal or bamboo drinking straws and bamboo toothbrushes, and replacing single-use soap and shampoo containers with refillable dispensers, experts said.
“Over time, this could actually lower their operational costs — it could give them savings,” said Hernandez. “It could help change mindsets of people, so that when they go back to their usual lives, they have a little bit of education.”
Back in Phuket, the hotel association is exploring ways to cut plastic waste further, and will host its first regional forum on environmental awareness next month.
The hope is that what the group has learned over the last two years can be implemented at other Southeast Asian resorts and across the wider community.
“If the 20,000 staff in our hotels go home and educate mum and dad about recycling or reusing, it’s going to make a big difference,” said Lark.