p class="rbig">"Can algae fly?"
This question was posed by the Supreme Court to the Archeological Survey of India which faced its wrath for failure to take steps to protect the iconic Taj Mahal
The top court also asked the government whether the ASI needed to be "thrown out of the picture" on protection and preservation of the historic white marble mausoleum.
When ASI's counsel contended that algae on the monument was a cause of concern, the bench shot back asking "can algae fly?" and how can algae "reach the top of the structure".
The scathing remarks by the top court came after a bench comprising Justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta perused recent photographs of the Taj Mahal and expressed concern over the monument being infested by insects and algae.
The top court has been monitoring developments in the area around the monument, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal in 1631, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It had on May 1 expressed concern over the changing colour of the Taj apparently due to pollution and rapped the government.
On Wednesday, the bench took exception to the arguments by counsel appearing for the ASI and observed, "This situation would not have arisen if the ASI would have done its job. We are surprised with the way the ASI is defending itself".
"You (Centre) please consider if the ASI is needed there or not. The view of ASI is very clear from their submissions. They are not prepared to accept the problem," the court told Additional Solicitor General (ASG) A N S Nadkarni, appearing for the Centre.
"You have to remove the ASI because they are saying they are doing an excellent job. ASI will have to be thrown out of the picture," the bench said.
ASG Tushar Mehta told the court that it was a matter of "failure" and the government was concerned over the situation at the Taj.
"We have to accept that there is a problem and then find a solution. It will be brought to the notice of the highest authority," he said, adding, "It is a cause. We must protect our history. We owe it to our history".
ASG Nadkarni told the bench that the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) was considering the apex court's suggestion to appoint international experts to look into the issue of protection and preservation of Taj Mahal.
The bench asked the authorities what steps they have taken to prevent the monument getting infected by insects.
The lawyer appearing for ASI said the presence of insects was due to the stagnation of water of river Yamuna and this problem occured after the monsoon.
He also referred to the huge footfall at the mausoleum and said that tourists entered wearing "dirty socks".
The bench then asked whether ASI had examined why these insects were there and whether there was any spray which could prevent it.
The court also expressed surprise that that its order on the Taj Mahal and closure of industrial units in Agra way back in 1996 was not yet implemented, rather the number of industries have grown in the area.
On the issue of appointing experts to look into the issue of protection and preservation of Taj Mahal, the bench said that in India, there were expert bodies like the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage and Aga Khan Trust for Culture which could deal with the problem.
ASG Mehta informed the bench that a vision document on protection and preservation of Taj and environment in the Taj Trapezium Zone was under preparation and it would be finalised by July. TTZ, which is an area of about 10,400 sq km, spread over the districts of Agra, Firozabad, Mathura, Hathras and Etah in Uttar Pradesh and Bharatpur in Rajasthan.
The court also took umbrage that environmentalist M C Mehta, the petitioner in the matter, was not invited in all the meetings held to finalise the vision document even though he had an experience of over 33 years in the field.
ASG Mehta said that Delhi School of Planning was looking into the document, which has to be futuristic, and assured the bench that they would request the petitioner to join these meetings so that they could get advantage of his experience.
During the hearing, M C Mehta told the court that river Yamuna at Agra has become a dumping yard and despite the plans given earlier about mud therapy of Taj Mahal and its cleaning, the situation has not changed.
He said that earlier, Yamuna water was clean due to which small fish were there which used to eat larva of the insects but now the water has become toxic. He said neither the MoEF&CC, nor Culture Ministry have taken steps to ensure ecological flow of the river.
He said that Taj was standing on wooden logs and it has to be ascertained whether the insects and stagnant water have impacted those logs. The petitioner said that insects were also attacking the Red Fort and monuments at Fatehpur Sikri at Agra.
The apex court asked the Centre to file a reply on the application filed by the petitioner in this regard and said the matter would be taken up for hearing after the vision document is filed.
Photograph: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters