Let Bygones not be Bygones: Sustainable Solutions for saving monuments from Air Pollution
By Jigisha Patel.
Monuments in India have stood the test of time to tell the stories of the nation’s glorious past, but their changing colour may have a different story to tell altogether. Their pristineness is gradually eroding, and the reasons are far from just natural phenomena.
In the constant race to meet the ever-growing demands of the energy, transportation, and industry sectors, we are burning fossil fuels and contributing to air pollution through the release of pollutants, such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. These air pollutants react with oxygen and water vapour in the atmosphere and cause acid rain, posing a significant threat to India’s monuments. As they are made of stone and marble, such monuments are highly vulnerable to corrosion from acid rain. Further, particulate matter — released from fossil fuel burning — discolours and damages these monuments. Hence, preserving the architectural gems of the past is challenging, especially with the futuristic focus of our nation that revolves around the needs of a developing society.
As monuments have educational and research values and generate significant revenue by attracting tourists, they must be protected from damage.
However, challenges arise when these monuments are located within the city and are constantly exposed to anthropogenic emissions, apart from natural pollutants. For instance, Delhi has the worst pollution levels and the highest number of monuments in India. Therefore, preserving and restoring monuments become a monumental task in Delhi. For instance, the restoration of the Red Fort in 2018 involved removing 2.5 million kilos of dust and pollutants from its terrace, taking about 5 months.
Both corrosion and excessive dirt accumulation can weaken the structure and cause it to collapse. However, corrosion is often irreversible, with only preventative measures being feasible.
Hence, air pollution is one of the major concerns for preserving our monuments. The importance of preserving such monuments is reflected by its inclusion as one of the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) put forward by the United Nations. Target 11.4 under the Sustainable Cities and Communities Goal (SDG 11) specifies that air pollution monitoring stations can be installed around the monuments to keep people and concerned authorities aware of the alarming pollution levels that require prompt actions or regulations. Additionally, a green buffer zone around the monuments can act as a natural filter and minimise the levels of harmful pollutants. Green roofs and walls can also be installed on the premises to further reduce pollution levels.
Further, major polluting sectors can adopt sustainable practices to ensure emission reduction. In this context, Target 7.3 under SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy) aims to shift to renewable energy and cleaner fossil fuels by 2030. In the energy and transportation sectors, traditional fuels produce harmful emissions. Shifting to renewable resources, such as solar, wind, and water, and adopting electric vehicles are both cost-effective and sustainable. This will not only reduce further damage to monuments but also help fulfil the SDGs.
Making industries, technology, and innovation inclusive is another effective solution that aligns with Targets 9.1 and 9.4 under SDG 9 (Industry, Innovations, and Infrastructure). Installing pollution control technologies, such as scrubbers for removing sulphur dioxide and electrostatic precipitators for capturing particulate matter, can reduce emissions significantly. Smart technologies, such as advanced sensors, can also help industries optimise their processes, thereby reducing energy wastage.
The government can play a critical role in the implementation of necessary interventions, such as enforcing strict laws on polluting sectors to ensure compliance with environmental regulations. Additionally, the government can incentivise the industry and transportation sectors to adopt sustainable practices. To support heritage, the government can also organise public awareness programmes and encourage people to adopt green and environmentally friendly practices.
The sustainable conservation of monuments considers environmental, social, and economic growth, whereas conventional methods are requirement-specific. Thus, preserving monuments from damage due to air pollution necessitates the adoption of sustainable measures apart from government and citizen engagement and conventional methods.
By taking a sustainable approach, we can ensure that these gems of the past are preserved for generations to appreciate and cherish.
The author works in the area of air pollution at the Centre for Air Pollution Studies (CAPS) at CSTEP, a research-based think tank.