AMRITSAR: 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. The famous community kitchen or “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.”
Officials have also banned burning trash or cooking with certain fuels in restaurants and communities nearby, but enforcement so far remains weak.
“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 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.
Amritsar has been ranked India’s ninth most polluted city by WHO.
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 gurudwaras across India.