Agra’s ‘petha’ is sweet but polluting

Agra, June 27 (IANS) For centuries, the petha, a delicacy from the Taj Mahal city of Agra, was boiled and processed using firewood or coal. Now authorities have told the petha makers, who residents say are a major cause for the city’s pollution, to switch to gas.

The petha is a sweet that many believe was invented to provide instant energy to thousands of workers involved in the making of the 17th century Taj. Now an order by Agra Divisional Commissioner Pradeep Bhatnagar says: “No more polluting coal. Use gas or shut down.”

Polluting iron foundries and chemical units had been ordered to switch over to natural gas or shift out of Agra in 1996 by the Supreme Court. In a later directive, the Supreme Court, acting on the recommendations of an expert committee, ordered the shifting of the numerous petha units outside the city.

The Agra Development Authority promptly developed a site called Petha Nagri across the Yamuna. Although plots were booked, no petha unit shifted from the Noori Gate area in the heart of the city. When residents of Noori Gate and nearby areas complained of pollution from smoke and lime stone, authorities expressed helplessness.

The Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board sent out routine notices but never followed up, say activists. According to rough estimates, there are more than a thousand units making petha, which hardly any visitor to Agra forgets to buy.

The commissioner’s directive has now been challenged by a social activist, Devashish Bhattacharya, who has petitioned the pollution board and Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav. Yadav promptly asked the principal secretary of environment to act.

Talking to IANS, Bhattacharya said more than 1,500 ‘bhattis’ or small furnaces used in making peta consume some 225,000 kg of coal every day, a clear violation of the Supreme Court order to shift out of the city.

Half the raw petha was wasted while processing. The waste was littered around or dumped into drains. The rot attracts insects and flies and creates environmental pollution. Each unit uses around half a quintal of choona (lime stone) which is released after use in the drains.

The petha units use municipal water, each unit consuming around 3,000 litres daily.

Once a decision was taken to shift the units to Petha Nagri, he wanted to know why the commissioner had ordered them to use gas.

The Petha Units Association denies its units cause pollution. “We take utmost care to ensure there is no smoke or pollutants released,” Amit Agarwal, owner of a unit, told IANS. “Petha is Agra’s heritage. If they shift us, the industry will die. Thousands will be jobless.

“It is a traditional industry that runs on primitive techniques. If you try and modernise it, the essential Agra flavour would be lost.”

Agra Development Authority’s Ravindra Kumar said: “We are inquiring why the petha units have not shifted to Petha Nagri.”

Residents near the petha units are angry.

“Why the double standards? The industries were promptly shut or forced to switch over to gas, then why is leniency being shown to petha units?” asked activist Naresh Paras.

(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at [email protected])

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