EVs and Saving the Taj Mahal

By Bill Moore

Automotive air pollution, among other environmental stresses, threaten India's most iconic structure, so the government has created a zero emission zone around it, one that includes electric tourist shuttles, but are they enough?

One of the most recognized icons of India is the famed Taj Mahal, the glistening white mausoleum built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to honor his third wife, a Persian Princess who died in 1631 giving birth to their 14th child. Constructed at the apex of the Mughal empire's prosperity, the entire complex would take 22 years to complete (1632-1654).

Located on the southern bank of the Yamuna river, the UNESCO World Heritage Site sits just east of the northern Indian city of Agra (population 1.275 million), also famed for Agra Fort among other popular tourist attractions. The grounds of the Taj Mahal are annually visited by some 3 million tourists who are shuttled to the complex's east gate from a visitor's center some 1.2 km south and east in the nearby neighborhood of Shilpgram. Getting from the center to the East Gate, visitors have two options: horse-drawn carriages or zero emission electric shuttles.

Mahindra Maxximo minivans for use in pilot shuttle serve to the Taj Mahal in India.

Recently, four specially-developed eight-passenger Mahindra Maxximo all-electric minivans, developed by Mahindra-Reva, were added to the fleet. With a top speed of 65km/hr (40 mph), they would be at least 15 mph faster than what appears to the American-made GEM shuttles now in use. Their use of lithium ion batteries also offer longer range between charges. With a range of 100 km (62 mi), the Maxximo EVs can make 40 round trip runs before needing to recharge, while the GEM-style shuttles, likely using lead-acid batteries, may only be able to make 10-12 runs.

The math suggests that fewer vehicles would be needed to carry the same number of people, getting them to and from the visitor's center in Shilpgram more quickly and in greater comfort. While it is a demonstration program at this point, the government hopes that, if successful, it will help stimulate the market for more commercial electric vehicles, but more on that later.

The reason conventional cars, trucks and buses are not permitted within 1.5 kilometers of the Taj Mahal complex, an initiative known as the Taj Mahal Zero Emission Corridor, is because of the effect air pollution is having on the monument. A smothering combination of black carbon, brown carbon and dust is gradually turning the once pristine white marble yellow.

Two research scientists from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur found after a year-long study that "high levels of light absorbing particles including black carbon, light absorbing organic carbon (brown carbon) and dust was present in the area around the monument."

Of course, controlled access to the immediate environments of the complex won't entirely solve the pollution problems affecting it, not when you have an sprawling metropolitan area flanking it. So, besides the close-in Zero Emission Corridor (see satellite image below), in 1998 the central Indian government enacted the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ), encompassing an area of some 4,000 square miles surrounding the Taj where 'strict emission standards' supposedly in place.

However, between the sulphur dioxide emissions of an oil refinery 25 miles away, and the impact of acid rain from coal fired generators, the complex is also said to be threatened by a falling water table, due in large part to expanding population. The Taj complex is built on a wooden foundation, which requires a high water table level to keep the wood saturated. Reporting in 2011 on the crisis, the Daily Mail cites Professor Ram Nath, "a historian who is one of the world's leading authorities on the Taj" who observed that "the Taj stands just on the edge of the river Yamuna which has now dried up."

'This was never anticipated by its builders. The river is a constituent of its architectural design and if the river dies, the Taj cannot survive.'

The river has been falling by some 5 feet annually as more businesses and people pull increasing quantities of water from it. The direct consequence is the minarets are starting to lean as the foundation below them is thought to be rotting away. If it does, the four 40 meter high (138 ft) minarets that anchor the Taj will collapse outward: a farsighted design decision by the builders more than 360 years ago to insure they didn't topple over on the mausoleum in the event of an earthquake.

Clearly, a handful of electric minivans will not save the Taj Mahal, but if, as the government hopes, they introduce 3 million people to the technology, both within India and outside it borders, then it certainly is a small, but meaningful step in the right direction. Assuming the Mahindra Maxximo electric vans live up to their promise, both in terms of reliability and economics, it will clearly encourage other India carmakers to more seriously explore commercial EV opportunities.

One such company, Tata, said it will be introducing an electric version of its Ace mini-truck in 2016. Another company, Ashok Leyand Dost has also shown an electric version of its own mini truck.

Of course, for the technology to be adopted in India, which frankly hasn't up to now been a real hotbed of electric-anything sales, it needs consistent government policy, something that isn't always apparent - at least from the outside. India is the world's largest democracy, but isn't necessarily the most efficient or transparent. As one of the scientists who studied the pollution problems yellowing the Taj Mahal stated, "the measures already being taken by the government were not enough and more stringent guidelines were needed to protect the heritage building."

Taj Mahal Zero Emission Corridor: A Satellite View

Google satellite view of Taj Mahal and Shiplgram tourist drop-off center

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Originally published: 04 Feb 2015


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