Agra's famous petha makers in big trouble



Agra: Agra's traditional 'petha' (sweet ash gourd) industry is in trouble, a victim of the battle against pollution to save the Taj Mahal.

For the past four days, the petha units have downed shutters, protesting the action of the authorities and the State Pollution Control Board who are sealing some units and issuing orders to others to shift to Petha Nagri in Kalindi Vihar across the Yamuna.

The petha unit owners say that officials are using "high-handed tactics" to extract bribes.

"Because we have stopped giving them bribes, they have begun to act against us," a strike leader said.

The petha units have been found using coal, which the Supreme Court had banned in 1996, as a fallout of a public interest litigation filed by lawyer and environmentalist M.C. Mehta.

More than 500 petha units, employing over 50,000 workers, manufacture tonnes of petha each day. Rarely do visitors to this city fail to pick up a packet or two of this sweet. Nutritionists say that although high in sugar, the sweet candy is nourishing and cheap, and low on fat.

Interestingly, the raw material for petha is not locally available.

The gourd is brought from Tamil Nadu, Maharastra and elsewhere. Only the expertise and skill for manufacturing the sweet are available locally, said Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society.

In recent years, petha makers have experimented with new flavours, sizes and colours, besides attractive packing.

Earlier, there were just two or three varieties. Now there is sandwich petha, kesar, khas, orange, pineapple, coconut and other varieties.

A source said there was a special petha that served as an aphrodisiac. Diabetics have a sugar-free version as well.

"At this rate, Agra's petha manufacturers will go out of business," said Ankur, a shopowner of Noori Darwaza, the chief petha bazaar of Agra.

At the heart of the present controversy is the administration's renewed effort to shift polluting units out of Agra.

The Agra Development Authority has developed a "Petha Nagri" and allotted plots to the units, but officials say the manufacturers are not keen on shifting.

A medical professional of Noori Darwaza said: "These units have been polluting the area, adding to solid waste and releasing all kinds of toxic gases that combine with early morning fog to make life hell for people.

"Each time the government plans to shift them or enforce the use of LPG rather than coal, they come up with lame excuses and use political contacts to stall change."

B.B. Awasthi of the State Pollution Control Board said, “These units in 2002 filed affidavits claiming they were not using coal and had switched to LPG but investigations revealed that use of coal was rampant.

"They are not concerned about the health of the people, nor do they care for pollution. They cannot think beyond profit."

Petha unit owners say that commercial gas, LPG or CNG, are expensive when compared to coal.

"The coal we use is pollution-free, it can be fired without smoke," said the president of the Agra Petha Association, Laxmi Narayan Yadav.

The protesting makers said if the authorities provided them gas, they will only be too happy to shift to the cleaner fuel.

They complained that Petha Nagari was not equipped to allow them the use of gas.

Officials say that all facilities would be provided once the units shift.

IANS