What Pollutes More, Plaster Of Paris Or The Lack Of Awareness?

The season of celebrations in India is full of enthusiasm, devotion and energy, so is the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi. It is celebrated around the month of September with a lot of eagerness and warmth, majorly in the state of Maharashtra, followed by other states of India.

Lord Ganesha, the son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati is believed to be the bringer of prosperity and good luck. The preparations for the annual festival usually begin a month ahead of the ‘puja’. An important component of which is a large number of big and small idols (moorti’s) used for worship, which becomes the spotlight of the celebration.

The spirit of celebration lies in the idols made up of a variety of materials such as the Plaster of Paris (PoP), clay, paper, and harmful chemical colours. The weeklong celebration that includes good food, music, and togetherness, ends with the immersion of the idol into nearby rivers, lakes, ponds or the sea.

Fairly ignoring the level of damage the Plaster of Paris, plastic ornaments and harmful colours could cause to the water bodies, directly or indirectly, either to the aquatic life, or the human digestive system, the practise of immersing the idols into water bodies continues till date.

There has been enough hue and cry over the past few years to create an awareness regarding the harmful impacts of PoP as well as the added ill effects of toxic colours and accessories like jari or plastic jewellery, aluminium foils. Unfortunately, the movement towards a reduction in the use of PoP idols seems minimal.

History Of Idol Making In India

The age-old techniques used materials like clay from the riverside, wooden sticks, metals, cloth and natural colours to make the idols. Idolatry is an important part of the Hindu religion, where the replication of the human imagination of the supernatural into an idol is commonly used to worship. Several communities such as the ‘Kumbhaars’ have associated their livelihood to the art of transforming alluvium deposited by the rivers (clay) to make idols, pots and vessels, etc.

The tradition of taking clay from the riverside, transforming it into idols and then immersing them back into the river is what completed a cycle of borrowing and giving it back to its origin. This has now been replaced by the modern methods and materials such as Plaster of Paris, toxic colours, accessories like jari or plastic jewellery and aluminium foils in order to make the idols look more appealing to the eye. Basically, PoP is made by heating gypsum with temperatures more than 300 ̊ F, the material regains its form when it comes in contact with water.

A study by Shukla, et.al., 2014  revealed that under controlled laboratory conditions, tests show that even after 48 hours of immersion, the PoP idol remains intact and insoluble even without any change in colour whereas comparatively the clay idol completely dissolves within that time.  

The Buyer-Seller-Producer Blame Game

Every year there are several awareness drives launched by the Central and State pollution control Boards (CPCB and SPCB) which go largely unheeded. As a result, the impacts on the quality of water in the water bodies have deteriorated over time. The people usually see the economic benefits of purchasing the PoP idols that overshadow the harmful environmental impacts.

The week prior to the Puja, at the Budhwar Peth, Pune, a general discussion with the Moorti sellers and some customers at the shops revealed a somewhat different picture. On asking whether they sell any Clay idols? Vishal Khandare a seller answered “Very few people buy them, I suffered a loss of about 40,000 Rs last year. So this year I only bought PoP idols”.

To the same question, another seller answered, “Why are you looking for clay idols, the PoP idols are durable and look more attractive”. When I asked them whether they knew anything about the after-effects of immersing the PoP idols into water bodies, Mahesh said “We are poor sellers, all we know that if we can earn some money through this, then this must be good. Nothing happens, it is all absorbed by our earth, why don’t you ask the people to stop buying them?”.

Amazingly, the buyers at the shop had a different set of answers. It seemed that most of them bought it because they are in fashion and look pretty. Whereas many related it to the financial capacity of the buyer, “Clay idols are for rich people and whereas PoP idols look bright and beautiful and they also fit into our budget”. The choice of purchasing an idol has now become a status symbol in the society. While trying to assess the level of awareness regarding the PoP idols and its toxic outcomes, many gave shocking replies like, “How does that affect us? ”, “Ganpati festival comes once in a year, we don’t have time to think all that”, “If we start thinking all this, what is the government going to do?”, “If it is so harmful, why doesn’t the government totally ban it?”. The blame game also included the idol makers, “Why don’t you ask the Moorti makers, first they should stop making them”.

Hence, I also tried to discuss the same with an Idol maker from Vadodara, who is the owner of an idol-making factory. Mr Dinesh Kumbhaar has around fifteen craftsmen working in his factory, that are mainly migrant labourers from the Etawah, Hardoi and Unnao districts of Uttar Pradesh. The factory produces throughout the year and Ganesh Chaturthi is the highest-grossing season.

According to him, the main shift from clay idols to PoP idols were around 15 to 20 years back. And since the shift, the idol-making industry has started earning more profits. They now only make 20 to 30 clay idols which also include idols with a plant seed in it, among the total produce. It was around 2012-2015 that saw a rise in awareness drives, directions from the government boards regarding immersion and use of the kind of chemical colours to paint the idols, recalls Kumbhaar. He said they only use poster colours which have minimal impacts while dissolving with PoP in water, whereas many less knowledgeable and low budget idol makers still use chemical colours with harmful toxic content.

Mr Kumbhaar sells idols costing around a total of Rs. 50,000 to 70,000 in the last few weeks ahead of the Puja every day. On enquiring about the harmful impacts of PoP idols, Kubhaar responds “We are just fulfilling the demands of the people ” and “the PoP idols are easier to make, where a frame is used to make hands, legs and the heads of the idols in less time and less investment, even lesser than the time taken by clay idols”.  

The Way Out?

Undoubtedly, there has been some progress in persuading the people about the harmful effects of PoP idols. There are several ways in which the amount of pollution can be reduced, like – buy clay idols that use natural colours, perform symbolic immersion at home, buy clay idols with a plant seed, set permanent idols made of brass or stone, etc.

The major outcomes from the discussions with the people could be that despite several attempts made by the NGO’s, the CPCB and SPCB, etc., only a minimal proportion of the Population understands the harmful impacts and takes steps to reduce environmental deterioration. Whereas at the ground level, the missing link could be the lack of awareness, that creates a huge gap which needs to be filled in order to make the real difference. The blame game where everyone holds the other responsible for the problem should end.

The government should take strict steps to control the pollution, either by limiting the use of PoP and other harmful content or by making the clay idols economically feasible to a larger mass. Why damage the environment when there are several alternative ways to celebrate it. And reasons like unawareness among the people clearly portray the lack of efforts made by the government to educate the mass about the problem. There is a great need to create awareness among the people where everyone shoulders the responsibilities selflessly in order to protect the dying environment.

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