A few months back, the Southern part of India celebrated Ganesha Chaturthi—despite the pandemic and a lot of restrictions. It’s a month-long celebration which starts with people bringing clay idols of Lord Ganesha at home for worshipping. These idols are beautifully decorated and come in all sizes; it’s a wonderful sight. After that, people take these idols to immerse them in water. If I were to list out all the places where these idols are immersed, it would probably never end. These idols are immersed in lakes, rivers or any water body that people have access to.
In India, there are many such festivals as Ganesh Chaturthi, where the magnificent idols are crafted by the best of artisans, worshipped for a few days and finally submerged. Another such festival is Durga Puja in West Bengal, where people worship huge statues of Goddess Durga for days and then finally “immerse” them in the nearest river or lake. Not only the idols but the huge structures that are made to house them are dumped wherever convenient. It might happen only a few times in a year, but the amount of debris it generates, especially in water bodies, is insurmountable.
In earlier days, most of the idols were made of clay and natural colours, but nowadays, the idols are made with plaster of Paris, commonly known as POP. POP is recalcitrant, meaning it does not degrade. Also, the different colours and accessories that are used to decorate the idols are made of harmful components like heavy metals capable of causing neurological and other health problems. That is why every year we hear about people constantly exposed to these materials acquiring respiratory and skin-related disorders.
It is a known and well-proven fact that when we disturb the sanctity of one ecosystem, a series of events occur that may lead to its destruction. For example, if the water becomes polluted by harmful substances, it will ultimately be accumulated in the body or system of aquatic flora and fauna and will keep moving up the food chain, destroying the entire aquatic ecosystem in the process. Even humans are not spared of the consequences as is evident in many reports on arsenic toxicity caused by industrial wastes.
One perfect example is the Ganges. It is the longest and one of the largest rivers in India and has been home to massive wastes. This condition arose after many years of unchecked dumping of household, industrial and agricultural wastes in the river. Certainly, we were unaware of what we were feeding this sacred river time and again, or else we would have stopped this at a very early stage.
At its inception, Ganges is a pristine mountain river. As it starts travelling down to the plains, it accumulates wastes, most of which are man-made. There is a stark difference between the Ganges at the high mountains and Ganges in the plains. It is the most unsightly view. At some places, this magnificent river just looks like sewage, thanks to all the wastes that we have been feeding it.
We are at a stage where the culture and tradition have become a foe of the environment. The number of festivals in India is so enormous that it’s really hard to keep track of which one is the most environmentally-unfriendly. But, one thing is for sure, collectively, all of these are creating a nuisance and aiding in already pollution-prone environment.
There are a few instances where people and some groups have come up with ideas to celebrate the festivals in a more environment-friendly way. In Bangalore, which is also known as the garden city of India, a group made ‘green’ Ganesha. Their idols were made of seeded clay so that when they immerse the idols the clay will settle, and the seeds within them will germinate into plants. On this occasion, the municipality also announced a ban on POP idols and requested the artisans to cast small-sized idols.
Another initiative was by Nashik Municipal Corporation (NMC), in Maharashtra. They collected above 1 lakh idols from the residents after the rituals were done. This reduced the burden on local water bodies considerably. Artificial tanks were also constructed for the people to immerse the idols before donating them to NMC.
Not so long ago, National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) was started in August 2011 by the Government of India to “take measures for prevention, control and abatement of environmental pollution in river Ganga and to ensure continuous adequate flow of water so as to rejuvenate the river Ganga”. This has given hope that these environmental issues are being taken seriously nationwide.
What can be done further is the question?
Education and information about what we are doing to the environment in the name of festivals and culture are important. It is already there in most of the schools, but it needs to be accelerated. More innovative ideas about how to modify and make these celebrations environment-friendly is necessary. Can it be idols cast out of biodegradable materials or no use of temporary idols at all? Can the idols be recycled rather than disposed of? Should we use natural colours or use no colours at all. Or can the worship and immersion be done virtually, on our laptops?
Not only we should rely on initiatives by groups and organizations, but we should do what we can at our level as well. How about educating and convincing our family that festivities need not be so elaborate and waste generating act. What if we stop donating to societies in our localities that organize such events? Can we just donate clothes and distribute food to the poor with the money that we usually spend on such festivities? Can we stop using plastic bags at least?
This is only a part of the overwhelming environmental issues at hand. We have a lot at stake if we do not jump-start now.