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  Immersion of idols  
  Environmental fallouts  
  THE annual festival season of the Hindus beginning with Ganesha Puja and ending with Durga Puja is always a nightmare for the environment, and for environmentalists.

As hundreds of thousands of Ganesha idols were installed in houses and specially set up pandals across India on the occasion of Ganesha Chaturthi, the popular North Indian Hindu festival that started on Sunday (August 23), environmental activists are worried about the pollution level in water bodies.

Most of these idols are made of Plaster of Paris (PoP) and are painted with carcinogenic colours -- not ideal for the lakes, rivers and other water bodies where they are immersed at the end of the ten days of festivity.

In Mumbai, where the festival has its origin, nearly 200,000 big and small idols are installed in different parts of the city. For 10 days, everyone has a gala time. At the end of it, the toxic chemicals from the hundreds of thousands of these idols are immersed. The result: severe pollution in the water bodies across the state of Maharashtra, resulting in fish being killed and food crops being contaminated.

Hindus across India celebrate various religious festivals, and these reach a crescendo in September and October. Homage is paid to deities like Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, and Durga, the destroyer of evil.

Elaborately painted and decorated idols of these deities are worshiped before they are taken in processions to rivers, lakes and the sea, where they are immersed. The idols are usually made of non-biodegradable materials such as plastic, cement and PoP and painted with toxic dyes.

After the idols are immersed, the toxins contaminate food crops when villagers use the polluted water for irrigation. Experts say, even small traces are extremely toxic as they persist in the water bodies for a long time and get ingested in human tissues.

Paints contain metals like mercury, cadmium and lead, which enter the food chain, from fish and crops to human beings. Materials like PoP do not dissolve easily and reduce the oxygen level in the water, resulting in the destruction of fish and other aquatic organisms.

Strangely, this destructive madness in the name of worship has nothing to do with any traditional Hindu practices. The Ganesha festival was introduced in Maharashtra by Lok Manya Tilak during the years leading up to Independence.

It was later adopted by Hindu organisations and took to other parts of the country only in the last two decades as an annual ritual. Obviously, a clever move to politicise religious faiths and exploit mass sentiments.

Each year, with more and more money pumped into the festival, the number and size of idols have also increased and the manner of organising the festival has changed. More colour. Less faith. More of a show than belief. The idea is to put up a spectacle and attract people, not to maintain the sanctity of faith or belief.

Thousands of idols set up for the Durga Puja celebrations in different parts of the country also pose the same kind of threat to the environment. In West Bengal, where the ritual has its origin, thousands of idols are immersed in the River Hoogly, polluting and poisoning the water. The state administration has always turned a blind eye to this.

In other parts of the country, where such festivals and idol immersions were unheard of are feverishly aping the 'rituals', openly inviting an ecological disaster. It is a pathetic sight that the beautiful idols that were objects of ardent worship till the other day are beaten down and dismantled to pieces and thrown in water bodies that are worse than sewers.

Studies conducted by experts in Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad and other urban areas suggest a grim picture. Stringent measures are needed to prevent a catastrophe.

According to scientists at the Indian Institute of Science, since water bodies such as lakes and ponds play a prominent role in the ecosystem in recharging ground water, the main source of water for irrigation or domestic use, water pollution due to heavy metals is a major cause of concern.

Sample this: a 100 kilogram Ganesha idol contains 69 kilograms of PoP, 10 kg of jute, 10 kg of iron, 6 kg of dyes/paint, 5 kg of wood. This idol would take 15 days to dissolve and disintegrate.

Within that period, the DO (dissolved oxygen) in water goes down and suspended solid increases. Water becomes turbid and result in massive fish mortality. Lead level in water also increases. Sedimentation of gypsum in the water reduces the depth of the lake and gypsum clogs the natural water springs of the water body.

Though there are constitutional and other legal provisions to prevent activities that are detrimental to the environment, national and state governments are afraid of implementing them for political reasons.

The Constitution was amended in 1976 to incorporate Article 48A as a Directive Principle of State Policy to protect the country's environment and Article 51A (g) as a fundamental duty of every citizen to protect and improve environment.

In the same year, the Supreme Court also ruled that right to drink water is to be considered as Right to Life. These provisions empower the pollution control boards at the Centre and the states to establish and enforce effluent standards for factories discharging pollutants into water bodies.

The Environment Protection Act 1986 renders more powers to the Central government. This Act also enables any Indian citizen or government agency to complain against environmental abuse.

But immersion of idols continues to pollute the water bodies with impunity, year after year, because the interventions by both the government and non-governmental agencies and the higher courts in the country are half-hearted and ineffective.

Needless to say then, that stringent measures are needed to prevent individuals and organisations from destroying the eco-system in the country -- if only the powers-that-be were to realise that.


The writer was until recently head of the Malayalam unit of All India Radio, New Delhi. She lives in Bangalore.
  By  T.N. Sushama  
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