Editorial – Holy filth
Three festivals have come and gone, and our rivers are the filthier for them. Ganesh Chaturthi, Durga Puja and Chath Puja left their mark yet again on the already filthy waterways in the shape of plastic bags, broken idols and oil from lamps. The usual rounds of newspaper reports appeared and went. I went to the Yamuna river front the other day – the only form of human waste missing was shit, presumably because I was on the Chath Puja ghat. The water stank; the banks were covered with plastic, idols and other sundry puja leftovers.
There is something intrinsically wrong with a country that rushes to immerse gods in filthy rivers in a ritualistic belief, but is blind to the systematic decimation of its rivers, lakes and ponds. The least one would expect is common decency in the form of sensitivity to the plight of water ways, and a common agreement to remove the idols once rituals are satisfied. But no, the story gets worse year after year. Durga Puja samitis, Ganesh Chaturthi processions and Chath Puja organizers compete to make more and larger idols, and each is accompanied by the collaterals of prayer. The idols are covered with paints containing heavy metals. Together with the other debris, they combine to form a deadly cocktail.
Things do not have to be this way in this day and age. Pollution from religious practices can be mitigated very simply – create an inventory of the source and develop a water quality monitoring mechanism. Experts, the government and religious leaders can sit together to work out an action plan to minimize pollution that includes identifying immersion points and construction of separate sites separated by the main water body to contain idols and other detritus. Water in this isolated site can be treated before release into the river or lake.
People need to learn what their religious fervor does to their water through an intelligent and balanced media campaign. Those responsible for idol immersion must be mandated to clean up afterwards – remove every bit of garbage and all idols as quickly as possible after the event, or employ local rag pickers, and totally ban the public from throwing plastic into the water. This has happened at a few sites in India: near Sabarimala in Kerala that is visited by lakhs of pilgrims every year, people throw their old clothes in the nearby River Pampa and defecate on its banks even though there are toilets. The river is the only source of drinking water for the locals. The authorities also set up wire meshes to stop the clothes from flowing down the river. Along with this end-of-pipe approach, idol-makers must be taught not to use synthetic paints but only natural colours.
Recently, during Ganesh Chaturthi in Delhi, an NGO, the government and religious leaders ensured the floral offerings are composted instead of being thrown into the Yamuna River. The NGO ran an awareness and participation for the youth and identified practices that would not hurt people’s religious sentiments. Another campaign in Delhi called the Eco-Visarjan Campaign, advocated the use of clay idols painted with natural colours. In Hyderabad, people immerse Ganesh idols in the Hussain Sagar lake. The problem is more from the plastic bags and the paint used. In 2009, the West Bengal Department of Environment took up the idol issue with paint manufacturers, who agreed to produce only lead-free paints. Puja pandals also bought idols coloured with these paints and the Kolkata municipality provided many dust-bins for people to throw their solid waste. The Hooghly River breathed a lot easier.
In Pune, during the 10-day Ganesh festival, the Pune Municipal Corporation provided large bins along the river for people to throw flowers and other offerings. They also provided large water tanks for idol immersion. They also ran an awareness campaign to inform people about these facilities, instead of following their regular practice of immersing idols in the river. The city’s twin rivers were the better for it. In Karnataka, the state pollution control board has issued guidelines for immersing idols in the sea that state this activity can take place 500 m beyond the low-tide level, and the idols should be made of clay and painted with natural colours. The Bangalore municipal corporation has created an artificial pond near the Halsuru Lake for idol immersion. A little common sense can help; use clay idols, use natural colours (these may not look as jazzy as synthetic colours, but are easier on the environment), clean up afterwards.
More the then immediate impact, it is the symbolism of these events that can be used to bring home the problem of water pollution, due largely to untreated sewage. Immersions are one occasion where people are drawn to water and they are an opportunity to generate public awareness and opinion on the state of our rivers and lakes. This can be a powerful driver for action, both on part of the government and people, to take action for reducing pollution.