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Is the ocean ready?

Friday, September 21, 2018

Spare a thought for the environment as you immerse the Ganesh idols this Anant Chaturdashi, says Tanmaya Vyas

It’s indeed sad every year to bid farewell to our beloved Bappa but what is sadder is immersing him every year in a filthy environment and asking him to come back soon. When the rains lashed the city this year, the sea threw back over 25,000 tonnes of garbage, right where it comes from—on the land. While each of the 12 functional beaches and many lakes spread across the city are already brimming with environmental problems, the festival season adds to the woes.

Anant Chaturdashi, this Sunday, marks the last day of the Ganesh festival and most of the community Ganpatis are immersed on this day in natural water bodies, and, even worse, in land-locked water bodies, which are also sources of drinking water. But how does immersion affect the water bodies? Most idols are of non-degradable material, which is harmful for the environment.

An order passed by The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) almost a decade ago states that idols should be made of natural clay (Shadu) or eco-friendly material like paper pulp instead of the often used Plaster of Paris (PoP), as the latter does not disintegrate easily. The scriptures too mention use of natural clay to make idols. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also urged the use of clay rather than PoP in one of his Man ki Baat sessions. However, limited availability of natural clay, and the longer time taken to dry the idols, pushes the mandals to mindlessly opt for the hazardous alternative. What makes the decision worse is the height of the idols at Ganesh pandals, which are not less than 20 feet.

Naresh Dahibawkar, President, Brihanmumbai Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Samanvay Samiti, recently said that since 2012 the committee has restricted the height of the idol to not more than 18 feet, but with aggressive competition among pandals, this rule is rarely followed.

Chinu Kwatra, a volunteer for cleaning beaches, shared his thoughts. “The reason for the PoP idols is that they are extremely attractive and lucrative too. Idols made of eco-friendly products are neither that attractive nor cost-effective. However, the problems that PoP idols cause are innumerable.”

Chinu’s team was at work after the fifth day and the visuals were not pleasing, “I saw heads of Ganpati idols floating around. I am sure that smaller idols are just lying under the sea undissolved. PoP idols cannot go deep in the ocean and are hollow.”

What makes their work tougher is separating other items from the idol. The loincloth or drapes are immersed along with the idol, which subsequently get stuck in those large, hollow PoP remains, which fill up with sand, making it even more difficult to dispose of.

While Brihan Mumbai Corporation has created artificial ponds across the city as a preventive measure, the response has been lukewarm. Dahibawkar shared that the city has around 1.80 lakh domestic idols, of which only 40% are environment friendly. The first leg of visarjan, after one-and-a-half days alone, marked 45,000 idols, most of them being household Ganpatis. In 2017, the number of artificial ponds was over 30 and the count stays unchanged this year. However, last year over 2.5 lakh idols were immersed, of which only 30,000 were in artificial ponds.

Chinu Kwatra at Dadar beach with 95 undissolved idols

Pic courtesy: Chinu Kwatra

Each year post immersion, there is a visible negative effect on marine life too. Last year, the Kandivali Pond saw the death of over 300 fish. “We have already spotted a dead turtle at Dadar beach,” says Chinu. “By the end of the tenth day, we will see more dead marine life lying around.” Chinu adds, however, that compared to last year, there is a positive difference, though it is a slight one and points out that the BMC has worked really hard this time; there are hoardings and posters all across the immersion spots. “But the mentality of people can’t be changed,” he says. “They mindlessly throw away the flowers and garlands used for the pooja, despite trash cans available everywhere.” People also seem to ignore that immersion of non-degradable idols have an indirect effect on their own health, as the residue has traces of mercury, cadmium and lead, which, if it comes into contact with the human body can affect nerves and kidneys.

The plastic and thermocol ban caused a hurdle for most of the Ganesh Mandals, as it has incurred 20-30% additional cost this year. However, it will prove beneficial for the city and its inhabitants. Chinu observes: “On the first and the fifth day, I didn’t trace any thermocol or plastic at the beach. In fact, this ban has pushed the public to get innovative even in their decorations. There were Ganpatis decorated with natural flowers, stationery and chocolates!”

In Pune, the bastion of the Ganesh festival 190 kilometres away from Mumbai, the ritual is progressive and yet does not compromise on the pomp. Most mandals have impressive processions; however, the  lack of a sea shore has led Punekars to retain the idol every year and immerse a small one as a symbol. Telecom giant Vodafone-Idea announced Vodafone Eco Ponds at seven Vodafone outlets in Pune. This initiative has helped recycling of 13 tonnes of PoP and generated one lakh litres of fertiliser post Ganeshotsav 2017, which was subsequently distributed to farmers in Maharashtra. Such initiatives, however, are few and far between.

As the cliché goes, cleanliness is next to godliness. Ironically, during festivals, this is forgotten. A little mindfulness will be beneficial for the next generation, creating a healthy environment that is worthy of the gods.

“The reason for the PoP idols is that they are extremely attractive and lucrative too. Idols made of eco-friendly products are neither that attractive nor cost-effective. However, the problems that PoP idols cause are innumerable.”

- Chinu Kwatra,a beach-cleaning volunteer

Quick facts

Anant Chaturdashi, this Sunday, marks the last day of the Ganesh festival and most of the public and popular Ganpatis are immersed on this day.

The Plaster of Paris idols are dangerous for the environment and also for marine life and human beings; they contain traces of mercury, cadmium and lead.

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