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Idols immersed, fears surface

Every year in Maharashtra, an estimated 150 million Ganesh idols are immersed in lakes, rivers and the sea during the 10-day Ganesh Chaturthi festival. A bulk of these idols are made of non-biodegradable plaster of Paris (PoP) and painted with toxic chemical colours, which endanger aquatic life. Studies by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and scientists show a sharp rise in content of heavy metals like lead, mercury and cadmium in waterbodies following idol immersions during Ganesh Chaturthi and Durga Puja festivals. Acidity and biological oxygen demand of water are also found to rise sharply. However, most of the government guidelines regarding safe and environment friendly immersions – use of environment-friendly clay and natural colours in idols, immersion in artificial tanks and so on – remain on paper.

The first countrywide guidelines on idol immersion were issued by CPCB three years ago in 2010. Before that, only two states – West Bengal and Maharashtra – had issued guidelines on the subject. Following the CPCB guidelines, Karnataka state also issued guidelines in 2012. Maharashtra government issued a government resolution (GR) on the subject in 2011.

All guidelines are similar in content. All of them state clearly that idols should be made of clay or other natural materials like paper pulp, and should either be unpainted or painted with non-toxic natural colours. Further, the guidelines forbid immersion of all idols – PoP or natural – and related religious paraphernalia in natural water bodies, and call upon civic bodies to provide artificial tanks for immersion. Other guidelines include instructions for removal and disposal of idols and other biodegradable and non-degradable material.However, the guidelines are observed more in violation than in observance, rue activists. ‘In Maharashtra, despite the existence of clear cut guidelines and a government resolution, the only municipality to have officially banned immersion in natural water bodies is Nagpur,’ says Avinash Patil, of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (ANS), a voluntary organisation which has been campaigning for safe and environment-friendly immersions for the past 15 years.

Nagpur’s ban on immersions came after a three-year unsuccessful struggle to ban PoP idols within city limits.  It was later watered down by the civic body, which allowed immersion of idols more than four feet (1.2 metre) in height in natural water bodies, citing inability to provide artificial tanks large enough to accommodate such idols. Predictably, the dilution resulted in large number of citizens breaking regulations. During the first nine days of the festival, most immersions took place in artificial tanks, but on 18 September, the last day of the festival, when large idols were immersed, literally thousands of small idols also found their way into the city’s lakes right under the nose of the city’s law enforcement agencies.

Opinion is divided among activists as to what will lead to better implementation of guidelines – tough penalties or awareness generation. Goswami says that charging a fine for immersing in a natural water body could be an effective solution to the problem. ‘Most people are not willing to cough up cash,’ says he. Others, however, feel that immersion being a religious issue and hence very sensitive, going tough can actually lead to situation going out of control. For instance, this year in Pune, the municipality’s appeal to immerse in artificial tanks was met with a very aggressive response from right wing Hindutva groups, informs Girme, ‘Women formed human chains around artificial tanks to prevent people from immersing in them,’ says he.

On arrangement with Down to Earth magazine
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