The immersion of idols during Ganesh or Durga Visarjan and other such festivals has been a long-standing tradition in many parts of India. Although it carries cultural and religious significance for the devout, in recent years awareness about its environmental impact in the long term has been increasing, thanks to campaigns by green brigades. For, many of these idols are made of non-biodegradable materials like plaster of paris and have coatings of chemical-based paints, which can harm aquatic ecosystems when those murtis are immersed in ponds, lakes, rivers, and other water bodies.
Efforts have been made to promote alternatives such as eco-friendly idols made of biodegradable materials like clay using natural colors to at least minimise environmental harm. However, the much sought-after change is unfolding at a snail’s pace. This week, Tanisha Saxena delves into the specifics of celebrating festivals sustainably.
Ganesh Chaturthi, characterised by its tranquil and predominantly private observance in days of yore, has, over the decades, transformed into a vibrant and widely celebrated festival, marked by grand spectacular displays across numerous regions of the country. Ganesh Nimajjanam, a cherished finale of the celebration, holds immense significance.
On this auspicious occasion, the devout joyously participate in grand processions, carrying idols of their beloved Lord Ganesha to nearby rivers, lakes, or the sea for immersion. The devotees, immersed in divine bliss, mark the day with boundless enthusiasm and fervor en route, seeking the blessings of Lord Ganesha and earnestly bid him au revoir, until His return in the following year.
The grand Ganesh Visarjan event is prominently observed at Hussainsagar Lake as well as at several smaller lakes and water bodies elsewhere across the twin cities.
PoP vs clay idols
While some argue that plaster of paris (PoP) idols, composed of gypsum, are harmless; others contend that they are non-biodegradable and can result in water contamination and other forms of environmental pollution.
Reshma Rezwana, principal of Narayana School in Madhurwada branch, who teaches environmental studies and social sciences, lists out some interesting aspects:1. Environmental impact: PoP idols are a significant concern due to their non-biodegradable nature. Unlike clay idols that dissolve quickly and naturally in water, PoP idols can remain intact for several months, causing water contamination. The extended presence of these idols in water bodies can harm aquatic ecosystems.
2. Lack of scientific studies:
One of the primary challenges in regulating PoP idols is the absence of definitive and comprehensive scientific studies on their environmental impact. Most studies conducted on the effects of idol immersions consider various materials used in idol-making, making it difficult to isolate the specific impact of PoP.3. Debate over gypsum:
PoP is made by heating gypsum, a naturally occurring substance. Some argue that because gypsum is natural, PoP idols are harmless to the environment. This argument has been used to legally challenge attempts to ban PoP idols, going by the cases filed in Gujarat and Maharashtra.
4. Water pollution: PoP idol immersion can lead to water pollution. Studies in Hyderabad’s Hussain lake have shown a significant increase in heavy metals, dissolved solids, and acid content in water in the aftermath of immersions. This pollution can negatively affect water quality and aquatic life.
5. Long-term consequences: PoP idols take long time to dissolve, which means the water remains polluted for a significant duration after the festival. This has a long-term impact on the environment, affecting not only water quality but also aquatic ecosystems.
6. Disposal challenge: Disposing of PoP idols is a significant challenge. Many of these idols end up in landfills or unused quarries, exacerbating environmental problems. Efforts have been made in some places to encourage people to donate idols, instead of immersing them. Still, the crux of the issue persists.
7. The legal domain: The legal aspects of banning PoP idols vary from region to region. In some cases, courts have rejected bans due to the lack of concrete evidence regarding their harm to the environment, while activists continue to argue for restrictions based on the non-biodegradable nature of materials used for making the idols.
To address these problems, authorities in Hyderabad, like in other Indian cities, have been promoting eco-friendly Ganesh idols made from clay and natural, biodegradable materials. Various government initiatives and awareness campaigns have encouraged citizens to choose eco-friendly idols, use natural colors, and participate in responsible idol immersion practices to protect the environment and public health.
It is essential for residents of Hyderabad to support these eco-friendly initiatives to minimise the adverse impacts of the festival on the city and its surroundings.
Everything is on paper
“During the hearing of a petition filed by the Telangana Ganesh Murti Kalakaar Welfare Association, the High Court declined permission for the immersion of PoP Ganesh idols into Hussain Sagar lake.The association had contested the Pollution Control Board’s guidelines, which imposed a comprehensive prohibition on PoP idols.The civic body had approached the top court against the September 9 order of the Telangana High Court, banning the immersion of Ganesha idols made of plaster of paris in the lake,” says Abhishek Narania, LLB PGDBM.
Granting the relaxation to the state government for “one last time,” the bench observed that it was not supporting the government by staying the High Court order but was acting on an assurance that there would be no immersion of PoP idols from next year. Abhishek explains: “The Court also took note that the High Court order was passed when the celebrations were on, and it would not be possible for the state government to implement all the directions immediately.
Despite the ban, PoP Ganesha idols continue to be popular among both vendors and consumers. Vendors argue that enforcement of the ban has been lax, and consumers are drawn to PoP idols because of their larger size and intricate designs, which are often more visually appealing compared to clay or mud versions.”
However, environmentalists and proponents of the ban stress that PoP idols pose significant environmental risks. They do not easily dissolve in water and can release toxic substances and dyes during immersion. They advocate the use of alternative materials like clay or mud, which are more friendly from the standpoint of environment but may not offer the same level of visual appeal or durability.
“It is incumbent upon government authorities to act upon the rulings of the esteemed Court. In this case, although artificial ponds were constructed for immersion purposes, their quantity fell short of requirements. Therefore, the focus should have been on exploring equally viable alternatives,” concludes Abhishek.
To address this complex issue, some vendors have proposed compromise solutions. These include designating specific lakes for PoP idol immersion, regulating idol size, imposing fees for immersion, and ensuring thorough cleanup after the festival to mitigate environmental impacts. “Consumer preferences also play a pivotal role in this debate. Many consumers favor PoP idols for their grandeur and visual allure, enhancing the festive atmosphere.
Clay or mud idols, though more eco-friendly, often fall short in terms of aesthetic appeal. This situation highlights the need to strike a delicate balance that respects cultural traditions, addresses economic interests, and mitigates environmental harm. To achieve a sustainable and culturally acceptable resolution, it is crucial for all stakeholders, including government authorities, vendors, and consumers, to engage in constructive dialogues and consider compromise solutions,” observes Subha Rajeswari, a lawyer.
The Bhagyanagar Ganesh Utsav Samithi is a very popular association in Hyderabad. It was started in the 1980’s and the samithi takes stand for the arrangements required during the Ganesh immersion in coordination with the government. The committee is also promoting usage of eco-friendly Ganesh idols.
P Shivani from the Samithi explains: “In Hyderabad, eco-friendly Ganesh idols have gained popularity in recent years as a sustainable and environmentally conscious choice for celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi. These idols are typically made from materials that are biodegradable and do not harm the environment when immersed in water. One can find eco-friendly Ganesh idols at various shops and markets in Hyderabad, especially in the weeks leading up to the festival. Additionally, many organizations and artisans promote the use of eco-friendly idols to reduce the environmental impact of the festival. An individual should check with local vendors or environmental groups for specific information on where to purchase them in the city.”
According to a study, the surface water qualities of Hussain Sagar, an eutrophic urban lake in the midst of the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad, receiving large quantities of external inputs — both untreated municipal sewage containing industrial effluents, and treated sewage, a large number of annually immersed idols of God and Goddess, and intense boating activities —were assessed in relation to the concentration of elements, including heavy metals of the water along the Necklace Road abutting the lake.
The research concluded that the surface water of eutrophic Hussain Sagar Lake is contaminated with heavy metals including PTEs of high, moderate, and low toxic nature and also other trace elements and major cations, because of the allochthonous inputs mainly through the inflow of untreated municipal sewage containing industrial effluents, the main source of pollution of lake water, and multicolored idols of Gods and Goddesses.
Most of these contaminants in surface water exceeded the maximum permissible limits of national (ICMR) standards for drinking water, though remained below the limits of CPCB standards, except Pb, for release of sewage into the inland surface waters. The concentrations of the elements showed many significant positive correlations between them. The untreated sewage with industrial effluents flowing into the lake caused maximum pollution in its water, which should either be totally prevented or treated adequately before releasing into the lake.
Change is on the horizon
Sudarshan Rajkumar Singari, chairman of the Khairatabad Ganesh Utsav Samithi, remarks: “We have already started seeing the change around us. People are aware now, but it will take some time. I would say in the next four-five years people would totally switch to eco-friendly idols. The reason why it is slow is because of the unavailability of eco-friendly idols (in big size). Moreover, people still think that PoP idols are more decorative as compared to clay idols, which is wrong.”
In 1954, the esteemed tradition of Ganesh puja in this locality was inaugurated by Singari Shankariah, a valiant freedom fighter and former corporator. This cherished legacy continued under the dedicated stewardship of Rajkumar’s father, Singari Sudarshan Mudiraj, commencing in 1994, after Shankariah’s passing. Tragically, Sudarshan departed from this world last October.
Many communities and individuals now opt for eco-friendly practices during Ganesh Visarjan to strike a balance between tradition and environmental responsibility. In preparation for the Ganesh Chaturthi festival that took place, the city of Hyderabad embarked on a splendid endeavor by resurrecting 74 enchanting ponds.
These meticulously crafted artificial aquatic sanctuaries, ranging from the charming baby ponds to the grand excavated ponds and even the versatile portable ponds, graced the landscape, adorning over 25 pristine lakes within the city’s embrace.
This noble initiative, radiating with the spirit of eco-consciousness, was orchestrated by the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) in collaboration with various departments, including the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority (HMDA) and the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (HMWSSB).
Anjani Kumar, DGP, Telangana, exclaims: “Ganesh immersion process is a cultural heritage of Telangana. It is an identity with which every Telangana person is associated with. Society and the people look forward to these 10 days and the police department right from the beginning has been taking good care of everything.The preparation begins about two months in advance and with the help of all members of Ganesh Utsav committees we progress towards the final visarjan. With the help of the communities, we mitigate inconvenience to the common people.
There is obviously heavy mobilisation and more than 35,000 officers are deployed across the entire state. This time it was significant also because it coincided with Milad un Nabi. However, the Muslim community was graceful enough to shift the date which in turn helped the organisers and all of us.This is also a testimony of the perfect coordination between various departments and exemplary public-police partnership. These kinds of events show how we can work together.”
All told, celebrations of festivals by the public can be grand and spectacular. But when all stakeholders start working together to minimise possible harm to the environment from the fete, the magic of celebrating a festival sustainable happens.