Enjoy a safe Ganesh Chaturthi without harming the environment.
The Joshi's from suburban Mumbai celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi with gusto. Every year, there is a flurry of activity in their house at this time of the year. Elaborate preparations are made for the daily pujas, which are attended by their friends, relatives, and neighbours. On the final day, the idol is carried in a grand procession to the nearby beach. There it is symbolically held for a while under the lashing waves of the sea, before being carried back home and reverentially re-installed on the family's puja altar.
Brought back home? Yes. Earlier the Joshi's celebrated Ganesh Chaturthi traditionally, by bringing home a new Ganpati idol each year. On the last day, the idol was immersed into the sea to allow it to dissolve. That is, until they read a newspaper report on the environmental damage caused by large-scale immersions. Now, instead of buying a new idol each year, they simply use a brass Ganesh idol. Every year, they carry this to the sea for a symbolic immersion.
Ganesh Chaturthi falls on the fourth day of the waxing moon according to the Hindu month of Bhadrapada. Devout Hindus eagerly await the onset of this auspicious time for the popular elephant-headed god, Ganesh, to grace their homes. The festival is a great unifier, as it brings together not only Hindus, but also members of other religious communities. The celebrations reach a climax with the immersion of the idol in a body of water. The immersion and dissolution of the idol in water represents the cycle of creation and dissolution in Nature.
Traditionally, clay was used to make Ganesh idols. Over the years however, plaster of Paris (POP), which is lighter and cheaper, has become the favoured material to mould these idols. POP contains chemicals such as gypsum, sulphur, phosphorus, and magnesium. The dyes used to colour these idols contain mercury, cadmium, arsenic, lead, and carbon. Plastic and thermocol accessories are used to decorate these idols. Such materials are not biodegradable, hence are toxic. Also, while earlier the idols were quite small, today a spirit of competitiveness pervades the celebrations, so that the idols are becoming increasingly colossal. The immersion of idols made from non-biodegradable or toxic materials has the following environmental repercussions:
With the immersion of these idols in the sea or inland water bodies such as lakes and streams, the chemicals in these idols dissolve in the water. POP dissolves slowly, gradually releasing its harmful components. The water experiences a rise in acidity as well as traces of heavy metal. The toxic waste kills plant and animal life in the water. In Mumbai, for instance, dead fish washed ashore after the immersion is a common occurrence.
Plastic and thermocol waste, including polythene bags containing offerings, is usually immersed with the idols. Because it is non-biodegradable—meaning that it does not decompose—this waste simply keeps adding up. It also obstructs the flow of streams, leading to flooding during the rains. Running water, when obstructed, turns stagnant. This can become a breeding ground for diseases and is a major health hazard for a locality.
People who use water polluted by these immersions experience a host of health problems such as infections of the lungs, and diseases of the skin, blood, and eyes.
There are ways to reduce the environmental damage from Ganpati celebrations:
Avoid the use of idols made from POP. Always go for those made of unbaked natural clay, natural fibre, or even recycled paper. Ensure that the dyes used to colour the idols are organic or vegetable in origin. Some years ago, natural clay idols were not always easy to get and had to be specially ordered. Today, however, many volunteer organisations make and sell these environmentally safe idols and encourage people to use them.
The other solution is to buy Ganesha idols made of Paper-Mache for the Festival
How are Paper Mache idols made?
Festivals are moment of great joy and belebration, and in our country people show their faith in unique ways.
Simple rituals take on a different color and with each passing year, they become more cumbersome, the celebrations being on a grandiose scale. During Ganesh Chaturthi, however, the celebration fever reaches a high pitch and everything else is given a go-by. Devotion and faith is only one aspect. What is of more concern is the question of pollution. During Ganesh Festival, people should give a thought to the water bodies of the city.