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The same old tune for Lord Ganesha

Mumbai: In February 2011, the Aurangabad bench of Bombay High Court passed an order directing the state government and the local self-government bodies to ban Plaster of Paris idols in favour of environmentally friendly clay ones. Narendra Dabholkar, the president of Maharashhtra Andha Shraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (Maharashtra’s anti-superstition group) was a happy man. The order was given against the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) he had filed. There were still seven months for Ganesh Chaturthi. Government has time to act upon the order he hoped. And then it was September. Ganesh Chaturthi came and went. Most people celebrated by bringing PoP idols of Lord Ganesha and also bid him adieu with loads of fanfare. Dabholkar was dismayed.

“Seven months is sufficient amount of time for the Government to act up. Why wasn’t anything done?” asks Dabholkar. The government did take up some measures. It did construct artificial ponds for immersion. “The government hasn’t done much. Despite the court order, the immersion of the idols painted with toxic paints went ahead all over the state. We are now planning to file a report to the Supreme Court. Let’s see what happens,” says Dabholkar.

High Court order

The High Court in its order clearly mentioned that the idol makers should be directed to make idols of clay and that PoP idols should be banned. Besides, the court also observed that only herbal colours be used to paint the Ganesh idols in order to prevent water pollution. The High Court also directed the state government and all the local self government bodies including Municipal Corporations, Zilla Parishads and Gram Panchayats to make sure water pollution does not take place.

Shiv Sena unhappy

Immediately after the issuance of the order, Uddhav Thackeray, president of Shiv Sena lashed out against it. He had said that there is no question of PoP idols affecting water sources since they are not immersed inside potable water sources. Clarifying Shiv Sena’s stand, MLA Subhash Desai said, “It is not that we are against the interventions that safeguard the environment. However penal actions would not serve the purpose. The ban cannot be implemented immediately. There are many livelihoods at stake here.  The idol makers have made moulds of many sizes over a period of time which they use regularly. If a change in forced upon them, it won’t work. There has to be awareness and personal initiative. The change can happen only gradually. The change has to happen voluntarily through mass awareness programmes.”

However, there are mixed reactions among the idol makers. Some opine that only huge clay idols are expensive and that the ban will affect the mandal more than the common man. Ram Khembulkar, a professional idol maker from Kumbharwada in Kalyan says, “I would welcome the ban on PoP idols. People are not going to stop buying idols if they are not of PoP. We will have to start working early if the idols are made of clay. But we will also get paid more for it.”  Ashok Chavan, president of Lalbaughcha Raja, the most popular Ganesh Mandal in Mumbai says, “Clay idols are very delicate. That is why we prefer large PoP idols.”

The polluting effects of PoP idols and the toxic paints have been well documented. In early 2007, Shyam Asolekar, professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai conducted a study where idols of different materials—PoP, clay, newspaper pulp—were immersed in aquarium-like glass tanks to observe the affect-effects of water and the disintegration process of the idols. The findings revealed that PoP idols remained intact even after several months. The idols made of newspaper pulp disintegrated within couple of hours of it being in the water. The idols made of clay disintegrated within 45 minutes.

‘There is no eco-friendly idol’

Asolekar says that despite ‘shadoo clay’ being the most environment friendly of all the materials, it is still a foreign element to a water body and that aquatic life does get affected by its presence. Also because paper mash is an organic substance resulting into disintegration taking place inside the water bodies, it also results into lowering the levels of oxygen since disintegration requires consumption of oxygen. This results in to the death of fish, he says.

Asolekar says that the main problem lies not with the usage of plaster of paris idols painted with toxic paints, but with the immersion process. “The main problem lies in immersion. The sheer number of idols that get immersed is harmful for the water bodies,” he says. In his paper he argues that since the water bodies are already filled with silt and sediment owing to rapid urbanisation and other development processes, we cannot afford to deposit anything more inside our water bodies.

That is why he proposes a radical solution and says that people should avoid immersion of idols inside the water bodies. “The immersion need not be every year. It can be once in two years, five years or there can be no immersions at all. In my family, we have the same idol for the last 11 years. It is as good as new. A slight change in the way we celebrate our festival will definitely go ahead in saving our water bodies.”

Apart from the petition filed by Andha Shraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, Janhit Manch, an NGO in Mumbai had also filed a PIL in 2007 against the polluting activities pertaining to Ganesh Chaturthi. In response to the PIL, the High Court in 2009 had asked the Central Pollution Control Board to draft guidelines for idol immersion to prevent pollution during these festivals. The report clearly states that idols and paints should be made of natural materials.

Bhagwanji Raiyani, who filed a Public Interest Litigation in 2007 says, “The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) did take measures like creating artificial ponds for immersion thereby dissuading people form immersing in other water bodies. But the water has to be deposited somewhere. They will put it inside the sea which will affect the fish. A large number of us eat fish. The toxic materials will be back in our system”

The fight for environment friendly Ganesh festival continues. Both Rayani and Dabholkar plan to continue their fight to prevent pollution during the festival. Interestingly, there is a common thread that binds the duo— both are atheists!


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