Activists for long have been campaigning against immersion of idols in natural water bodies like rivers and lakes. Many perceive it as an environment versus religion matter. Despite several guidelines and judicial interventions, idol immersions continue. Government agencies plead helplessness because a since strict stand may hurt religious sentiments. The Allahabad High Court, for a change, took a tough stand in September by saying “rivers (the Ganga and the Yamuna) cannot bear the brunt of our religious practices”. Activists, spiritual leaders and officials say such a ban can work only if people are offered viable alternatives.
Allahabad High Court's ban on idol immersions in the rivers is a welcome move. However, we need to keep certain aspects in mind. First of all, the order is specific to Uttar Pradesh government. or the rivers in whole of the state. I have been fighting for a ban here in Kolkata since 1998. It is easy to pass such orders but the real challenge is to ensure its implementation. For example, during Dura Puja celebrations in Kolkata, there is so much of chaos in the city. Look at the air pollution and noise pollution levels. Law and order goes for a toss in the city. If court bans Durga Puja, will people listen? If people are not given an easy alternative, they would continue to break the law. For example, in Kolkata, the main immersion ghats are Babughat-Outram ghat and Bagbazar-Ahiritolla stretch. Vigilance is strict in these places. Idols are stripped of certain toxic elements. It is dipped in Ganga and cranes are deployed that lift the idol immediately after it touches the water. But, look at the districts or even the ghats in Kolkata that are not very popular. People continue to immerse idols there. Nonetheless, such an order is a good beginning. Now it is up to us how we campaign for better alternatives so that the river is saved without hurting the religious sentiments of the people.
Ritual the immersion of idols in water bodies, specially rivers, is one of the major source of heavy metal pollution of rivers during the festival season this time of the year. So it is welcome that the High Court at Allahabad has prohibited the practice this year. But the question is if the authorities shall be able to effectively implement the ban.
Instead of contesting the ban as being anti-religion, the authorities should prepare for safe immersion and disposal of idols. We, at the YJA, held a one month vigil in 2011 in Delhi and successfully prevented large amount of puja left overs and idols from going into the river by convincing people to hand over the material to our volunteers so that we can compost the organic material and recycle the rest. The message is that if the people are offered viable option then majority do respond encouragingly.
Let the authorities create small immersion ponds away from the flowing stream channel, in the river's flood plains, where the immersion be permitted and then the said idols could be removed and safely disposed post immersion.
Earlier, hundreds of idols used to be immersed in a beautiful lake in Kalyani, which is a tourist attraction. But, for over a decade, the Kalyani municipality has earmarked a centrally located medium-sized pond for immersions. A ramp has been created to carry and immerse idols with ease. A separate enclosure is constructed to throw flowers, leaves and other puja accessories. The idols are first washed with hose pipes to remove the colours on them. The idols are stripped of artificial jewellery. The idol is then dipped in the pond. We have also started another way of immersion. The idols are washed with water released with pressure from pipes till only the hay and wood is left, which then is given to idol makers to recycle. We have always taken active steps to ensure the water bodies in Kalyani are nor polluted by idol immersions. It took us quite a few years to have the mechanism in place. But over the years, we have made residents aware of the problems caused by indiscriminate idol immersions. We were one of the very first municipalities in the state to promote lead-free colours. People in Kalyani are informed citizens. Given a choice, they always chose what is green. We have also requested other municipalities to follow our way of regulating immersions.
I welcome the Allahabad High Court decision will not only set an example for other states to follow but also pave way for an alternative that will be environment friendly and yet will not hurt the religious sentiments of people. I feel that a person's right to worship should not be curtailed. At the same time, air, water and rivers should be free of pollution since they are the basic foundation of life. There was a time when the water in the rivers were so clean that a person could see his reflection in them. But now, unabated pollution from cities and industries have ruined the health of the rivers. Idol immersion is also one of the reasons why our rivers are ailing. With the idols, so many synthetic colours and toxic elements also go into the rivers. People who immerse idols have no idea how harmful it is for the water and that they are risking the future of their children. The flow of the rivers have been affected over the period of time. The Ganga and the Yamuna are the epitome of purity and for the sake of their health we should always be ready to sacrifice anything. The rivers in our country should be a focal point of devotion and not pollution. I think cities should have designated ponds or tanks where the idols could be immersed. Such places could be developed into religious sites where people would come to meditate. The government should also form policies to check idols harmful to the environment are not made. The problem should be nipped in the bud. These steps should be taken as soon as possible.