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.
Laws exist 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 organization which has been campaigning for safe and environment-friendly immersions for the past 15 years.
Nagpur moves forth and back
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 September 18, 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. According to Kaustav Chatterjee of non-profit Green Vigil, around 90 per cent of all idols went into lakes, not into the 150 artificial tanks created by the municipality at a cost of Rs 53 lakh.
Municipality figures, however, suggest an improvement in implementation. “A total of 130,000 idols were immersed in artificial tanks and 220 tonnes of “nirmalya” (flowers and other paraphernalia) was collected by the municipality as against 90,000 idols last year,” said municipal health chief M R Ganvir.
In Pune, despite heavy demand from citizens' groups, the municipality failed to issue a ban order similar to Nagpur’s, says advocate Manisha Mahajan of ANS, who has been campaigning for such a ban. “Both the Pune and neighhbouring Pimpri-Chichwad municipalities have done little else but to provide artificial tanks near immersion sites since the guidelines came into force.”
At the ground level, however, says Deepak Girme of ANS, the awareness level of the general public has increased. “This year a lot of people went for clay idols,” he says, “and only about 70 per cent idols went into water bodies as compared to 90 per cent earlier.”
Tougher laws or awareness?
Opinion is divided among activists as to what will lead to better implementation of guidelines – tough penalties or awareness generation. Chatterjee 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.
Nagpur mayor Anil Sole has the same opinion. “This year in Nagpur we found that rules were followed till before the last day of the festival, which is a hopeful sign,” says he. “Changing people’s mindset regarding religious rituals takes time.”
The only municipalities to have implemented the guidelines effectively in the state are Nashik and Kolhapur, says Patil of ANS. “What has worked for both cities is concerted efforts at awareness generation jointly by municipality and voluntary groups.” In both cities, he says, people have taken to leaving idols on the banks of water-bodies for voluntary organizations to collect and dispose of. “For the last year or two, more than 100,000 idols have been collected in each city annually.”
Girme, however, says the pressure on civic bodies from both citizens and government would make implementation more effective. “Civic bodies have to be answerable for proper implementation of guidelines. At present, there are no penal provisions for municipalities failing in implementation,” says he.