How the environment --- sacred to Hindus --- is bearing the brunt of pollution in the name of religion
Defiling the sacred
It has been noted for aeons that Hinduism emphasises concern for nature. Yet Hindu festivals are considered incomplete now without blaring loudspeakers, a cacophony of voices and songs from Bollywood films, and fireworks that can easily turn one mad, if not deaf (see box: Voices suppressed in noise). After the revelry of Deepawali, cities like Delhi breathe poison due to the blanket of smog created by the fireworks. Waters of lakes close to urban centres are polluted by the immersion of hundreds of idols after puja.
People well versed with issues related to religion and culture feel that Hindu festivals have been reduced to a show of pomp, which is accompanied by a sanctimonious sense of duty towards the gods. In the material world, this translates into pollution of the environment.The irony of ironies is that all the polluting rituals and festivities are carried out in the name of Hinduism, the inherent values of which stress keeping the environment clean and pure.
"Our rituals have become restricted to festivals without a trace of the spiritual core. This is not in good taste," says Veer Bhadra Mishra. The archetypal example is that of pollution of rivers. Ganga and Yamuna, the most revered of all the rivers, have been polluted beyond imagination. And all in the name of reverence. From immersion of bodies to mass bathing on auspicious occasions, several activities have led to a phenomenal increase in the microorganism content of the water, as indicated by the biological oxygen demand.
"Lord Krishna used to take up a degraded land and beautify it. He then used to move on to another place. Vrindavan was the place where he started it all," says Srivatsa Goswami. Now, Vrindavan languishes in filth. The Yamuna is a part of the National River Action Plan due to its filthy state, Goswami points out.
Mass bathing and pollution
The Central Pollution Control Board ( cpcb ), New Delhi, published in 1988 the results of its studies on water pollution in the Ganga due to mass bathing during three kumbh melas, which are held at intervals of 12 years and six years, at Hardwar and Allahabad from 1980 to 1986. "Mass bathing," wrote Paritosh C Tyagi, the then chairperson of the board, "is frequently held in India. On certain occasions, special importance is assigned to it and a very large number of people take bath during a short period in specific stretches of rivers, lakes, tanks and seacoast. 'Kumbh' and 'Ardh-Kumbh' are such occasions when millions take a dip at sacred spots. Water quality is seriously affected by mass bathing. Deterioration of river water quality may injure the health of the people taking the dip and also the population downstream which uses the river as a source of water for drinking and bathing." The cpcb studies showed that during the melas, faecal coliform organism count increased up to 200 times the normal count even at stretches where the water current was very fast.
Mass bathing is accompanied by mass defecation. Apart from that, the offerings of a plethora of materials - from ghee to flowers - are made to the river. This contributes high levels of organic matter to the river. As several infections are transmitted through water, and there are good chances that the bathers are infected by viruses and pathogens that cause diseases like typhoid, cholera, bacterial dysentery and jaundice.
The cpcb report points out that it is not only the bathing ghats that are severely polluted. The water 10-15 km downstream also becomes unfit for bathing. Studies also show each pilgrim can contribute up to 33 grammes of organic matter each day. The presence of even one million pilgrims a day would contribute up to 33 tonnes of organic matter in a day. And during melas, the number runs into several millions.
Immersion of bodies is another major problem, as can be seen at cities situated along the banks of the Ganga. The issue was highlighted in Kanpur by an environmental organisation called Ecofriends. This organisation dredged out 180 bodies from the river in three phases. Although the practice of immersing the dead has reduced on some ghats of Kanpur, in some others it is still rampant.
In towns like Varanasi, one can easily come across a dead body even when the river is almost flooded. Several times, the reason for this is economic as the overall cost of the last rites is beyond the means of poor people. "However, even some rich people, who can easily afford to cremate their dead according to the norm, do not do it. They immerse the body in the river," according to Rakesh Jaiswal of Ecofriends.
The problem of pollution is also linked to the immersion of idols after puja. With growing urbanisation and increase in population, puja is increasingly becoming an individual affair wherein each family has its own idol, unlike in the past, when festivals like Ganpati Utsav were a social affair with the community participating as a whole.
But why immerse an idol? While Hindus consigned their dead to flames, mud idols of gods are immersed in water after puja because water and fire are considered purifiers. Earlier, immersing idols was not a problem as the materials used in making the idols were all natural and puja was a community affair. But now, nothing apart from the mud that goes into making an idol is natural - from chromium in paints to turpentine oil, as pointed out by a cpcb study.
Whatever be the content of the idols, mother Ganga, quite obviously, has to oblige its 'devotees'. In West Bengal, Hugli, a distributory of the Ganga, turns into a graveyard for thousands of idols. The situation becomes particularly serious on the culmination of the 10-day Durga Puja. A 1993-95 study by the cpcb , entitled Impacts of Dusshera Festival on the River Hugli: A case study , showed that every year at least 15,000 idols of Goddess Durga are immersed in the Hugli, the number increasing all the time. The study further states that this releases 16.8 tonnes of varnish and garjan oil and a whopping 32 tonnes of various colours. Along with other chemicals, colours contain a good dose of various heavy metals like manganese, lead, mercury and chromium. The study also found that during the festival of Dusshera, the oil and grease on the river increased by 0.99 milligrammes per litre (mg/l) and the concentration of heavy metals increased by 0.104 mg/l.
It is not only the rivers that suffer due to immersions. On September 9, 1998, the Mumbai edition of The Indian Express carried a report from Vadodara in Gujarat, pointing out how crude the whole exercise had become. In the Sursagar lake in Vadodara, lack of water made people push the idols with their feet into the water. Worse still, the lack of water in the lake was attributed to human-made pollution, largely from immersion of idols.
The report mentioned that several waterbodies were linked to Sursagar earlier and this used to keep the water resources balanced. But, in due course of time, the linking channels were blocked. The oxygen level in the only surviving lake, Sursagar, plummeted. This resulted in thousands of fish dying.
The lakes of Bhopal and Hyderabad also have similar tales to tell. With the thousands of idols that are immersed every year in the lakes, nearly a hundred tonnes of soil is added to the lakes of Bhopal. Here, it is not just the Hindu rituals that are polluting the lake. When Muslims observe the day of Moharram, tazia s (elaborately decorated representations of the tomb of Husain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammed) are immersed in the lakes. This makes the lake abundant with materials like clay, hay, cloth, paper, bamboo, wood, adhesive material and soluble/non-soluble paints containing various chemicals. In addition to the biodegradable material polluting the lakes, heavy metals like cadmium, chromium and zinc have also been detected in the lakebed. S C Gupta, superintending engineer with the public health and engineering department ( phed ), Bhopal, adds lead and arsenic to the list. phed reports blame paints used in tazias and idols for the pollution. The Hussainsagar lake of Hyderabad is also one of favourite places of immersion for devotees, Gupta points out.
Studies by the cpcb show that the levels of air pollutants like sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, suspended particulate matter and carbon monoxide rise substantially during Deepawali, further deteriorating the ambient air quality. A 1997 study by the cpcb showed that at some places, the levels of pollutants went up to three times the permissible limit (see graph: Delhi, post-Deepawali ).
And, as if the nose and the lungs are not enough, the after-effects of the fireworks can also be felt resoundingly through the ears. A potential health hazard, noise pollution levels also register a substantial increase during Deepawali. A more common sources of noise pollution - also linked mostly to religious occasions - are the blaring loudspeakers that are put up on several religious festivals, in particular during Durga Puja.
Yet another festival, Holi, is showing how Hindus have drifted away from their culture and traditions. A festival of colours which follows the harvest of the rabi crop and the arrival of spring - just as Deepawali celebrates the harvest of the kharif crop - Holi was characterised by natural colours extracted from plants. Lord Krishna's mention is almost a must in most Holi songs. But today, the colours used include paints and dyes, in addition to a lot of synthetic colours containing a plethora of chemicals, many of them harmful. People often complain that while removing the colours smeared during Holi, the skin virtually comes off. Pranjal Sharma, a school student in Delhi, says, "After the last Holi, I have decided never to play Holi with colours again.
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