Idol immersions after Durga Puja leave rivers polluted yet again

Central Pollution Control Board guidelines and court directions are yet to achieve the desired result of keeping rivers and lakes free of polluting heavy metals and PoP used in idols

By Soma Basu
Published: Friday 18 October 2013

Photo by Shubhankar Basu

As Durga Puja and Dussehra festivities concluded last weekend, rivers and lakes once again became more polluted following immersion of idols worshipped in puja pandals across cities.

The guidelines formulated by the Central and state pollution control boards (CPCB and SPCBs) went largely unheeded in spite of some efforts by municipal bodies and police to curtail the practice.
Environmentalists and river experts have been campaigning against these idol immersions for over a decade now. Judicial interventions in the past, however, have not yielded the desired result. Every year, after Ganesh Chaturthi, Durga Puja and Kali Puja, the biological oxygen demand (BOD) levels in rivers increase dramatically.

Traditionally, the idols were made of mud and painted with natural colours. But now many are made using plaster of Paris (PoP) and coated with harmful paints containing heavy metals, all of which end up in the rivers on Dussehra day.

According to non-profit Toxics Link, approximately 100,000 idols are immersed in India's water bodies each year. With the rise in pollution levels in the rivers, a few states are now evolving ways to prevent or minimise idol immersion.

Impact on water quality

A 1993-95, a study by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB)—Impacts of Dussehra Festival on the River Hooghly: A case study—showed that every year at least 15,000 idols of Goddess Durga are immersed in the Hooghly river alone. The study states that this releases 16.8 tonnes of varnish and garjan oil and 32 tonnes of colours in the water. These colours contain a good doze of heavy metals like manganese, lead, mercury and chromium. The study also found that during Dusshera, oil and grease in the river increased by 0.99 milligram per litre (mg/l) and the concentration of heavy metals increased by 0.104 mg/l.

Just ahead of the festive season this year, the Allahabad High Court had banned immersion of idols in the Ganga and Yamuna rivers in Uttar Pradesh. The high court bench of Justice Ashok Bhushan and Justice Arun Tandon ordered a blanket ban on immersion of idols in the rivers. It also dismissed the plea of the state government that the idols would be immersed and then taken out immediately. The order was pronounced during the hearing of a petition of environmental activist, Sudhanshu Srivastava, to check the rising pollution levels in the Ganga.

Though the state administration officials pleaded for a year's time, the bench declined their plea and ordered the state government to ensure that within a year there should be “zero immersion” in the rivers of Uttar Pradesh. The court had earlier asked the Uttar Pradesh SPCB to monitor the water quality before and after the immersion of idols. The report submitted before the court revealed that the water quality deteriorated drastically after immersion of idols.

According to the recent reports of the SPCB, delayed monsoon had increased the pollution in Ganga and the situation would be worse in winter. Water at Bithoor, the point where the Ganga enters Kanpur city, is quite clear but the river gets polluted further down. At Jajmau, the stretch of the Ganga in the city is the most polluted. The dissolved oxygen (DO) level at Bithoor is 7.6 mg per litre which decreases to 6.3 mg per litre at Jajmau. The acceptable level of DO for a drinking water reservoir is 4 mg per litre, the report stated. The report also indicated that immersion of a large number of idols during Ganesh Chaturthi had already affected the water quality.

In Kolkata, cranes are positioned on a barge and on the river banks to lift out the idols immediately after immersion

The petitioner, Sudhanshu Srivastava, pleaded in the court that the district administration, despite several reminders, had failed to make adequate alternative arrangements for the immersion of idols in the Ganga.

The order was welcomed by several environmental activists in the state who have been fighting to curb river pollution. Several non-profit groups have also started campaigning for greener alternatives.

In 2009, the Bombay High Court had directed CPCB to frame guidelines to curb water pollution and Maharashtra SPCB and Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation  were directed to implement them.

The CPCB guidelines direct local bodies to provide dedicated immersion points with synthetic liners at the bottom of the artificial water body. Idols can be immersed under supervision of SPCB. All idols then need to be removed from water bodies within 48 hours. The state governments have been asked to set up coordination committees comprising representatives of pooja committees, police, local NGOs and leaders to guide the public.

It recommends that monitoring of the water quality should be done in three stages—pre-puja, during the pujas and after the immersions. While most of the SPCBs do not have information on how much the quality of water in rivers and lakes in their jurisdiction are affected by idol immersion, some states like Gujarat and Karnataka have taken affirmative action.

States that have acted
Last year, the Gujarat government imposed a blanket ban on the use of PoP  and other hazardous materials in idols and their immersion in any main water body. The state forest and environment department directed all the district collectors and municipal corporations to strictly prevent immersion of idols in natural water bodies by making artificial ponds near lakes and rivers for immersion of Tazia and idols during Ganesh Chaturthi, Dussehra and other festivals. The local administrations have been asked to barricade the “idol immersion points” and put synthetic liners in the artificial ponds ahead of immersion processions. These liners would be removed after the immersion ceremonies along with the idol remains, and disposed as per the solid waste management rules.

The Karnataka SPCB has introduced mobile immersion units for the immersion of Ganesh idols to prevent pollution of water bodies. KSPCB’s move is aimed at providing “immersion points” to people near their residence. It has also appealed to the residents to make use of eco-friendly idols for the festivities.

After Ganesh Chaturthi this year, over 130,000 Ganesh idols were immersed in artificial tanks at different locations in Nagpur and over 220 tonnes of puja samagri was collected. Last year, this figure was 90,000.

Following demands from activists, Nagpur Municipal Corporation (NMC) had introduced the concept of eco-friendly immersion by installing artificial ponds in 2012. To promote more eco-friendly immersions, NMC increased the number of artificial tanks in the city from last year's 30 to over 100 this year.

The Indore Municipal Corporation has also been installing artificial tank and trench for the immersion. People are required to strip the idols of plastic and other non-biodegradable materials used to make garlands and clothes before the immersion.

The Calcutta High Court in October 2010 had directed that the guidelines framed by the West Bengal SPCB will have to be followed for cleaning up the river Ganga after immersion of idols. The court also emphasised that it is the duty of the Kolkata Port Trust (KPT) and municipalities to clean the river and sea front after idol immersion.

The court directive is followed by 44 municipal bodies, including Kolkata Municipal Corporation and Howrah Municipal Corporation. Environmentalist Subash Dutta had moved a petition seeking the court's  intervention to clean up the Ganga after immersion of idols.

According to the court guideline, the remains of idols and other debris will have to be removed within 24 hours of immersion. The removed waste will have to be transported to solid waste dumping sites of the local municipalities and it should be used by idol makers for recycling. The removed waste materials are not be incinerated under any circumstance.

Immersions are conducted in Kolkata in the presence of a crane mounted on a barge on the Hooghly, two other cranes on the banks of the river, four pay loaders and a full team of Kolkata Municipal Corporation on each of the 13 most-visited ghats.

While the big and organized pujas are monitored by the civic body, thousands of other pujas peformed on a smaller scale go unchecked. The idols from these pujas are not taken out after immersion and nobody checks if they have lead-free paints.

“Durga Puja was once a community affair. For example, 2,000 people used to be a part of a single puja with one idol. Now, everybody wants to perform a puja with his or her own family. Hence, the number of idols has increased manifold in a few years,” says Subir Bandopadhyay, a resident of Salt Lake, Kolkata.

In 2010, to promote use of lead-free colour among puja organizers, West Bengal SPCB introduced an award—Shera Sharad Nirman Puja Puraskar. Efforts have been made to phase out colours with high concentration of lead, especially red and yellow, for the past three years. This gave no results as no incentives were given to organisers.

Babu Pal, secretary of Kumartuli Mrit Silpa Sankriti Samity (association of idol makers), said: “If we use such colours, the cost of each idol goes up by Rs 600 to Rs 800. The puja organisers simply refuse to pay the higher  amount.” He cited a number of other problems that have kept them from using environment-friendly colours. “With the colour we use now, we know how many coatings are needed, how it will look after it dries. However, we cannot experiment with lead-free colours as we have little knowledge about them.

This year, however, more than 500 puja committees ordered idols painted with lead-free colours, said Pal.

The right way
Ashoke Bose, president of Dakhinpalli Durga Puja Committee in Delhi’s CR Park locality in south Delhi, however, thinks that claims of dullness of colour in using lead-free paints are baseless. “In ancient times, the shine on the face of an idol was brought with the help of juice from tamarind seeds and arrowroot,” he said. Dakhinpalli Durga Puja Committe has lead-free paint on its idol. It has also constructed a tank where immersions would be held and most of the water would be treated before being disposed of.

Similarly, south Delhi’s Greater Kailash II puja organisers, follow the religious scriptures that specify how an idol should be made. It has been following the specifications to the last detail for the past seven to eight years. The same wooden frame has been retained for making the idol for the past 22 years. The idol, 85 per cent of which is made of hay and the rest 15 per cent from clay, is clothed in fabric that is made 70 per cent of banana stalk and the rest jute, making it biodegradable. The colours which are used are organic and the flowers at the end of the puja are buried and used to make compost.

Eco-friendly Durga idol immersion in C R Park, Delhi, 14 October 2013

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