Ganesh Visarjan - A Tale of three Indian Cities / by bina bhatia

By Bina Bhatia & Savnee Patharkar

Immersed idols brought ashore at Juhu Beach, Mumbai. By Author

Immersed idols brought ashore at Juhu Beach, Mumbai. By Author

Discoveries were made and traditions were set long ago; for the betterment, ease and nourishment of human life. With progress and speed of advancement however, our only non negotiable responsibility should have been to take care of and preserve the environment which gave us nothing less than the reason of our existence, LIFE.

Unfortunately, in a culture where water is revered and worshiped, it has also become one of the most abused natural resources, when India celebrates its festivals. Some of the most celebrated festivals (Ganesh Chaturthi, Durga Pooja, Kali Puja and Saraswati Puja)  require an idol to be immersed in water each year. 

The crusade against idols made of Plaster of Paris (POP) that contains chemicals such as phosphorus, sulphur, and magnesium started more than a decade ago. Insoluble in water for a long period of time, POP leads to sedimentation and while the base material is harmful in itself, the paints used to beautify the idol, hold the maximum threat as they contain heavy toxic metals; Chromium, Lead, Zinc, Copper, Iron, Mercury, Nickel and Cadmium. India’s literacy rate may have increased from 12% to 74% since Independence, yet we remain apathetic to how we treat our rivers, lakes, wetlands and waterfronts during festive celebrations in the name of traditions.  Customs and traditions need to be maintained, but at what cost?

Three of the busiest metropolitan cities in India; Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore contain a large population that celebrates Ganesh Chaturti. With one idol welcomed in the city each year for every 42 people, Mumbai leads the pack and sees the largest number of Ganesh idols being immersed, approximately a whopping 4.3 lakh idols. In comparison, Bangalore welcomes 2,71,643 Ganpati idols each year which is roughly one idol between 31 people. Irrespective of the intensity with which the festival is celebrated in each city, the impacts are very well noticed on the fresh and saltwater water bodies in all three cities. However, because of their unique geographies, idols in each city are immersed in different types of fresh and salt water water bodies. Being a coastal city, most idols are immersed in the Arabian sea in Mumbai, where as Delhites perform immersion rites in the sacred Yamuna river and Bengalureans in the various lakes spread throughout the city. 

Mumbai- The Island City
The Arabian sea is home to 624 species of plants and 12.000 species of marine fauna. Each year, the idols which people immerse with a lot of faith along the beaches of Mumbai, carve their way back to the shore, exhibiting the sight of thousands of damaged idols. The festival also affects the livelihood of the fishing or the Koli community living along the shoreline of Mumbai, as their backyards get converted from yards of fish to yards of damaged idols.The presence of highly hazardous paints containing lead, mercury, cadmium and many other toxins, start dissolving in water resulting in thousands of dead or contaminated fish which enter our food chain and can cause cancer and other serious diseases. Since the months of June to September are considered to be fish breeding months in India, the contamination of water leads to the further reduction of healthy breeding, drastically reducing the marine population. In 2018, one day after the final immersion day, the shores in Dadar and Juhu saw thousands of dead fish and turtles washed ashore.  

Delhi - An empire built on the once majestic Yamuna River

Until this year, immersion rites were performed along the ghats of the holy Yamuna river which touches the lives of over 100 million people. Yamuna which is already an environmental nightmare and the second most polluted river in India, further deteriorates each year after Ganesh Chaturthi and Durga Puja. The river spans 1376 kms until it unites with Ganga at Allahabad and serves as a primary source of water for drinking and agriculture all along its length. The immersion of idols of Lord Durga during Navratri festival is a major source of contamination and sedimentation to the lake water. During the immersion ceremony, puja articles such as polythene bags, foam cutouts, flowers, food offerings, decorations, metal polish, plastic sheets, cosmetic items, all of which are highly polluting, are also thrown into the water. Immersion of idols and puja material in Yamuna affects the bio-oxygen demand (BOD) of the river, a measure of organic pollution, which has reached ‘dangerously high levels’. At a number of ghats around the capital, the river water has become distinctly foamy. Reports prepared by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) had revealed that the pollution levels in the Yamuna, including the levels of metals such as chromium, iron and nickel, shoot up alarmingly every year after immersions. These metals then enter our food chain through vegetables grown on the floodplains of the river. 

Bangalore- The city of (burning) lakes 

Bangalore, now home to 183 lakes once boosted a system of close to 1000 natural and man-made lakes and tanks in the 16th century created for rainwater harvesting, drinking water and irrigation. 36 of the remaining lakes are usually used for Ganesh Visarjan. While most of these lakes are severely polluted, encroached upon and used for sewage disposal, idol immersion further deteriorates their condition during festive months. With the looming water scarcity in most Indian cities, Bangalore too is severely water stressed and could soon approach Day Zero. Bangalore has a huge potential to recharge ground water through its various lakes. Unfortunately, as lakes and ponds are used for immersion of idols in the city, the toxins present in the paint which dissolve in the water, eventually seep into the ground thereby further contaminating the only sources of natural water within city limits. Excessive immersions of idols into these natural water bodies clog the lake bed through which water is recharged and blocks the natural flow of water further resulting in stagnation and breeding of mosquitoes. The floating material released through idol in the water bodies, after accumulation results in eutrophication.

Scientific Backing

Numerous studies have been done to study the effect of Visarjan activities on most major water bodies in these cities including Dadar Chowpatty, Juhu Beach, Powai and Aarey lakes in Mumbai, various locations along Yamuna river in Delhi and Yelahanka lake, Dasarahalli lake, Machohalli lake, Gangodanahalli lake, Herohalli lake, Mallathahalli lake, Ullala lake and Komagatta lake in Bengaluru just to name a few.

The scientific studies take into consideration various water quality parameters including Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD), Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), Total Suspended Solids(TSS), Turbidity, Hardness, Dissolved Oxygen (DO) and Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD), water temperature, PH as well Sulfates, Nitrates and Chlorides values. These parameters are measured pre, during and post immersion. Toxins from idols together decrease DO and BOD levels and release excessive carbon dioxide, whereas an increase in the total alkalinity, total hardness, total Calcium, (COD), Oil and Grease, temperature and pH is observed in water bodies after immersion activities. In 2018, the CPCB report showed COD increased from 25 to 172 mg/L at Quadeshi Ghat (Delhi) whereas in Ulsoor lake (Bangalore) it increased from 118.5 to 190.7 mg/L after immersion. An earlier study of Dadar beach (Mumbai) showed an increased from 79 to 81 mg/L.

Government Action : When environment takes precedence over religious sentiments

Government agencies all over India have been finding ways to tackle the issue without hurting religious sentiments through public policies.
Bangalore which is emerging as one of the most environmentally conscious cities in India after its toxic lakes made headlines a few years ago,  is also leading the way in adopting eco sensitive ways of celebrating the festival. This year 2,138 Bangaloreans set a Guinness record by simultaneously creating Green Ganesh idols. BBMP on the other hand carried out drives to seize POP idols from prominent areas of the city. The Government also issued a notice asking its various departments to give permission for organizing the festival in public spaces only if the pandals used eco-friendly Ganpati idols. This year only 1.44% of the 2.7 lakh idols that were immersed were made of POP and 88 artificial ponds were arranged for Visarjan rites in Bangalore.

While the Brihanmumbai Corporation arranged 25 artificial ponds in the city this year for Visarjan, Mumbaites are yet to make the switch to cleaner idols. The city officials conduct cleaning drives within 48 hours and  idols are taken to recycling factories to be crushed and be used in the construction industry.

In Delhi, where people rest their faith in the holiness of river Yamuna; it was imperative to put into enforcement a rule which would save the river and the sanctity of the river in it’s true form, as people believed in it. To bring forth this change, immersion in the Yamuna was completely banned this year and 129 artificial ponds were created. CRPF jawans were called in by the Delhi Police to stop people from immersing idols in Yamuna river. Artificial ponds along the banks of the river were built with temporary earthen bund walls with synthetic liners at the bottom and clean up drives were arranged within 48 hours of the ceremony. Soiled water from the ponds was then sent to sewage treatment plants to avoid contamination of groundwater. Earlier in July this year, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) had toyed with the idea of curbing the height of idols to 5 feet and requiring special permission from the Magistrate for larger idol immersions but unfortunately caved into pressure by pandal organizers. However, civic bodies and the police were charged with the responsibility to check goods carriers coming into the city from other States to prevent the entry of POP idols into the city and keep a check on illegal POP idol sales by fining violators.

Smaller cities in India are finding their own way to carefully tread the path of environment vs religion. The Gujarat government has banned the use of POP based idol immersions in natural water bodies. Surat has banned idol immersions in Tapi river and placed a height limit of 5 feet for POP idols and 9 feet for clay idols. In Ahmedabad, Dashama idols are placed along the banks for Sabarmati river and taken over by  city officials for final immersion rites .In Indore, artificial ponds are created by IMC and filled with water from 11 holy rivers including Narmada, Ganga and Godavari to encourage people to perform immersion rites in these ponds. The idea of a Mahakalash has been adopted by most cities, where people can give away their floral waste (Nirmalya) and other Samagri (ritual offerings), which will be decomposed; against the traditional custom of throwing it in water. 

What is it going to take to make a switch?

Yet, in spite of various measures taken by city governments, directives passed by various High Courts and the National Green Tribunal and guidelines passed by the Central and State  Pollution Control Board, citizens find ways to get around these regulations. Each year civic authorities face resistance against regulations passed regarding artificial immersion points, banned immersions in natural water bodies and size of idols.  It’s been over a decade since the Green Ganesh movement was initiated and while awareness has been raised to a great level, there is still a long way to carve before we celebrate festivals in an environment sensitive manner. 

At a time when our marine life is choking, beaches have become unfit to swim, lakes are foaming and rivers have become motionless bodies housing more sludge than water, it is not just irresponsible but arrogant and foolish to continue with religious practices of the past. Every festival has a faith attached to it, and that faith breaks each time we harm the environment. We are at a point where our environmental obligations need to outweigh religious sentiments. It’s 2019 and the whole world is uniting over it’s fight over climate change and environmental concerns. While we work towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by all UN member states and specifically towards  Goal No 6 Clean water and Sanitation and Goal No 14 Life Below Water, a Naya India needs to rethink religious traditions and embrace new ways to celebrate and revere our Gods. Let’s give our water resources the true respect they deserve!