The Joshis from suburban Mumbai celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi with gusto. Every year, there is a flurry of activity in their house at this time of the year. Elaborate preparations are made for the daily pujas, which are attended by their friends, relatives, and neighbours. On the final day, the idol is carried in a grand procession to the nearby beach. There it is symbolically held for a while under the lashing waves of the sea, before being carried back home and reverentially re-installed on the family's puja altar.
Brought back home? Yes. Earlier the Joshis celebrated Ganesh Chaturthi traditionally, by bringing home a new Ganpati idol each year. On the last day, the idol was immersed into the sea to allow it to dissolve. That is, until they read a newspaper report on the environmental damage caused by large-scale immersions. Now, instead of buying a new idol each year, they simply use a brass Ganesh idol. Every year, they carry this to the sea for a symbolic immersion.
Ganesh Chaturthi falls on the fourth day of the waxing moon according to the Hindu month of Bhadrapada. Devout Hindus eagerly await the onset of this auspicious time for the popular elephant-headed god, Ganesh, to grace their homes. The festival is a great unifier, as it brings together not only Hindus, but also members of other religious communities. The celebrations reach a climax with the immersion of the idol in a body of water. The immersion and dissolution of the idol in water represents the cycle of creation and dissolution in Nature.
Traditionally, clay was used to make Ganesh idols. Over the years however, plaster of Paris (POP), which is lighter and cheaper, has become the favoured material to mould these idols. POP contains chemicals such as gypsum, sulphur, phosphorus, and magnesium. The dyes used to colour these idols contain mercury, cadmium, arsenic, lead, and carbon. Plastic and thermocol accessories are used to decorate these idols. Such materials are not biodegradable, hence are toxic. Also, while earlier the idols were quite small, today a spirit of competitiveness pervades the celebrations, so that the idols are becoming increasingly colossal. The immersion of idols made from non-biodegradable or toxic materials has the following environmental repercussions:
- With the immersion of these idols in the sea
or inland water bodies such as lakes and streams, the chemicals in
these idols dissolve in the water. POP dissolves slowly, gradually
releasing its harmful components. The water experiences a rise in
acidity as well as traces of heavy metal. The toxic waste kills plant
and animal life in the water. In Mumbai, for instance, dead fish washed
ashore after the immersion is a common occurrence.
- Plastic and thermocol waste, including polythene bags
containing offerings, is usually immersed with the idols. Because it is
non-biodegradable—meaning that it does not decompose—this waste simply
keeps adding up. It also obstructs the flow of streams, leading to
flooding during the rains. Running water, when obstructed, turns
stagnant. This can become a breeding ground for diseases and is a major
health hazard for a locality.
- People who use water polluted by these immersions experience a host of health problems such as infections of the lungs, and diseases of the skin, blood, and eyes.
There are ways to reduce the environmental damage from Ganpati celebrations:
- Avoid the use of idols made from POP. Always go for those made of
unbaked natural clay, natural fibre, or even recycled paper. Ensure
that the dyes used to colour the idols are organic or vegetable in
origin. Some years ago, natural clay idols were not always easy to get
and had to be specially ordered. Today, however, many volunteer
organisations make and sell these environmentally safe idols and
encourage people to use them.
- Do not use thermocol or plastic as decorations or accessories
for your Ganpati idol. Instead, use cloth, wood, paper, and other
natural materials that are safer when immersed in water.
- Immerse the idol in a tub or a tank specially made for the
purpose. Later, you can discard the water by pouring it into your
- If there is an artificial tank in your area specifically created for immersion purposes, use this instead of a natural source of water such as a lake or a stream.
- Some people use a metal or stone idol. They symbolically immerse this in a bucket of water, or even carry it in procession to the sea, hold it under the water, and then bring it back home.
- Collect offerings of flowers
and other organic material and put them in a compost pit. These can be
used to fertilise your garden. If you must immerse them, wrap them in
newspapers instead of polythene bags.
- Song and dance are an integral part of the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations. However, ear-splitting decibels are not just disturbing, but a major health hazard. Moderation is the key to a safe and enjoyable Ganesh Chaturthi.
You may also be interested in:
- The Indiaparenting Team