Mumbai: Few events can rival the ancient rituals and riotous colour of India’s religious festivals. This year, the months-long celebration season is also becoming eco-friendly.
Alarmed by the high levels of pollution caused by firecrackers, toxic paints and idols made of non-recyclable material, schools, environmentalists and some states are encouraging “greener” celebrations.
In Mumbai, where the 10-day festival for the elephant-headed Ganesh is under way with giant, coloured idols and noisy street parties, radio and TV stations are airing environmental messages and schoolchildren are learning to make eco-friendly idols.
Environmental risk: Most of the Ganesh idols that are immersed in the water are made with non-recyclable materials and contain toxic paints. Dhiraj Singh / AP
The statues, made of brightly painted plaster of Paris, are usually immersed in the sea or a lake after a lively procession that can sometimes take half-a-day to navigate the choked streets, and which ultimately leaves dismembered idols strewn along the shore.
But a growing number of Indians are opting for smaller clay idols, which they immerse in water at home.
“It’s easier to make an idol from plaster of Paris and they usually also look nicer. Clay is heavier—on the pocket, as well, but it’s a much more eco-friendly option,” said Abhijit Karandikar, a creative director at an advertising agency.
For several years now, Karandikar has bought a 2ft-tall clay Ganesh for his home from a market in central Mumbai that sources its supplies from a family in a village nearby.
Karandikar, who has also convinced some friends and neighbours to go green, immerses his Ganesh in a tub of water at home and gives the clay to a school nearby for kids to play with. “An idol that doesn’t dissolve in the sea is just a tragic end for something you have worshipped for so many days,” he said. “More people are realizing they can be more eco-friendly in our festivals. It’s something that’s in our control.”
Cheap plastic Ganesh idols can be bought off the street for less than $1 (around Rs50), but more specialist stores are now hawking idols fashioned from handmade paper and with vegetable dyes.
In West Bengal, the government is advocating a ban on painting idols with toxic chemicals for Durga puja, a four-day festival for the fierce demon-slaying Hindu goddess.
While Durga idols are typically made of clay or hay, they are coloured with paints that contain lead and cadmium that pollute the water, according to the state’s pollution control board, which has proposed a nationwide ban on toxic paints. “There are paints without these chemicals, but we cannot blame idol makers for not using them,” said Biswajit Mukherjee, a law officer at the West Bengal Pollution Control Board. “We have to plug the source of contamination itself by banning toxic chemical use in paints,” he said.
Several artisans though, are not entirely convinced. “There is no way to know which paint is toxic, which is not,” said Nabakumar Pal in the idol makers’ hub of Kumartuli.