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Festivals of Pollution

Govind Bhattacharjee |

Once upon a time, festivals were occasions for joy and celebration. We met relatives and friends, feasted on delicious food and offered Pujas at community pandals with devotion. Festivals brought about a sense of belonging. When they were over, we felt depressed.

It was almost as if a part of us had disappeared. In today’s age of globalization, where money is equated with joy and happiness, and religion like everything else has been commercialized, things obviously are different. Every god and goddess now spawns an elaborate industry. No wonder the number of pujas is growing exponentially, choking roads and city space. Religion is served to people, neatly packaged, at a price, devoid of any religiosity.

Every additional puja means more money to raise and spend, and since money is happiness, more happiness. In 2017, there were 2600 pujas in Kolkata alone, and some 25,000 across West Bengal. Pujas in fact have ceased to be times of joy and celebration.

They have instead become stressful nuisance, with relentless blurting of mikes much above the permissible decibel limits, pounding at and pulverizing our senses, and the crowds taking over the roads. Arguably, they must be enjoying but there was a time when one’s enjoyment did not intrude upon others’ peace.

Worse, one cannot raise a voice in protest… unless one wishes to be lynched by defenders of faith, with no support from any quarter whatsoever. The idea of community puja evolved in Calcutta in the 1830s. The first community puja in Delhi was celebrated in 1910 at the Kashmiri Gate. Today there would possibly be a few hundred Pujas in Delhi NCR.

As in the Hooghly river, all these idols find their ultimate resting place in the sacred waters of the Yamuna associated with Lord Krishna, choking and suffocating a river already in an advanced state of decay, and hastening its demise in the name of faith. But in the 21st century India, no questions can be asked on matters of faith which would promptly be flagged as heresy by the Hinduttva brigade, and punished with ruthless administration of instant justice by a mob. According to the environmental NGO “Toxics Link”, approximately 100,000 idols are immersed in India’s water bodies each year. I

n the olden days, when the Ganga and Yamuna were worshipped as life-giving and lifesustaining mother rivers, idols of gods and goddesses used to be made from clay and painted with natural colours. Today they are made of anything but natural products ~ metals, Plaster of Paris which contains gypsum, sulphur, phosphorus and magnesium, synthetic colours that contain toxic chemicals and heavy metals like mercury, cadmium, lead and chromium, besides non-biodegradable materials like plastics and thermocol. All these highly contaminating substances are discharged into the waters at the time of immersion and disintegrate into the river, damaging the aquatic ecosystem irreversibly.

Plaster of Paris idols take several months to dissolve, poisoning the waters in the process. Polythene bags, foam cut-outs, puja articles like flowers and food offerings, decorations, metal polish, plastic sheets, cosmetic items are all dumped into the rivers, and these add to the pollution. There have been numerous advisories and guidelines issued by various authorities ~ from the Supreme Court to the Central Pollution Control Board. There is also the Water Act 1974 that prescribes the do’s and don’ts, but they have all been violated with impunity. Many eco-friendly alternatives have been prescribed, again only to be violated, while the Government looks helpless and impotent in the face of such abuses. Faith is a strictly No-Go area for any government dependent on the aam aadmi’s vote. Aam aadmi is equated with one always at the receiving end of injustice and hence deserving of every sympathy, but when it comes to faith, it is the aam aadmi which treats the law and the state with utter contempt. Before the Pujas this year, in response to a PIL, Allahabad High Court had ordered a blanket ban on immersion of all idols in the rivers of Uttar Pradesh.

Subsequently, it had to relax the order, presumably under pressure, knowing that the directive couldn’t and wouldn’t be enforced. Aam aadmi just won’t comply, knowing they can always blackmail the government in matters of faith. In an article in Down to Earth, Soma Basu quotes a 1993- 95 study by the Central Pollution Control Board, stating that every year, 15,000 idols of Durga are immersed in the Hooghly river alone, releasing 16.8 tonnes of varnish and garjan oil and 32 tonnes of colour in the water, containing heavy dozes of manganese, lead, mercury and chromium, with significant increases in their concentrations many times beyond the safety limits. Their effects on the human body can be devastating. When inhaled, chromium affects the respiratory tract, and might cause cancer of the lungs, nose or sinus.

Lead is absorbed and stored in bones, blood, and tissues resulting in anaemia and damage to the kidney and brain. High exposure to mercury damages the gastrointestinal tract, the nervous system and kidneys. Manganese, while essential for health in limited quantities, poisons the body when exposed to an overdose that can cause hallucination, amnaesia, nerve damage, bronchitis and Parkinson. The effects of these toxins on marine life would be much more shattering. Idols are painted with these colours and like some farmers who apply lethal colour to their vegetables to make them look fresh, the idol makers also apply these paints without qualms. The secretary of the Kumartuli Mrit Silpa Sankriti Samity (association of idol makers) is reported to have 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.” So for a mere Rs 800, they don’t mind playing with environment and public health, including their own. Diwali is celebrated all over northern and eastern India, but it has become one of the most toxic festivals in the world. After every Diwali, the air turns extremely noxious from the firing of crackers and remains so for several days. Delhi NCR region is especially vulnerable because this also coincides with the harmful stubble burning in Punjab, Haryana and UP after paddy harvesting in October.

This year, despite a ban by the Supreme Court to burn only “green crackers” for two hours on Diwali night from 8 to 10 p.m. and the Government’s unusual resolve to enforce it, people in Delhi had fired 20 lakh kilograms of traditional crackers of the non-green variety, making the air quality index soar to an emergency level of 980 and raising the density of toxic particles over 40 times above the safety limit. The most dangerous PM-2.5 micro-particles that can pierce the lungs and enter into the bloodstream had risen to the level of 2000 compared to their safety limit of 60, aided and abetted by a low windspeed. Though 2776 kilograms of banned crackers being sold clandestinely were seized by the police, ten times as much were burned illegally, under the very eyes of the police who were helpless because people had decided to flout the Court directive. Aam aadmi can do anything with complete impunity. They can lynch innocent individuals in a mob by circulating rumours over WhatsApp, kill innocent people in the name of gau-raksha and take the law into their hands anytime they choose. And the state must always be sympathetic to the perennially wronged aam aadmi. If citizens are allowed to treat the law with such utter contempt, then the State needs to assert itself so as to prevent the country from sliding into certain anarchy. The people have turned our religious festivals into an abiding nuisance and this needs to be changed.

That change involves the law as well as attitudes. Religious practices are not forever cast in stones. We can redesign and readapt them, say, by stopping immersion altogether by using permanent stone idols and performing only symbolic immersion while reusing the same idols every year. “Green cracker” is a no-brainer, Instead of promoting them, we can ban firecrackers for good from our festivals. We can stop the use of mikes in all temples and public places of worship including in the mosques to reduce the noise pollution. Law can help us. If some jobs are lost in the process, governments can help rehabilitate the affected persons or communities. The social benefits will far outweigh the social costs.

As regards changing the attitudes, we must start with the young, by incorporating environmental consciousness in every school curriculum. Half-hearted measures will lead nowhere. We must either sincerely implement the counter-measures or resign ourselves to the reign of terror by those who have no respect for life, health and environment for what they think is faith.


The writer is a commentator. Opinions expressed are personal