Green festivals or green-washing festivals?

Festivals are times when people come together. But they are also a time when debates about environmental pollution surface. Take the case of the Ganesh Chaturti. Each year around September, hoards of people organise elaborate rituals that will be carried out during the ten days of the festival. Yummy sweets like modak, karanji and ladoo will be made in our homes. This is also that time of the year which marks the resurfacing of the “immersion leads to pollution” debates. Environmentalists and the likes will seek out to make the general public aware about the environmental consequences of idol-immersion.

In Mumbai, a significant number of people participate in the immersion process, they walk and dance all the way from mandals to the sea/lakes/ponds for the immersion of the Ganesh idols. It is a joyous occasion bringing people together. But in the recent past, small groups of people have opted for mud and clay ganapatis. Simultaneously there was an initiative by the Municipal Corporation to provide artificial ponds for idol-immersion. The numbers opting for these artificial ponds has been increasing, but some other issues have also cropped up. For instance, what happens to the water collected in the artificial pond? Disturbingly, some reports claimed that the Municipal Corporation actually release the concentrated Plaster of Paris (POP) laden water collected in the artificial pond, back into the sea! This defeats the basic purpose of why artificial ponds were even created in the first place! But then, one can ask, what to do with the concentrated POP water? Do we need new technology to deal with it? Do we need more awareness or stricter laws? Besides, there is also the problem of lead-based paints and other toxic materials used in the making of the idol.

In recent times, Mumbai has been facing water shortages (like many other towns), so it is best that we conserve what little fresh water we have. But as environmentally conscious citizens, what shall we do? Firstly, we have to remember celebrating an eco-friendly Ganesh Chaturthi is not restricted just to getting a green ganesha idol. The entire festival should be grounded in green practices. And this true for all festivals and community celebrations.

Image: Sign boards clearly don’t seem to keep away people.
Our fresh water reserves like wells and rivers, continue to be polluted.

Here are five possible ways to reduce the way in which we can reduce our impact on the environment while celebrating this Ganesh festival:

  1. Using alternative organic materials
    Fallen leaves and flowers, coconut kernels/shells (a by-product of most households) can be used to make creative idols of Ganesha. One idol does not require more than 10 leaves. One dip in a bucket of water, and you can still use the water for other purposes. There is no wastage of water; leaves, flowers and kernel are compostable. Wheat atta, sweets prepared during the festival, rice and wheat with husk also can serve as raw material to make the idols. Glue made from rice can be used to stick them together. One can come across numerous such examples online. Recently, a Mumbai based organisation said that they are making miniature idols out of corn and vegetable powder, stuff that can be consumed by marine organisms. Additionally, the throne/seat, the mouse, the side decorations etc all have to be made from eco-friendly materials- old boxes, old envelopes/cardboards, scrap clothes, etc.
  2. Using alternative inorganic but natural materials
    Sculpting a small stone/rock could be a possible way to make the idol. In fact, you can pick a small rock, the size of your palm or smaller, from nearby water body. A sculptor (it will be a source of income for him/her) can carve the rock, and customize it, based on your preferences. Immersion would essentially mean returning the rock to where it belonged, back in the water body you picked it up from. But make sure you don’t laden the rock with toxic colours. Another option can be a one-time investment in a metal-idol which can be immersed in small bucket of water. The idol can be reused year after year.
  3. Go for community celebrations
    Instead of every household having a Ganpati idol, opt for several households coming together and keeping a common idol. This approach makes economic sense and is more sensitive to the environment and it brings people together. Just like car-pooling, 4-5 households having one idol is one of the best ways to reduce environmental impact. (applicable to other festivals also)
  4. Make smaller idols
    Too much of any material (even irregular natural item) can be dangerous to marine life. So no matter what eco- friendly material you use to make your idol, do so in a small scale (my suggestion would be the length of your index finger). Think about this way, 100 idols weighing 10kg each (meaning 1000 kg of material) dissolving in a limited water body as opposed to 100 idols weighing under 0.5kg (50kg of material). Definitely the impact of the latter will be less. Another advantage of making smaller idols, particularly if you are using food-items like wheat atta or ladoo, is that you minimize wastage of food.
  5. And most importantly, keep it simple.
    It is but obvious that the more elaborate preparations or complicated versions of the idol would demand more work and more materials. Leave out the intricate and aesthetic detailing of the idol. Concentrate more on the spirit of the festival rather than the material aspects. Loud music and crackers should be avoided. Serve sweets, prasad, food items on leaves or re-usable plates. No decorative-items made of thermocol, plastic and other synthetics should be used. The organic stuff (flowers, leaves) that are used during the festive time can be composted. Aim for becoming a zero-waste generating festival! (applicable to other festivals also)

After all, if people are celebrating the “Lord of Ecology and Environment”, what better way to do so, than honouring ecology and environment itself. So don’t just green wash the festival this year, make it truly green!

The above piece is a mildly edited version of my article titled the same, that originally appeared in 2015 in an online platform called The Alternative. [Link no longer active]

Further Reading:

Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (2013). Post idol immersion impact on water quality to ascertain water pollution potential of idols made up of Plaster of Paris and Others” and draft “Guidelines for Immersion of Ganesh Idols”

Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (2014). Comparision Of Noise Levels Measured On Final Day Of Ganesh Festival 2013-2014.

Education and Awareness

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My name is Adithi Muralidhar. I am a nature enthusiast based in Mumbai, India.

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