As Mumbai gets ready to bid adieu to Bappa, the sea braces for more pollution

An estimated 1.63 lakh idols were bought by households this year, and over 19,000 idols for the public pandals. Most of these are made of thermocol and Plaster-of-Paris (POP), and will be immersed in the sea, along the popular beaches. Why is Mumbai unable to move from POP to clay idols?

Maharashtrians mostly believe that the popular 10-day Ganesh Chathurthi festival, which ends on Sept 12 with the immersion of idols in the sea, was first started by Chhatrapati Shivaji. Today, it is the biggest festival in the state, especially Mumbai, with Ganesh Pandals displaying larger than life idols, gaily painted and adorned with jewellery and entertainment through the night. For idol makers and sellers in Mumbai, it is a festival for making some profit. Environmental activists, however, see it — and especially the immersion of idols in the sea — as a disaster.

Immersion of Ganesh idols usually takes place at Girgaon Chowpatty, Juhu beach, Marve beach and Aska beach in Mumbai. Other than this, the city administration has designated 129 spots for immersion. But people mostly go to the popular beaches for idol immersion. It is estimated that 1.63 lakh idols were bought by households this year and over 19,000 idols for public viewing by the Ganesh Pandals. Most of these are made using thermocol and Plaster-of-Paris (POP). Very few idols are made from clay.

A vendor, who has been making Ganesh idols for years, said that people don’t purchase that many clay idols. “It is difficult to cover the cost of clay idols. POP idols are cheap, easy to make and in demand. On the other hand, clay idols are biodegradable but they are fragile and expensive. They cost more than double the POP idols. Also, it takes longer to make them. So, for both sellers and buyers, clay idols don’t seem to be a feasible option.” A Mumbai citizen concurs, saying that the smallest POP idol costs somewhere around Rs 150 while the cost of a comparable clay idol would be in the range of Rs 300-350.

Assault on the environment

The immersion of the POP idols is known to cause adverse effects on the environment and marine life in the water bodies where they are dumped. Not just the POP, but heavy metal paints, jewellery used for decoration and other materials used in worship adds to the degradation.

Professor Shyam Asokekar, Centre for Environmental Science and Engineering at IIT-Mumbai, carried out a test which showed that POP idols remain in the water for months and years whereas clay idols dissolve in 45 minutes. A similar study conducted by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) found that after immersion of idols, total dissolved solids increased by 100 percent. The heavy metal content increased tenfold and many of the insoluble materials disrupted the oxygen level, reducing the lifespan of aquatic fauna.

Attempted regulation and failure

It’s not that there haven’t been regulations to prevent such degradation. CPCB guidelines clearly restrict use of toxic paint and POP idols. The guidelines also say flowers, clothes and other materials should be removed before immersion, biodegradable materials are to be collected separately and non-biodegradable materials should be dropped at landfills. It is recommended that synthetic liners be placed at the bottom in the sea or other water bodies, so that remains of idols can be collected and disposed of later. Along with this, activities should be conducted to raise public awareness on the use of eco-friendly idols. But these guidelines remain largely on paper in Mumbai.

The municipality has tried setting up artificial lakes for immersion, but this found few takers, even as environmentalists described this initiative as a farce, since the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) ultimately dumps the residue in the sea anyway. The BMC is yet to set up a recycling unit for this waste.

Moreover, in the eyes of environmentalists, such regulations and initiatives invariably are short term ‘damage control’ measures. The only long-term solution is to get people to shift to clay idols. In the current situation, though, that seems to be wishful thinking. A resident of Borivali said that he knows POP idols aren’t environment-friendly, but he says he can’t afford a clay idol. 

Pic: Pradeep Chandra

The need for economic measures

Even if one were to discount the high price of clay idols, meeting the demand for idols in itself would pose a challenge: making clay idols requires skilled artisans, and their numbers are fast going down. Take the case of Pen village in Raigad district. The village is renowned for making Ganesh idols since the 1860s, when artisans started making idols in exchange for a sack of food grains. Only skilled artisans were entrusted with the responsibility. The village has been catering to the rising demand of idols as the festival gained popularity across India.

But the plight of the highly skilled artisans in the village is a sorry one today. They need a loan to purchase the material to make clay idols. In order to make ends meet, they too have shifted to making idols out of POP. A seller in Parel said that just the rent for the tiny space on the main road, where he keeps and sells his idols, is a big burden in itself. He hardly makes any profit on clay idols and hence has taken to selling only POP idols.

Under the circumstances, one can hardly blame the POP idol makers and sellers. Some sort of government intervention is needed. One option before the Maharashtra government is to subsidise the cost of clay idols, as in Goa. In order to prevent sale of POP idols, the Goa government, under Section 15 of the Environment Protection Act 1986, banned the manufacture, stocking, transport, display and sale of POP idols since 2008. In addition, the government provides a subsidy of Rs 100 per clay idol to the craftsmen, which has achieved some success in encouraging them to turn to clay. However, craftsmen are now demanding that the subsidy be increased to Rs 200, as input costs have gone up. 

However, unlike in Goa, a complete ban is unlikely to work in Maharashtra, especially in Mumbai. But implementing a ban on immersion of POP idols in the sea and other water bodies, as Karnataka has done, can certainly be considered by the Mumbai authorities, especially in Chaupati beach, which sees the culmination of the grand Ganapati procession every year, with hundreds of idols being dumped in the sea.

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