While spending five days offering prayers to idols of Goddess Durga and hopping pandals is a popular practice during Durga Puja every year, what is also an unavoidable annual ritual is the immersion of these statues in natural water bodies at the end of the festivities. Its religious significance lies in representing Durga’s safe return to her husband, Shiva. Yet, in terms of environment and urban governance, it means dumping hundreds and thousands of statues in the rivers and seas, only to pollute and suffocate them.
According to a research paper, Effects of Idol Immersion on the Water Quality Parameters of Indian Water Bodies: Environmental Health Perspectives, published in the International Letters of Chemistry, Physics, and Astronomy, “Idol immersion is one cause of water pollution in the river Yamuna as it is widely worshipped by devotees in India.” The Yamuna river which stretches 22 kilometres in New Delhi, has become one of the dirtiest rivers in the country. It is the main source of water supply to the national capital.
According to the Central Pollution Control Board, “Idol worship has been in practice in India since ancient time. To worship Gods and Goddess only natural things like milk, curd, ghee, coconut, beetal and river water were usually used. Idols were made with clay and then coloured with natural colours like turmeric. …In the present scenario, metals, ornaments, oily substances, synthetic colours, chemicals are used to make polish and decorate idols for worship”, all of which disintegrate in the water and pollute it.
According to Niyati Seth, a Research Associate at The Energy and Resources Institute – TERI, “Idols are mostly made of PoP and decorated with non-biodegradable materials (plastics, thermocols, etc.) which are highly contaminating in nature.”
Seth believes, “the synthetic colours contain heavy metals like Mercury, Cadmium, Lead, Chromium, etc. which are carcinogenic and hence deteriorate the quality of water. The water quality parameters like heavy metals, dissolved solids, and acid content rises while the dissolved oxygen levels fall, impacting the aquatic ecosystem – killing the fauna and flora. This also reaches human beings through food chains, thereby making it extremely unfit for drinking purposes”.
How are we dealing with this increased pollution in our rivers?
The Central Pollution Control Board, to mitigate the problem, came up with guidelines that suggest that idols should be made from natural materials as described in the holy scripts and traditional clay for idol-making should be preferred to baked clay, Plaster of Paris, etc. But according to the same research study, it was found that “during the immersion ceremony, puja articles such as polythene bags, foam cut-outs, flowers, food offerings, decorations, metal polish, plastic sheets, cosmetic items, all of which are highly polluting, are also thrown into the water”.
The Water Act 1974 also spells out some do’s and dont’s, just like the guidelines given by National Green Tribunal. But its enforcement has not been effective.
Some people have shifted to organic materials to paint idols – but will it help the cause? Not entirely, according to Niyati Seth. “If they are made of organic materials like natural dyes, the effect of it on the environment is minimum.” But she is quick to mention, “it is still better than using synthetic dyes.”
Seth recommends the “use of traditional clay idols (instead of baked clay and PoP) and natural dyes instead of chemical ones.” Another solution would be to immerse the idols in artificial tanks instead of the natural ones.
It is worth noting that an increasing number of devotees have switched to green practices – for instance, South Delhi Corporation offered to help Durga Puja Committees within its jurisdiction dig artificial ponds for immersion. The puja pandal in Pocket 40 of CR Park in Delhi, created the pandal from jute and cotton and did not use any plastic this year. Yet, till more pandals and puja committees start adopting environmentally friendly ways of creating and disposing of idols, our rivers will keep choking. While praying might be human, not polluting the environment might help us get just a tiny step closer to the divine.