Durga and Ganesha idol immersions are poisoning India's rivers and lakes

Nivedita Khandekar
Nivedita KhandekarOct 03, 2017 | 15:30

Durga and Ganesha idol immersions are poisoning India's rivers and lakes

As unpleasant photos of the remains of Durga idols along the Yamuna's banks greeted Dilliwalas on October 2, they once again caused heartache for all those who really care for the environment, especially rivers. A similar scene was witnessed a few days ago when scores of Ganesh idols were brought for immersion to Yamuna ghats. In both cases, remnants of idols, especially non-bio-degradable materials, skeletal wooden frames, plastic and cloth used for decoration were seen floating by the ghats.


This has been happening despite an order by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2015 banning the immersion of idols made from non-bio-degradable materials, especially gypsum plaster, commonly known as Plaster of Paris (PoP).

Although that order was especially for Yamuna and Delhi-NCR, unfortunately, this phenomenon is not restricted to Delhi. Rivers and other water bodies from every major town and city, especially the metros, have been subjected to this brutality. The last few decades have seen the increased use of non-bio-degradable materials for making idols, which has been a cause of concern. Plus, the rising numbers every year only add to the problem.

durga-v_100317031034.jpgPolluting the Ganges is a disservice to the goddess herself. Photo: Reuters

The Ganesh idol immersion does to Mumbai’s sea and small rivers what Durga idol immersion does to the Hooghly in Kolkata. At Hyderabad, the Hussain Sagar lake bears the brunt of almost 60,000 "Ganesh Nimajjan" (Telugu for immersion). Just like Delhi, Bangalore too faces a double whammy each year. The once-pristine Ulsoor lake looks like a war-torn field with two back-to-back immersions – this year, earlier in September was Ganesh idol visarjan and now, Durga visarjan.


Odisha, bereft of such intense immersion-induced pollution thanks to fewer than 100 idols allowed immersion at one of the four artificial ponds located on the banks of rivers Daya, Bhargavi and Kuakhai – nevertheless has another traditional practice that is increasingly damaging our rivers and other water bodies.

Miniature boats sail in various water bodies on Boita Bandana (worshipping of boats) to celebrate the state’s maritime legacy. (The occasion marks the day after Dussehra, when Odiya people used to set sail for trade.) These miniature boats were earlier made from plantain leaves, then from shola wood, but now, increasingly, thermocol is used.

Come to think of it, this is happening in our country — a place where rivers have traditionally been considered living entities (irrespective of whether courts decreed and government challenged it). This is happening in the country where Kumbh Melas are held on the banks of rivers; where hundreds of thousands take a holy dip on special occasions or even on every full moon/no moon day and where almost every major river, long worshipped as a goddess (mostly a female deity, only occasionally a male) and has its own stotra or stuti (hymn as an ode to the river). Hindu scriptures have described almost all rivers as "mokshdayini" (goddess of salvation) but in the 21st century, the Indian rivers are themselves struggling for life.


Sensitising the community

The scenario might appear bleak but then there is always hope. There are scores of little things that people can do – as individuals and as communities – that can prevent damage. I am neither suggesting any ban on festivities nor asking to skip any steps in the traditional practices. In fact, I am suggesting – why not go back to the way they have been celebrated for centuries?

To start with, people can go for idols that are made from eco-friendly material and not PoP. Natural dyes should be preferred over toxic chemical paints. Using natural material rather than plastic, thermocol and even some cheap Chinese imports is a given.

For instance, my housing society in Delhi’s Indraprastha Extension area has adopted the eco-friendly Ganeshotsav for the last few years. There is a restriction on the height of the idol, the idol material needs to be clay and the immersion takes place in an artificial pond in our society premises. In no time, the idol dissolves and the muddy water is used by the gardener the next day for our lawn.

Several places across Bangalore, Mumbai, Pune and many other places in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh have seen rising instances of people preferring to immerse their idols in artificial ponds.

Not just people, the government must act

But it is not just the citizens or the community, the onus first lies with the government, the civic bodies and the monitoring agencies, both, to follow laws. Perhaps, better seized of the problem, Mumbai has already made a start. Apart from the natural immersion points, there were 26 artificial ponds to facilitate idol immersion. It also placed about 200-odd "Nirmalya Kalashs" to collect floral offerings and used compactors and dumpers to collect and dispose this biomass.

In Bangalore too, this year, as the municipal corporation made arrangements for immersion at 36 lakes, it also provided 42 mobile tanks and 269 temporary tanks with the help of state pollution control board.

As against that, Delhi only complied with the NGT order of erecting fenced immersion points but it has not yet thought of artificial ponds. Delhi authorities also have no means to check if the idol brought for visarjan is made of clay/natural material or of PoP.

The national capital, makes for a classic case of gross violations of all earlier and new orders by first the Supreme Court and now the NGT! The September 2015 order of NGT had clearly mentioned that immersion of only those idols which are made from bio-degradable material should be allowed.

It also asked for the use of environmental-friendly colours and directed the authorities to ensure that non-bio-degradable material does not flow into the river but is collected and recycled. Earlier that year, the NGT had in January 2015, passed/ordered a volley of measures under the "Maili Se Nirmal Yamuna – Yamuna Revitalisation Plan 2017" for checking Yamuna pollution.

india-taj-690_100317031124.jpg'When Yamunaji reaches the earth from heaven, it blesses the Earth.' Photo: Reuters

But Delhi nor offers no hope to me. The administration – be it the civic agencies, be it the Delhi government or be it the Delhi Development Authority – have had over two decades to clean Yamuna (the "Maili Yamuna Case" as it has come to be known dates to 1994 when the Supreme Court had taken suo moto cognisance of a Hindustan Times report about the pitiful condition of Yamuna river then.) The condition has been going from bad to the worst even as several thousand crores of rupees have literally gone down the drain.

Section 24 of the Water Act 1974 makes two very distinct points:

** No person should knowingly cause or permit any poisonous, noxious or polluting matter determined in accordance with such standards as may be laid down by the State Board to enter (whether directly or indirectly) into any stream or well or sewer or on land; or

** No person shall knowingly cause or permit to enter into any stream any other matter which may tend, either directly or in combination with similar matters, to impede the proper flow of the water of the stream in a manner leading or likely to lead to a substantial aggravation of pollution due to other causes or of its consequences.

In simple Hindi, निर्मल और अविरल (rivers need to be clean/pure and rivers need to flow unbridled/continuously). After all, how hard can that be? With almost all of Delhi’s sewage going straight into the river and the capital hosting three of the six barrages on the Yamuna, this river – the national capital’s shame – is flowing neither clean nor continuous.

Rivers, climate change and religion

Enough damage has been done to our rivers due to deforestation, reckless mining and damming. Climate change is only set to make things further worse. The rivers known for their purification qualities as described by scriptures will (also) lose their self-cleansing potential if there is not enough water, if whatever little left is polluted.

The only way out I see is to use the religious sentiments associated with rivers that scores of people even in circa 2017 have across India, to tap into their love for rivers as goddesses as a potential social vehicle.

yamuna-690_100317031455.jpgUse religion to rally for rivers. Photo: Reuters

An example I can see are the magical lyrics of the Narmadashtakam (ode to Narmada), Ganga stotram (hymn to Ganga) – both by Adi Shankaracharya, or for that matter the Yamunashtakam, the 16th century ode by philosopher Shri Vallabhacharya.

The following stanzas offer a glimpse:

Narmadashtakam (shlok 2)


कलौ मलौघभारहारि सर्वतीर्थनायकम् ।


त्वदीयपादपङ्कजं नमामि देवि नर्मदे ॥२॥


Kalau Malau[a-O]gha-Bhaara-Haari Sarva-Tiirtha-Naayakam |


Tvadiiya-Paada-Pangkajam Namaami Devi Narmade ||2||

Meaning: Salutations to Devi Narmada, You confer your divine touch to the lowly fish that resides in your holy waters; In this age of Kali (of the Kaliyug) you take away the weight of (our) sins, You are the prime, foremost teerth (place of pilgrimage) amongst all; You Devi, confer joy to the scores of fishes, tortoises, crocodiles, geese and chakrawak birds, all living in you waters, along your banks... O Devi Narmade, I bow down to you, please give me sanctuary at your lotus feet.

Ganga stotra (shlok 4)

तव जलममलं येन निपीतं परमपदं खलु तेन गृहीतम् ।

मातर्गङ्गे त्वयि यो भक्तः किल तं द्रष्टुं न यमः शक्तः ॥४॥

Tava Jalam-Amalam Yena Nipiitam Parama-Padam Khalu Tena Grhiitam |

Maatar-Gangge Tvayi Yo Bhaktah Kila Tam Drassttum Na Yamah Shaktah ||4||

Meaning: Salutation to Devi Ganga. He (the human) who has had the privilege to drink your pure water, no doubt, he / she will obtain the highest of abode; Yama (the Lord of Death) will not be able to cast his glance on this human being (and) he / she will go to your abode and not Yamalok.

Yamunashtakam (Shlok 3)

भुवं भुवनपावनीमधिगतामनेकस्वनैः

प्रियाभिरिव सेवितां शुकमयूरहंसादिभिः ।

तरंगभुजकंकण प्रकटमुक्तिकावाकुका-

नितन्बतटसुन्दरीं नमत कृष्ण्तुर्यप्रियाम ॥३॥

Bhuvam Bhuvan Pawaneem, Madhigatamane Kashwanaihi |

Priyabhiriv Sevatam, Shuka Mayur Hansadibhihi |

Tarang Bhuj Kankana, Prakat muktika valuka |

Nitambtat Sundareem, Namat Krishna Turya Priyam ||

Meaning: When Yamunaji reaches the earth from heaven, it blesses the Earth; all birds such as parrots, peacock and hansas (swans) serve Yamunaji; (As Shri Vallabhacharya visualises), the glittering sands along her banks look like shining pearl bangles of Yamuna along the waves of water as her beautiful hands, (as a veritable bird’s eye view Yamuna is seen as a river full of water with shining sands along both the banks); and she (Yamuna Devi) is the favourite fourth queen of Lord Krishna, we bow to her (as Shri Vallabhacharya asks us).

These hymns were not mere imagination but the exact description of these rivers — including the biodiversity — how and what these rivers are believed to deliver for living beings and also put riders by way of "if you do this, then this will happen" to prevent humans from engaging in wrongful activity.

Why can we not awaken people's conscience to reclaim their rivers, to achieve what has been described in these hymns? Why can we not expect the ordinary citizen, who organises Ganeshotsav to boast about the "Biggest in XYZ area", to revert to a more sensitive celebration?

Why can we not expect the same ordinary citizen, who indulges in toxic chemical colours to decorate his/her Durga idol, to adopt ways and manners that will ensure he/she contributes least towards polluting rivers and water bodies?

Why can we not raise enough awareness so that people force governments to act? I guess, we can.

Last updated: October 04, 2017 | 12:00
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