Are festivals becoming a bane for the environment? (Environment Feature)

New Delhi, Oct 6 (IANS) It's that time of the year again when the festive season is round the corner and the excitement is palpable in the air. For environmentalists and the environment-conscious, however, along with the excitement comes concern, because, as they say, our festivities are increasingly becoming non-eco friendly - and much in contrast to what the festivals signify.

The effect on water bodies, for instance, is one of the biggest concerns.

Traditionally, after a festival concludes, idols are immersed in a water body. But given the modern day changes - in the kind of material used to make the idols, the scale and number of festivities - environmentalists say that water bodies are seriously affected.

"Earlier idols were made of recyclable material like wood, bamboo, hay and clay and vegetable dyes were used to paint them; now it's mostly synthetic. Use of plastic and chemical colours to paint leads to chromium and other heavy metals being released into the water during immersion. This means toxicity is deliberately introduced into the food chain because there is no effective treatment to take these chemicals out of the water," Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director (Research and Advocacy) and head of the air pollution team of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) told IANS.

"Back in the late 1990s, the Central Pollution Control Board had done a study on the Hooghly river after the Durga Puja celebrations and found 30 tonnes of colour, mercury, lead, chromium and other metals in the water," Choudhury stated as an example.

"In Kolkata itself, the number of Puja pandals over a decade has doubled. With enormous mobilisation of resources and corporate funding, the scale and number of celebrations has gone up in other cities as well, increasing the amount of disposable waste. In cities like Bhopal, lakes are becoming vulnerable; it's a similar scenario in Delhi's Yamuna river," he added.

In Hyderabad, where the Ganesh festival was recently celebrated with much fervour, environmentalists and those at the municipal corporation were concerned about the effect of the growing scale of celebrations on the city's water bodies, especially on one of its landmarks, the Hussain Sagar lake.

R.P. Khajuria, member (Environment) of the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority (HMDA), said that as a result of the increasing pollution levels in the Hussain Sagar lake - caused by industrial effluents and dumping of garbage by the people - they had tried to make the Ganesh festival more eco-friendly by encouraging tweaks of some traditional practices.

"For example, we asked the people to reduce the size of the Ganesh idol and immerse these smaller idols at the household level, maybe in a tub or bucket of water, and then use the water for gardening," Khajuria said, adding that they also promoted clay idols which got a good response.

"But at the end of the day, when it comes to the religious sentiments of people, we cannot use force. So we had extra deployment of people to take out the disposed material from the lakes after the immersion," he said. Even then, it hardly helped the water body whose murkiness and stench hangs in the air.

The effects are not restricted to water bodies. Amita Khurana, a doctor in Delhi, pointed to rising air and noise pollution during festivals.

"During Diwali and Dussehra, many people suffer from breathing problems and stinging of the eyes because of the thick smog that hangs in the air, thanks to fire crackers. Those with asthma, the old, and children are the worst affected...and the effect remains for days. Even animals suffer because of that," Khurana pointed out.

Choudhry also made the point about "festival induced traffic and, therefore, vehicular pollution".

"We are moving away from community celebrations. Earlier, Puja committees used to organise bus tours of other pandals. So when 60 people could go in one vehicle, today as many vehicles are being used for the same purpose," he added.

But all hope is not lost. Sections of conscious individuals are doing their bit to make festivals more eco-friendly. The Durga Puja committee of Delhi's Greater Kailash II, for instance, draws inspiration from the religious texts in making the idol.

"The religious scriptures narrate exactly how the idol should be made, which is, obviously very eco-friendly and we have been following that to the last detail for the last seven-eight years," committee vice president Samrat Banerjee told IANS.

The wooden frame, Banerjee said, has been retained for the past 22 years. "We ask the potters to take it out five days after the bisarjan (immersion). For this, we tie the structure loosely to the bank," he said, adding that they use minimal amount of nails, and jute cable instead of nylon on it.

The idol, 85 percent of which is made of hay and the rest of clay, is clothed in fabric that is made 70 percent of banana stalk and the rest of jute, making it biodegradable.

The colours used are also natural. "Where non-biodegradable material is used, like the crown, we use household wires which can be taken out and sold to the scarp dealer, and the money used to pay the potters". The flowers at the end of the Puja are buried and used to make compost.

In Hyderabad too, groups of people decided to bring home smaller clay idols for this Ganesh festival which they either immersed in a bucket of water or sprinkled with water to abide by tradition.

"Reverence to nature is an integral part of our ancient scriptures and thus our festivals. Modernity in all its forms has however taken away its essence. We need to be more conscious and probably revisit our roots for inspiration," Ravi Reddy, a teacher in the city, said.

(Azera Parveen Rahman can be contacted at [email protected])

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Updated Date: Oct 06, 2013 18:15:09 IST