The price of our ignorance: Repercurssions of the idol immersions on Mumbai's coast

The Ganpati festival was started by Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak to bring the community together during British raj,

Mumbai’s biggest festival is coming to an end and it had also paved the way for festivities, devotions and community participation but more importantly, pollution.

The festival was promoted by freedom fighter Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak as a community's cultural resistance to the colonial laws of the British Raj. However, in the post-independence era, it has taken the shape of individual competitiveness in the size and ardour of the festival premiering it into an elitist social symbol among different demographics of the city’s working class.

The price of our ignorance: Repercurssions of the idol immersions on Mumbais coast

Mumbai's biggest festival - Ganesh Chaturti. Image credit: Wikimedia commons

Our city is known to learn from the ‘polluter pays principle’ rather than the ‘precautionary principle’. These two principles are the two main sets of environmental laws and damage accountability that are a part of the sustainable development goals, first convened in Rio convention, 1992 for which India is a signatory.

In 2016, a total number of 2,09,602 idols were immersed in the Arabian Sea. Idol immersions in 2017, recorded over two days, there were 71,392 immersions out of which 71,069 were household idols and only 323 were community idols.  The number has risen since then, with the number of immersions into artificial ponds decreasing and the number of immersions in natural water bodies, especially the sea, increasing.

A ganpati idol immersed in the sea. Image credit: Wikimedia commons

A ganpati idol immersed in the sea. Image credit: Wikimedia commons

The Arabian Sea is a ‘biological paradise’ and has some 624 species of plants and about 12,000 species of marine fauna found in these waters. It has diverse ecosystems and biota including estuaries, backwaters, mudflats, mangroves, sandy shores, rocky foreshores, corals, submerged banks, islands, an extensive continental shelf and the abyssal deep. The sea accounts for almost 60 percent of the annual yield of the 2.2 million tonnes of fishery from all the waters of India.

There are around 27 public interest litigations in courts to ban or regularise Plaster of Paris (POP) idol immersions across the country. Unfortunately, state governments and petitioners have received backlash after imposing such bans or regulations. The ban was imposed upon the immersions of POP idols into natural water bodies but allowed for immersions into artificial ponds.

Spreading Awareness

Under Vanashakti, we had drafted a petition last year, to regularise the immersions of POP idols into natural water bodies. However, we realised, after studying past petitions, orders and judgements, that stakeholders involved were not just state governments but the POP artisans and devotees opting for POP idols. They needed to understand and be made aware first, why this was an issue in the first place.

The general public, especially right-wing groups and communities, perceive such bans as an imposition in practising their culture primarily. The whole debate or even the introduction of the environmental dialogue doesn’t stand a chance. 

The aftermath of the ganpati celebrations. image credit: Twitter

The aftermath of the ganpati celebrations. image credit: Twitter

As part of our conservation efforts through Sagarshakti - the coastal and marine research division of Vanashakti, we collaborated with India for its Ocean and the Rotary Club. We to set up an artificial pond at the entrance of Juhu beach, with volunteers standing at the beach entrance, asking devotees going to immerse idols into the sea to choose the artificial pond instead. We also had facilities set up to recycle the idols accessories and flower remnants.

We figured if the policy wouldn’t work, we would start with the most basic method – urging devotees to choose the artificial ponds and cleaning of the beach immediately after the visarjans.

Price tag on Ignorance

The price of our ignorance of non-biodegradable plaster of paris idol immersions has severe consequences on the marine life in the intertidal, sub-tidal and indigenous fishing communities whoa are dependent on these shores for their livelihood. The impact on deep-sea biodiversity is still unknown as there are not enough studies that have assessed the actual marine and coastal damage.

A ganpati idol washed ashore.

A ganpati idol washed ashore.

A few days after visarjan, in 2017, Nandakumar Pawar, a fisherman from the Bhandup fishing village brought a fresh catch of crabs home and they smelt bad.  He explained the stench – they were from chemicals, presumably from the lead and arsenic chemicals. Heavy hazardous chemicals such as lead and arsenic of the paints, used in such idols, were present in the crabs, which he ultimately had to throw away.

In 2018, one day after the final immersion day, thousands of dead fish and turtles were found washed ashore on Juhu and Dadar beach. Experts claimed the main reason was the influx of big numbers of plaster of paris idol immersions coupled with the poisonous hazard it has on marine biodiversity of chemical paints from the idols like lead, chromium and arsenic.

A turtle washed ashore after visarjan. Image credit: Author provided

A turtle washed ashore after visarjan. Image credit: Green Bappa

The impact of idol immersions is not limited to the sea, coast and communities impacted. The pollution and degradation also transients into freshwater bodies like lakes and rivers.

A 2011 study by the Department of Aquatic Biology, Veer Narmad South Gujarat University found alarming levels of water quality degradation in the Tapi River post idol immersions. The Tapi River is 724km long and provides fresh water to the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh that ends into the Arabian Sea.  The study concluded a rise in water temperature along with increase acidity pH levels in the water. It also mentioned the study’s findings on the presence of oil, grease, chemicals and alarming changes in the total alkalinity, total hardness and physio-chemical properties of the water quality in the Tapi river.

Our efforts in sensitising and educating devotees at the entrance of Juhu beach comes to an end and we faced a range of emotions from anger, curiosity to the helplessness of certain devotees when they saw a banner of dead sea turtles and marine life and the sorry state of the beach afterwards. We realised the imperativeness in bringing change is to understand that the environment is sacred too.

Team India for its Oceans and Sagarshakti at Juhu Beach Artificial Pond, 2019. Image credit: Sarita Fernandes

Team India for its Oceans and Sagarshakti at Juhu Beach Artificial Pond, 2019. Image credit: Sarita Fernandes

The change will come from the bottom-up efforts in providing alternatives, making citizens aware of their beautiful coasts and marine life and respecting the living-thriving sea of our city. Policy tools would help such conservation efforts, but it comes down to breaking the cultural resistance in understanding why saving and protecting the city’s coast and the environment is sacred devotion too.

Eco-friendly alternatives for a clean visarjan:

● MUD BASED GANESH IDOLS: There are several artisans, most of the national and state award recipients for their art who only sculpt mud Ganesh idols. Mud Ganesh idols are ocean and environment-friendly in comparison to plaster of Paris idols as the paints used on them are natural owing to the fact that chemical-oil based paints cannot be used on mud idols. Some artisans include seeds into such idols, which post visarjans grows into beautiful saplings.

● HOME VISARJANS: Many celebrities and prominent names this year have opted for home-based visarjans or community/society visarjans in artificial ponds or similar set-ups. This is one of the best alternatives to reducing beach and marine pollution and safeguarding marine life and biodiversity.

Eco-friendly Ganpati idols made from mud. Image credit: Wikimedia commons

Eco-friendly Ganpati idols made from mud. Image credit: Wikimedia commons

● PRECIOUS METAL IDOLS: These idols are made of precious metals of gold, silver or brass and can be used every year for Ganesh visarjans. One of the most sustainable options and alternatives to plaster of Paris Ganesh idols, ocean and environment-friendly.

● RECYCLING ACCESSORIES AND FLOWER REMNANTS: Most of these accessories and flower remnants also causes added pollution on the beaches and oceans. Flower remnants are organic and can be easily recycled at home or in a community organic recycling set-up.

The author works with Vanashakti, an NGO in Mumbai, as the head of its coastal and marine research division 'Sagarshakti'.

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