My friend 'non-toxic' Ganesha

Seetha Gopalakrishnan
Friday, September 11, 2015 - 10:01
Ganesh Chathurthi, a much-awaited event in the Hindu calendar, is celebrated with great pomp especially in Western India. The reason could be that freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak used this festival in the 1890s to arouse the nationalistic sentiments of locals and bring all factions together against the reigning British. This is probably how the festival transformed from being a private clebration to a grand public event. 
Come September, and the streets of Mumbai and several other towns and cities in the region dazzle in revelry. Towering Ganesha idols are placed at every street corner complete with regular pujas and aartis. The 11-day festivities culminate with the grand ‘visarjan’ when the the ‘Ganpati Bappas’ are immersed in the sea after parading them across the entire city one last time. 

On average, Mumbai city alone dumps close to 1.5 lakh idols, big and small into the sea. While some of the idols are made using clay, the huge, brightly coloured ones from the ‘pandals’, more often than not, are made out of gypsum [1].

We all stop to gaze at the mighty beauties, but, in most cases, fail to see what’s underneath. 
Toxic cocktail
The towering idols are moulded using calcium sulfate hemihydrate, or what we know as Plaster of Paris (PoP). When these PoP idols are immersed in water, they change back into their constituent form, namely gypsum. These moulded gypsum giants take months, if not years to degrade completely compared to their eco-friendly clay variants. In addition to the very long degradation time, these idols also increase the waters’ hardness. 
As the idols got bigger and the orders multiplied, sticking to natural colours became more difficult and less economical. Enterprising contractors began using bright and shimmery synthetic paints similar to industrial grade paints, which are usually laced with heavy metals such as cadmium and lead. When the idols are immersed in the sea after the festivities, the chemicals slowly mix with the sea. These chemicals have a tendency to spread over larger surfaces and as a result, micro as well are macro organisms near and far are at high risk of heavy metal poisoning. 
Unfortunately, it does not stop here.
While some organisms find it difficult to manage the chemical load, others accumulate the toxic materials in their body in what is known as bio-accumulation. Guess where these bio-accumulated toxic chemicals end up! They take the long route and enter into humans when fish and other marine organisms from polluted waters are consumed. It isn't just the paint but also the accessories accompanying the idols that are a huge cause of concern. Along with the idols, decorative cloths, plastic ornaments and synthetic embellishments are dumped in the lakes and seas, increasing the non-degradable solid load. 
Despite it being a recurring occurrence, there aren’t many studies to pin the negative environmental impacts to the mindless dumping that follows the festivities. A compilation from Toxics Link shows that a 2001 study revealed an alarming increase in the presence of heavy metals following immersions in Hyderabad’s Hussainsagar Lake. Levels of arsenic and mercury were found to be much higher than the range prescribed by the ICMR and BIS [2].

CPCB's general guidelines

  • Use natural materials such as clay and vegetable dyes.

  • Avoid synthetic dyes.

  • Remove all decorative items before immersion.

Greener alternatives
As the entire exercise is one built around societal norms and local tradition, thankfully, it is not something which a little bit of awareness and grassroot activism cannot handle. Several organisations in and around Maharashtra have voiced their support to make the festival more eco-friendly. 
eCoexist Ganeshas is a Pune-based social enterprise set up to tackle social as well as environmental needs, and has championed the cause of an eco-friendly Ganesh Chathurthi since 2008. Their clay idols are sun-dried and not baked; are painted using naturally occurring materials such turmeric and multani mitti; and are decorated with accessories fashioned out of natural materials such as cloth and shola pith. If these multani mitti sprayed Ganeshas have piqued your interest, book your own eco-Ganesha here or click here to find out more. 
Sprouts’ edible Ganesha – Mumbai-based NGO Sprouts Environment Trust has come up with fish-friendly idols made out of vegetable and corn powder ensuring both environment security for the beaches as well as food security for the fish! Once dissolved, the ingredients can be consumed by the fish in the sea. To know more about Sprouts' activities, click here.
DIY Ganeshas – Ready to get down and dirty? Here are some simple ways to make your own idol this season. A step-by-step guide to make your own clay idols and light-weight papier mache Ganeshas
Join the campaign – Get together and spread the word; be it bringing home an eco-friendly Ganesha, or having a green visarjan. Go GREEN Ganesha also offers environment friendly idols. Here's some advice from Green Bappa on how you can make your celebrations and immersions greener
What can I do?
As a green sweep looks imminent this time around, you could: 
  • Say no to PoP idols
  • Avoid idols coated with synthetic paints
  • Stick to the basic clay variants
  • Use permanent idols made of stone or brass for the pujas
  • Stay away from plastic and other non-biodegradable decorations
  • Not throw away cloth, paper or plastic decorations into the river/sea along with the idol 
  • Go in for a symbolic immersion where you immerse the idol along with betel leaf and nut and throw away the latter after the puja if you are planning to use a permanent idol

Hope this Ganesh Chathurthi turns out to be equally happy for those on land as well as in the sea!