In the quiet housing estate of Angrewadi in the heart of Girgaon in south Mumbai, people are celebrating the 100th consecutive year of the Ganesh Chaturthi, the Hindu festival of the elephant-headed god of new beginnings. Statues of Lord Ganesh are brought into homes and put on display for offerings and prayers.
On the 11th and final day of the festival, the ritual of Ganesh Visarjan takes place – falling this year on 1 September. The statues, normally made of soluble plaster of paris, are traditionally carried in a public procession with music and chanting, and are then immersed in either a river or the sea. Here, they slowly dissolve in a ceremony that dramatises the Hindu view of the ephemeral nature of life – but also causes widespread pollution.
In Mumbai alone, around 150,000 statues are immersed each year.Angrewadiresidents normally head to Girgaon Chowpatty beach, just over a mile away. Most statues from south Mumbai are submerged in these waters, including one particularly revered idol, Lalbaugcha Raja, which stands over six metres tall.
The aftermath of idol immersion on Mahim beach, Mumbai, in 2018. Photograph: Rabia Tewari/Mahim Beach Clean Up
But not this year.
In Mumbai – one of the Indian cities most affected by coronavirus – devotees are not heading for the beach this year. Instead, Mumbai’s ngoverning body, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), has installed more than 200 artificial ponds across the city so that the tradition may be upheld while preventing large crowds gathering.
Environmentalists hope these ponds, which will reduce pollution, will become a permanent fixture
“We will be immersing our eco-friendly idol in a small aluminium tub this year,” says DV Kulkarni, head of Angrewadi’s event-organising committee.
Devotees will not be allowed to go near the new ponds, but will instead hand over their statues to workers who will immerse them as the owners watch from a distance.
The BMC – which has limited the size of the religious statues to a maximum of 1.2 metres this year – has also arranged for pick-up trucks to collect statues from people who do not want to leave their homes. Those who still want to use the sea will need to seek approval online and book a time slot. The same regulations will apply to some of the new ponds.
Traditionally, most statues are dropped into the Arabian Sea, leaking chemicals into the marine ecosystem along Mumbai’s coast. Varying in size, from just a few centimetres to up to 20 metres, most of the idols are made of non-biodegradable plaster, which can take years to dissolve.
Paints and materials containing lead, mercury, chromium and other harmful substances are used to colour and decorate the statues, and thousands of garlands of plastic flowers are thrown into the sea with them.
Indranil Sengupta and Rabia Tewari launched the Mahim Beach Clean Up campaign in Mumbai in 2017. They say the ritual causes great marine damage.
After last year’s festival, says Tewari, the impact on marine life was immediate. “The tide was low, and several idols were still on the beach . We could also see plenty of dead fish around. We were so disappointed to see it.
“The seepage of harmful substances is also biomagnified in marine life, which indirectly harms humans too,” says Debi Goenka, executive trustee of Conservation Action Trust in Mumbai.
The rise in use of eco-friendly idols, made from clay, is starting to have a positive impact on water pollution. According to reports by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, the water quality indexat Girgaon Chowpatty beach has improved from 49.77 (out of a maximum of 100) in September 2016, to 64.19 in September 2019. September is the month when the festival ends and when pollution peaks.
Rajashree Patagaokar, 26, applies the last few ornaments to a plaster statue. Normally, these decorations and other ornaments – along with the statue – are immersed in the sea, causing pollution along Mumbai’s coast
But the improvement has come at a cost to local businesses.
“This year, due to the lockdown, life had already been hard, but with barely any of my [plaster of paris] idols being bought, I’ve suffered losses of over 60% of my total business,” says 42-year-old Sanjay Waikar, who owns the Shree Samarth Art store in Parel.
Using clay to make the statues is much more time-consuming and expensive, taking up to six days to complete, whereas a plaster idol, made in a cast, takes less than a day to produce.
“Only 10% of our idols made of [plaster] have been sold, while the eco-friendly [clay] idols, which are less in number, are being bought quickly. We’ve barely hit the 50% mark of what our earnings were this time last year,” says Rajashree Patagaokar, who has a family business selling statues in a small roadside shop in Late or, in the south of the city.
The festival is extremely popular in Mumbai and throughout the state of Maharashtra.
“Apart from immersing our idol, we mainly go to the beach to just soak in the electric atmosphere of the processions, crowds, and the views of other majestic idols. It’s a wonderful feeling and is one of our main festivals,” says Kulkarni.
But the pandemic has stopped religious processions across India this year and prompted questions about whether the use of eco-friendly idols and artificial ponds will continue. Last year, 32 artificial ponds were installed, in which, according to the BMC, more than 3,700 idols were immersed, accounting for around 10% of the total across Mumbai.
“People have been very receptive and welcoming of the idea of artificial ponds since last year, as there is a lot of awareness of the real damage to the sea after Visarjan,” says Kiran Dighavkar, assistant commissioner of Dadar-Mahim area in Mumbai.
“Last year, we collected and recycled around 9,000 idols made of plaster of paris, where they were put in cement silos. But there are still religious concerns with this, and we have to work to find out a sustainable solution. Our main aim this year is to avoid large gatherings. Going forward, we are moving towards utilising environment-friendly solutions such as artificial ponds.”
The processions, celebrations, and rituals may resume post-Covid-19, but both authorities and citizens are edging slowly towards lessening the impact on fragile marine ecosystems in the Mumbai area.
Pramod Higesthe, left, and DV Kulkarni of the Angewadi events organising committee with an eco-friendly idol. Photograph: Gautam Doshi/The Guardian
Source: The Guardian