Last month Kolkata – the City of Joy was decked up to the festive tune celebrating the end of Pitripaksh, the advent of Devipaksh and Devi Durga’s grand descend to Mother Earth - her maternal abode. And while doing that, a large section of the community as usual remained in dark about the possible extent to which environmental damage is caused by idol immersion in water bodies. 

Toxic chemical paints and other raw materials are used to make these idols and other accessories, which when seeped into the river, take several months to dissolve. In the process the water bodies are contaminated with heavy metal concentration, oil and grease, thereby increasing acidity levels that is disruptive of ecological balance. To add to the woes, direct disposal of non-degradable materials like  thermocole, plastic flowers, etc makes the situation worse.  

The narrow lanes and by lanes of Kumartuli – the potters’ hub in North Kolkata become the centre of attraction before Durga Puja. Both locals and foreign tourists pay a mandatory visit to Kumartuli to become a part of the visual anthropology – the living museum of India’s biggest art and craft show – Durga Puja. However, the artisans are paid a pittance for their brilliant creations. The miserable condition of the workshops that are deprived of the basic amenities leaves no space for environmental considerations. 

Civic bodies, environmentalists and the society’s concerned citizens have been engaged in aggressive campaigns to spread awareness amongst the artisans, organizers and worshippers and also develop eco-friendly ways to counter the environmental damages. 

Campaigns and Changing Face of the Celebration

Citizen activists like Mr Subhas Dutta and Mr Sudipto Bhattacharjee have repeatedly filed a number of PILs to Calcutta High Court requesting to ban any activity that poses a serious threat to the pristine-self of river Hooghly, port city of Haldia and numerous other townships and settlements on the banks of the river.

Environment Governed Integrated Organisation (EnGIO), a city based NGO launched a Green Campaign as a step towards curbing the otherwise ineffaceable impact on environment caused by the twin celebrations of Durga and Kali Puja in Bengal. Going by the carrot or stick principle, performance based incentives in the form of Green Puja Awards were announced for the Puja Organisers. This initiative was supported by West Bengal Pollution Control Board (WBPCB). Points were given on the basis of level of adherence to the environmental norms in place, by the Puja committees while hosting the festival. 

Similarly, campaigns to curtail the use of toxic lead and chromium paints gained momentum post 2008. However, this movement faced tremendous resistance by the idol artists as the use of environment friendly paints would cost them twice than the conventional paints lowering their profit margin significantly. The State Pollution Control Board again played an instrumental role in persuading the artisans, who themselves are the worst victims of the contaminant powder dyes containing a good dose of heavy metals, to use the environment friendly raw materials. The artisans were conveniently ignorant of the tremendous health hazards they are unknowingly facing due to the unchecked use of harmful materials. 

In 2011, the WBPCB moved a step further and distributed over 150 litres of environment friendly paints in various idol making hubs across Kolkata and surrounding areas. Most of the initiatives to make idol immersion 'clean and green' have received support from the Kolkata Port Trust (KoPT) and Municipal Bodies including Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC). In 2015, a joint study undertaken by KMC, KoPT and EnGIO discloses that a considerable size (almost 70%) has adopted idol making processes with lead-free paints. 

Several other measures have also been implemented such as erecting make-shift bamboo structures near different idol immersion ghats to collect used flowers, cloths and garlands dumped by puja organisers. The debris and discarded materials are segregated as recyclable and non-recyclabe wastes by the volunteers deployed on the site of immersion by KMC. Then this waste is either transported to solid waste dumping sites or reused by the idol makers. 

The 2010 Calcutta High Court order followed by the guidelines formulated by WBPCB bestows the responsibility to clean up the river within 48 hours post immersion on KoPT and municipalities. As a result of this directive by Calcutta High Court, presently a KoPT floating crane is on 24*7 duty near major ghats on the banks of River Hooghly to pick up the idols before they are fully immersed in the river. 

Guidelines by Central Pollution Control Board and Other Civic Bodies

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has already an existing guideline in place for idol immersion which includes clauses like prohibition of baked clay, plaster of paris (POP) to make idols; rather it encourages use of natural materials like clay, hay, banana stalk and jute as described in the religious scriptures. The guideline strongly dejects painting of idols. Only water soluble and nontoxic natural dyes are allowed to be used if painting is mandatory. Worship materials popularly known as the Nirmalya are to be removed before immersion of idols. 

It puts emphasis on prior segregation of biodegradable and non-biodegradable materials for recycling/ composting / disposal in the sanitary landfills. Strict implementation of these guidelines would definitely enable us to collect and treat the waste. The CPCP also promotes mass awareness initiatives to make people aware of the ill-effects of unscientific immersion process. Apart from these directives, the guideline proposes to identify and barricade idol immersion points and use synthetic liners at the bottom of the artificial water body. 

The guidelines also recommend that monitoring of the water quality should mandatorily be done thrice — pre-festival, during the festival and post immersions. However, only a handful state pollution control boards have taken affirmative action in this regard. 

In 2013, Allahabad High Court banned immersion of idols in the Ganga and Yamuna rivers in UP. The high court bench ordered a ‘blanket ban’ on immersion of idols dismissing the plea of the state government to let the idols be immersed and then taken out instantly. To promote eco friendly immersion process, Nagpur and Indore Municipal Corporations introduced the concept of green immersion by installing artificial ponds. Devotees are advised to strip the idols of all non-biodegradable items before the immersion. 

Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) and organizations such as the National Chemical Laboratory and Cummins Group (India) with support from other stakeholders like community members and education institutes have been able to make Pune an       eco-sensitive zone during Ganeshotsav. A large number of idol makers has either switched to eco-friendly clay idols or agreed to immerse the plaster of paris idols in special civic tanks or in buckets of water at home with sodium bicarbonate powder provided by the PMC free of cost with every PoP idol sold. Also, PMC has effectively set up large bins shaped as traditional pots or Kalashes to collect Nirmalya

In Mumbai, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and Maharashtra SPCB were directed to implement CPCB guidelines in 2009 by a Bombay High Court Verdict. Karnataka Government decided to construct makeshift tanks and allow the use of mobile immersion vans for the Ganesh Chaturthi festival recently. 

In places like Naihati in North 24 Pargana, West Bengal, idols are melted into a mound of clay using hose pipes. It needs to be examined if the same model can be replicated for the giant idols in Kolkata and suburbs. 

In Conclusion

This year more than 4500 Durga Puja committees in and around Kolkata applied for electricity connection from the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation (CESC) alone to set-up the pandals. The number remained at a strikingly high level even for Kalipuja. Immersion of all these idols would cause havoc if timely precautions are not taken.

Positively, following the PILs by citizen activists and guidelines by the PCBs, a paradigm shift is now visible wherein eco-sensitive materials and practices have gained a momentum in Kolkata and surrounding places. Puja Committees are not only participating in the competition for the much coveted Green Awards but are also making efforts to keep their localities free from plastic wastes, segregate other wastes, and cause no harm to the greenery around the pandals. 

Though most of the branded Pujas are presently under the Radar of Municipal bodies and are therefore compelled to conform to the existing regulations, immersion of idols in the outskirts of Kolkata go unnoticed. This calls for further actions to look into such apparently insignificant dimensions of festivals. 

As the idols bid farewell and wait for the next year begins, the author seeks answers to a few bothersome questions. Is there a general guideline for idol immersion? How compliant the Puja committees and communities have been with the existing environmental norms? What are the incentives to make the celebration clean and green? and Who are the watchdogs?

"India is a pious land with numerous temples and shrines attracting devotees from all across the globe. Religion and mythology are celebrated here with great vigour and an elaborate course of rituals. Most of the people follow idolatry, which if not supervised responsibly, can become a huge concern. To worship is mandatory for many of us. But, we must also realize that it is equally important to exert least negative imprint on the environment. The epic scale celebration of all the major festivals across the country especially Durga Puja and Ganesh Chaturthi requires us to become more vigilant to ensure our environment is in safe hands". 

(This article has been contributed by Sucharita Bhattacharjee who is working with Confederation of Indian Industry (Eastern Region). She is the coordinator for CII Sustainability Task Force (ER). A graduate in Economics, she further pursued Masters in Development Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai)