“When the well is dry, we will know the worth of water.” – Benjamin Franklin. The human body is so designed that waiting to know what water is worth isn’t an option because we can last only three days without water. It is estimated that by 2025 an approximate 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity, with two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions. In fact, there are already around 500 “dead zones” – which are hypoxic (low oxygen) areas in the world’s oceans and large lakes that cannot support life – on earth, which is the equivalent of the territory of the United Kingdom.

How does idol immersion contribute to water pollution?: Water pollution in India is a serious cause for concern. One of the primary reasons behind this is idol immersion. Idols are made of plaster of Paris, clay, cloths, iron rods, bamboo and decorated with paints that contain heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, arsenic, zinc, chromium, and lead-all of which are potential carcinogens. These can lead to a significant alteration in the water quality and the heavy metal pollution caused by idol immersion can damage the ecosystem as it destroys aquatic life and blocks the natural flow of the water.

Largely affected areas?: The effects of water pollution caused by idol immersion have been felt in various parts of the country but it’s most pronounced in the Bhoj wetland, Budhabalanga river, river Ganges, the Hussainsagar lake, Kolar river, Sarayu river, Tapi river, Chhatri lake, and the Yamuna.

Why is idol immersion a major concern?: Approximately one lakh idols are immersed in India’s water bodies every year and according to a case study by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), fifteen thousand idols of Goddess Durga are immersed in the Hooghly River alone. The study states that 16.8 tons of varnish, Garjan oil and 32 tonnes of color are released into the water. Every year after Ganesh Chaturthi, Durga Puja, Kali Puja and other big festivals the biological oxygen demand (BOD) levels in rivers increase drastically. There are also significantly visible changes in water quality parameters like pH level, temperature, and dissolved oxygen.

As much shocking as these facts and statistics are, these have become our reality. A common man with no knowledge of the consequences of their activities might have accepted this reality as desirable thus celebrating these festivals with enthusiasm. However, after knowing the ill effects of our actions, we, as responsible citizens of the country and as a part of the global community, are in no position to turn a deaf ear to the pleas of Mother Nature and shut our eyes to the deteriorating condition of the water bodies. History books taught us how in the Vedic ages people used to worship various forces of nature. Ages have passed and we are now living in a world where we worship idols of stone and overlook the damage we cause to those very forces of nature that our forefathers once revered. Before our river beds dry up and the water in these rivers became too poisonous for natural consumption, we have to take strict action to tackle the pollution caused by idol immersion. The solution is not to give up idol worship altogether but it is to come up with ways to celebrate the festivals in an eco-friendly way.

What has the government done?: The Central and State Pollution Control Boards, over the past few years, have come up with many ways to deal with this problem on a large scale. They have laid down guidelines that must be followed by the big community pujas for celebration and idol immersion. Under the guidelines of the State Pollution Control Board in several states, all idols need to be removed from water bodies within 48 hours. Several State Pollution Control Boards have created artificial ponds to serve this purpose and many are required to clean up the water bodies by removing the remnants of idols and other debris within 24 hours of immersion. This waste must be transported to solid waste dumping sites of local municipalities and recycled. Environmental activists and NGOs have also raised their voice in this matter and even the judiciary in a few states has intervened-in 2015, the Allahabad High Court banned immersion of idols in the rivers Ganga and Yamuna.

What should our actions be?: Despite the efforts by the government, an appreciable change in this scenario will only come if everyone who partakes in these festivities does their little bit to bring about a positive change- after all, charity begins at home. It’s the need of the hour to take stringent measures to curb this pollution. We should take these following little measures to tackle the problem.

  • We can use idols that are made from natural materials like traditional clay and hay as was prevalent in ancient times.
  • For the apparels, banana stalk and jute can be used or the clothing materials used for the big idols can be donated to local orphanages after the festivities.
  • Water-soluble and non-toxic paints should be used.
  • For small budget festivals in our homes and localities, the idols can be reused a few times and the ones that have to be immersed can be immersed in small tanks that can be easily cleared out after the immersion.
  • Bamboos and logs used as scaffoldings and for other purposes should be reused.
  • Biodegradable materials like flowers, sweets, and fruits can be used as compost and other materials for decoration must be removed from the idol before immersion and recycled.
  • In different parts of the country where puja celebration by clubs or ‘Puja Samitis’ has now become competitive in nature, financial incentives can be given to these clubs to celebrate in as much an eco-friendly way as possible and the club or clubs which contribute the least to any kind of pollution should be rewarded.

Apart from following guidelines laid down by the Pollution Control Boards, the organizers of these pujas must purchase idols only from registered dealers–the license of those clubs should be revoked which do not obey the guidelines during the celebrations and immersion. However, most importantly, and certainly less taxing than all the above-mentioned measures is spreading awareness about this raging issue through campaigns. The more eyes we open more is the number of conscious and alert people.

If we don’t start now, we might not survive long enough for celebrating festivals at all. Water is the elixir of life so it is our duty to tackle water pollution before its shortage is rife.

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