Do the gods pollute? Worried about the effects of immersing idols in rivers, seas and lakes on public health, environmental scientists have started looking at water pollution with renewed interest. They hope that Indians will begin to privilege the deadly effects of immersing idols over their religious beliefs.
I travelled through three metropolitan cities to document the ways in which people undertake the immersion of idols and how they approach environmental issues. Most of my research is based on the private and public immersions of Durga and Ganesh idols.
The environmental effects of idol immersion on water bodies and the ecology of surrounding areas are worsening with each passing season – something that believers are either unable to understand or vehemently deny. This pollution, along with industrial waste, accumulates in our water bodies, poisoning our water sources.
People who stand by their religious practices have concluded that poisonous materials such as sewerage account for water pollution. However, the high levels of zinc, calcium and strontium found in the water are probably caused by the multicoloured idols which are immersed in the water, not just sewerage. Plaster of Paris, which is used to make most idols, is not soluble, and ends up clogging the earth and being consumed by fish. Other materials such as clothes, iron rods, varnish and paints made from harmful chemicals that are used for decorate idols also harm the environment.
Most of the water bodies in the areas I visited contained heavy metals, especially nickel, lead and mercury, which probably came from idols. These pollutants are likely to find their way into the digestive tracts of the fishes and birds inhabiting the area, and so invariably make their way to the humans who consume them.
Through this photo essay I aim to encourage idol makers to make smaller idols, using non-baked, quick-dissolving clay and with “natural colours used in food products”. Some people have idols made out of paper although this is also environmentally harmful as processing paper sucks the oxygen out of the air and generates greenhouse gases like methane.
Plastic and other waste at the banks of river Yamuna accumulated during idol immersion. Despite warnings by environmental scientists and the imposition of fines, citizens ignore the hazardous consequences of idol immersion.
Immersion of Durga idols in the Yamuna river.
People rejoice during the Durga immersion, forgetting the environmental effects of their actions.
Fishermen at the Hoogly river are facing problems like dead fish and silt, negatively impacting the quality of the fish they catch.
The flower market below the Howrah bridge. The vendors also throw garbage into the river, contributing to the pollution. When asked about ‘Swachch Bharat’ initiative, the locals said that they didn’t care.
The riverfront also gets clogged with detritus from the idol immersions, such as the iron frames used to build the idols.
Poor migrant labourers sleeping along the river strand in Kolkata. These migrants, who work as rickshaw pullers and porters, use the river’s water for their daily needs. They believe the Ganges is sacred and deny that it can be polluted.
Migrants along the Ganga – their lifeline.
A ragpicker trying to extract sellable items from the immersed idol which has floated to the river bank during the low tide.
Mumbaikers carrying Ganesha idols for immersion in the Arabian Sea. The idols are made from plaster of Paris and poisonous dyes that lead to pollution, thereby negatively impacting the environment.
While families enjoy themselves during the immersion ceremony at Mumbai’s Aksa beach, they overlook the hazards of using idols made of plaster of Paris and dyes containing mercury. As a result, the ecology of the place and water levels get adversely impacted.
The idols being immersed here are made of plaster of Paris and painted with poisonous dyes which cause pollution, thereby impacting the ecology in the long run.
Photo credits: Shome Basu