Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Good intentions causing problems: Idol immersions

There are a number of areas where modern science and problems clash with traditions. In such cases, a reasonable expectation is that there is a compromise between traditions and the needs of today; in some cases, there is a need that the tradition changes. Why did I suddenly think of this topic ? Well, I came across this article that describes how idol immersion, a joyful and integral part of many religious festivals, is actually helping in killing the river systems of the country. Now, there are many reasons why our river systems are getting killed - there is too much flow of effluents (both domestic and industrial), not enough cleaning of these effluents, not enough flow of fresh water to do a cleanup of the pollutants in the river. No one doubts that in many cases, the conditions of our rivers as they move past major cities is that of a sewer, with the water having very high percentages of pollutants.
For those who have taken part in Durga Pooja celebrations or those celebrating Lord Ganesha, the immersion of idols is an important part. This is repeated across the country. But how many of you have read the news articles that describe the dead fish found floating days after a major festival, with these fish poisoned by the chemicals form the immersion ? Read this article in more detail:

Elaborately painted and decorated idols are worshipped before they are taken during mass processions to rivers, lakes and the sea, where they are immersed in accordance with Hindu faith. Environmentalists say the idols are often made from non-biodegradable materials such as plastic, cement and plaster of Paris and painted with toxic dyes.
After the statues are immersed, the toxins then contaminate food crops when villagers use the polluted water for irrigation, said Shyam Asolekar, science and engineering head at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai. Statue remains from festivities last year still float in rivers and water tanks in Mumbai, where the annual "Ganesh Chaturthi" festival culminate in the immersion of some 160,000 statutes -- some up to 25 feet high -- by millions of devotees. Traditionally, idols were made from mud and clay and vegetable-based dyes were used to paint them.

This is a tricky issue. Issues related to religious festivities are treated with care, with efforts being made not to offend the religious. However, there is no getting around the facts of a matter, and this is not an issue that has sprung up suddenly. Even on TV, you do see many times news articles about the importance of making statues with eco-friendly material, but somehow these items do not sink in.
Sometimes direct action needs to be taken, as for example, when the courts ordered the installation of tall fences on the bridges of the river Yamuna in Delhi in order to prevent people from throwing in flowers or complete garlands.
Rivers are the lifeblood of this country (or any country), with dependence on water requiring that water sources be protected. People know this, but somehow the relation with water pollution does not sink in, or maybe many people do not care. How does one ensure that such a message sink in ? You cannot use force to ensure that such a change happens across the breadth and width of the country.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 4:11 AM