Indian Scientists Researching Water Pollution With Religious Origins

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Concerns about water pollution in India have prompted that nation’s scientists to delve further into possible root causes for contamination, including increased scrutiny of contributions by religious practices.

Research focusing on this particular concern has increased, according to The Guardian, as scientists are “worried about the public health consequences of immersing idols in lakes and rivers.”

The nation currently is home to 17% of the world’s population, but it has only 4% of the world’s water supply.

Although the practice of immersing idols in public waterways pales in comparison to other, more potentially lethal sources of pollution — namely the 1984 chemical leak from a Union Carbide factory and the dumping of 2,900 million liters of untreated sewage into the Ganges [Ganga] River daily — research along these lines continues.

Researchers in Hyderabad studied lake water repeatedly over time, including areas used for immersing idols of Lord Ganesh and the goddess Durga. In “Assessment of the Effects of Municipal Sewage, Immersed Idols and Boating on the Heavy Metal and Other Elemental Pollution of Surface Water of the Eutrophic Hussainsagar Lake (Hyderabad, India),” they concluded that sewage is the primary pollutant. This did not account for “high levels of zinc, calcium and strontium [that] ‘were probably due to the immersed idols painted with multicolours,’” noted The Guardian.

Much of the research is devoted to practices surrounding Ganesh Chaturthi, although some scientists have looked at immersing idols such as those of the goddess Durga. Ganesh Chaturthi, the Hindu celebration of Lord Ganesh’s birthday was, according to The Guardian, “Once a fairly quiet, mostly private practice” that “now involves large, public festivals in many parts of the country.”

In Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, the celebration spans 10 days. At the festival’s conclusion, the idol of Ganesh is immersed in water. The devout had once made statues from the earth at hand. The practice of immersing the idol was symbolic, designed to represent the natural cycle of creation and destruction. Commercial production displaced traditional practices as well as materials. Plaster of Paris, which was less expensive to manufacture than clay, was substituted. It is also a non-biodegradable material.

Other than plaster of Paris, there is concern that other materials used — paints and decorations — could also be affecting water quality.

A 2007 study of immersions at Lake Bhopal found the practice was “a major source of contamination and sedimentation to the lake water,” according to The Guardian. “It warns that idol-derived heavy metals, especially nickel, lead and mercury, are likely to find their way into ‘fishes and birds inhabiting the lake, which finally reach the humans through food.’ The authors want to ‘educate idol makers’ to make their idols small, of non-baked, quick-dissolving clay, and with ‘natural colours used in food products.’”
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There have been public education efforts that seem to be gaining traction.

Hindustan Times recently reported that residents are more aware of the need to use clay idols in the Ganesh Chaturthi celebration. The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, Nirmaljyot Charitable Trust, and Shri Siddhivinayak Temple Trust organized an exhibition in April 2012 at the Siddhivinayak temple at Prabhadevi designed to promote the use of clay idols. Clay idols typically dissolve within at least an hour after they are immersed.

The agency says it expects 50,000 eco-friendly clay idols will be purchased in 2012. This is a dramatic increase from 2010, when 3,000 clay idols were used.

Sanjay Bhuskute, public relations officer with the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, said:

This year, the campaign for eco-friendly Ganesha idols will be more aggressive. A week prior to the festival, thirty stalls will be put up across the city where people can buy clay idols. […] We are also launching a website dedicated to this drive on May 1 with a list of clay idol makers.

The makers of the biodegradable idols have begun accelerating production. Shri Ganesh Kala Kendra, for example, expects to make 30,000 idols for this year’s celebration compared to 20,000 in 2011.

The eco-friendly idols are also being exported. “Authorities in the US are very strict about any kind of pollution. Hence, clay idols are the best option for those celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi,” Ashish Kapila, owner of Kapila exports, told Hindustan Times. He says he will be exporting a thousand idols to expatriate Indians in Los Angeles, Nairobi, and New York.

Asha Rane, who purchased one of the clay idols at the temple exhibition told Hindustan Times:

One can imagine the pollution caused by harmful chemicals based on the scale at which the festival is celebrated in the city. All these years we have been using conventional idols, so why not use the clay one, which us a good alternative and the idols look equally elegant and pleasant.

Images by abcdz2000 (top) and Erlkonig (Chris), used under their Creative Commons license.

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