Picture By: Hrishikesh Bhatt
Irresponsible celebration of various festivals degrades the environment around us. Large-scale awareness for practicing eco-friendly celebration is the need of the hour
India is a land where people celebrate many festivals through-out the year. These range from marking the changes of seasons, farming and harvesting practices, to the observing of birth & death anniversaries, to religious commemorations.
However, over the years many of these festivals have also become significant contributors to noise, air and water pollution in India. Increasing commercialization of celebration can be recognized as one reason. Every year, on festivals, people are spending thousands of rupees on crackers, colours and lights with the aim to light up the darkness … but in the absence of proper check and balances, what they are also doing is, leaving behind a massive pile of garbage and pollutants!
Pollution levels in Indian metros and cities are already reaching dangerous levels, the Respirable Suspended Particulate Matter – dust, fumes, smoke and gases – increase even further during the time of festivals.
Diwali – A Din & Gag Festival
The quantum of air and noise pollution caused due to the bursting of firecrackers from a few days before Diwali, suddenly increases from up to 40 – 100 per cent as reported by Central Pollution Control Board. They track the smog (smoke + fog) levels in the air and their data shows that immediate changes should be taken to protect the already damaged environment.
Firecrackers release pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide etc in the air. These particles remain in the air for long periods and cause ailments like asthma and bronchitis. This is particularly harmful to children, elderly and the sick, as well animals and birds.
Though various schools and organizations have started awareness programmes prior to Diwali to educate the masses to celebrate a pollution-free festival, their efforts have been insufficient. The environment and pollution departments also get notices published in various newspapers about regulations to curb noise and air pollution, but an ineffective impact has been seen.
As per directions of the Supreme Court, bursting of sound-emitting firecrackers has been banned between 10pm to 6am. However, the direction is casually flouted as firecrackers are burst till 2 to 3 am, if not throughout the night.
Besides the excessive noise and air pollution, post-Diwali, there is the huge challenge of solid waste management. Roads, public parks and neighborhoods can be seen strewn and littered with a deluge of garbage, including empty bottles used to launch rockets.
“It’s not a new thing. This happens every year,” says Naresh Johar, a Noida resident, who travels 34 km everyday to reach his office in Delhi. “Delhi is the worst performer when it comes to noise and air pollution.”
“Last year, pollution levels increased way too much - more than double of already dangerous levels! Chemicals such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide spread in air and their concentration hung in the lower levels of the atmosphere – we could see it and breathe it,” said Johar.
Last year, after Diwali, the system of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) – an agency under Ministry of Earth Sciences, declared that the air quality in the capital was severe and not suitable for people to breathe. Increased particulate matter brings adverse meteorological conditions, like temperature fluctuation, low mixing height and low wind speed.
Making a Noise
Not only pollutants but the noise of cracker busting also caused several problems. In the famous city of Agra, the use of crackers that cause air pollution are prohibited due to the Taj Mahal. To circumvent this rule, some people have taken to use less crackers that emit fumes, using instead crackers that produce loud sounds.
Shashank Singh, student in St John’s College Agra said, “In most of the shops, you’ll get types of crackers that make a deafening noise. I asked one or two shopkeepers that my family wants crackers that look beautiful, like we use to have in late 90s. Those colorful crackers like ‘Anar, Phuljari’ etc burn with colorful light. But, nowadays people don’t seem to want quiet, sparkly crackers that reduce air pollution, but noisy or polluting ones!”
Talking to Policy Pulse a senior resident Satyawati (75) said, “Diwali should be about sweets, gathering, lights and joy. I don’t see any point in people buying crackers and burning their money like this. Those same people wake up coughing and irritation in eyes. Also people should consider the fact that how much damage they are causing the environment.”
Ganesh Festival spells Water Pollution
Widespread campaigns to have eco-friendly Ganesh Chaturthi were undertaken. But still a large section of the society disregard the pollution and environmental damage caused by the immersion of plaster of Paris idols and chemical paints into water bodies.
Some large Ganesha Pandal committees, in their pursuit to attract maximum crowds conveniently forget the environmental impact caused by the larger than life idols they get made.
Talking to Policy Pulse, Dr Anita Lakhani, Professor of Environmental Chemistry said, “Plaster of Paris (POP) is not a naturally occurring material. It contains gypsum, sulphur, phosphorus and magnesium. The idols take several months to dissolve in water and in the process poison the waters of lake, ponds, rives and seas.”
“We have identified during laboratory test that the chemical paints used to decorate the Ganesh idol contain mercury, lead, cadmium and carbon. These chemicals increase the acidity and heavy metal content in the water,” she added.
Talking about other water pollution causes, Dr Lakhani said, “Several accessories on the idols are also used during the Ganesh Puja. The dry waste includes thermocole, plastic flowers, cloth, incense, camphor and numerous other materials that are dumped carelessly, adding more strain to the already polluted rivers and lakes. Idols in waterbodies also block the natural flow of water. This results in stagnation and breeding of mosquitoes and other harmful pests.”
According to other reports the polluted water causes several diseases including skin diseases. These diseases affect the people who live nearby these polluted wetlands. Throwing light on the subject, environmental crusader from Dehradun, Ravi Singh said, “Pollution from Ganesh Chaturthi idols also damages the ecosystem, kills fishes and water plants.”
“We should try to find alternatives while celebrating these festivals. Using eco-friendly clay idols painted with natural colors can help in reducing the pollution. Use of permanent idols made of stone and performing a symbolic immersion and reusing the idol each year is something that people can do. I feel that people should avoid public water bodies and instead immerse idols in buckets or tubs so that we could save our water resources and the environment is wholesome,” he added.
Garbage Spread during Durga Puja
Similar effects are seen after Durga Puja. The idol immersions affect the entire water body and the colors on the idol cause heavy pollution in rivers and sea. Despite a concerted campaign launched by the state pollution control board in West Bengal conjunctly with various NGOs, poisonous colours are still being used for the idols because they are cheaper than non-lead paints. With most puja organizers loathe to spend more on idols that turn expensive with environment-friendly colours, they conveniently revert to the toxic idols.
A survey that was jointly conducted by green NGO Saviors and Friends of Environment (SAFE) and the department of environmental studies, Rabindra-Bharati University in Kolkata came out with reports that heavy traces of lead were found in the Hooghly after the immersions of the idols last year. This year the organizations are again taking the survey.
On paper more than 80% of the organizers in Kolkata claim to be using lead-free paints, but the reality is different – only a handful of organizers actually used lead-free paints.
“People are aware about the toxic effects of paints and its impact on environment but the price difference encourages them to stick to the conventional paint. It would be great if government help people and reduce the rate so more people can afford these healthy paints,” said Purbhasha Banerjee, a supporter of SAFE.
Holi Waste of Water
The story of festivals and their adverse effect on environment is much the same during other festivals. Holi – the festival of colour - is a spring festival and primarily observed in north India and Nepal. The most celebrated ‘Holi’ is played in the Braj region, in locations connected to the Lord Krishna, including Mathura, Vrindavan, Nandagaon, and Barsana - all witness grand festivities.
In most of the areas, ‘Holi’ lasts for about two days. Every year, thousands of people participate in the festival. Nowadays, Holi too has been overtaken by commercialization and vendors have started providing exotic but toxic colours to the people. These colors look beautiful but can be highly dangerous for the skin and body.
“Toxic chemicals are being used to get the desired colours. They do not wash away easily, get mixed in drains and sewage systems and pollute water bodies and the soil. The festival, which used to be a healthy revelry of people is no longer an exuberant, healthy event,” said Diksha Chaturvedi, teacher by profession.
Colours have so many chemicals in them that they are a health and environment hazard. For example, black color has lead oxide, green has copper sulphate, purple has chromium iodide, silver is made by aluminium bromide and red is made by mercury sulphite. These carcinogenic substances and chemicals also cause bronchial asthama, allergies of eyes and skin, blindness and minamata disease (mental retardation and paralysis).
“While celebrants enjoy getting drenched, people often forgot that we waste so much water in a single day which can be used by the entire nation for two to three weeks. The color that we first use to play the Holi and later wash it away also leans heavy on our water resources. In addition, the chemicals in the also pollute water bodies,” Diksha added.
The Role of the Government
Through the past decade, government and NGOS’s are trying to raise awareness among people. Various campaigns and advertisements come out during the festive season regarding environment and health issues, but the link between festival celebrations and trash continues to grow.
Even while the government encourages public to forego or at least tone down the celebration, the effect is muted. In a message during Mann ki Baat, Prime Minister of India had also asked people to take care of the environment during festivals.
But political will may be weak in genuinely wanting to enforce laws and regulations, with religion seen as a potent force among the people, and politicians would be chary of a backlash.
Recently in a significant move, the Chhattisgarh environment board has made it mandatory to use idols made of natural soil and paints during immersions in festivals of Navaratri and Ganesh Utsav. The move comes in the wake of consistent increase in pollution of water bodies due to immersion of idols in large number not only affects aquatic living beings but also pollutes water.
The Environment Board had issued a circular to all its district collectors, SPs and municipal commissioners directing them about appropriate size of idols as suggested by Central Pollution Control Board, Central zonal bench and the National Green Tribunal.
Religions talk about cleanliness but somehow the festivals are starting and finishing with unacceptably high levels of pollution. Ways have to be found, and implemented, for people to maintain their celebrations wi8th a minimum disturbance to others and to the environment.
When we keep our religious places clean then why can’t we keep our surroundings clean and maintained too? Eco-friendly celebrations are the need of the hour, the absence of which will see us donning pollution masks for protection otherwise!