'Innovative' model of idol immersion in Delhi that avoids the Yamuna, But are we still in murky waters?

17 Oct 2019

Breaking away from the age-old tradition of immersing idols in rivers such as Yamuna this year set a new trend in Delhi. Following the directive of the National Green Tribunal-appointed committee idol immersion in the Yamuna this Dussehra was largely avoided albeit reluctantly by the ritual loving public. Instead the idols were immersed in artificially created ponds/ pits at various pre-designated locations.

The logic behind this move is that idol immersion adds to pollution of river water as heavy metals used in idol decoration and colouring are harmful for various aquatic species. Moreover it is argued that if the same polluted river water is used for irrigating the vegetables cultivated on Yamuna’s flood plains heavy metals could well enter our food chain. Now that would be double jeopardy which naturally called for action.

Deliverance seemed to come for Delhiites in the form of the NGT diktat widely lauded as an innovative solution which helped the devout retain their ritual without polluting the rivers. So one could well conclude that with this move religion and policy happily co-exist and all is well for citizens of Delhi.

Now it would be interesting to see how this solution offered by NGT holds up if one were to introduce logic into this mix. It is well known that alternate water bodies have been temporarily created and no efforts made to ensure that the harmful chemicals released from the idols after immersion do not percolate underground. By the same logic one could infer that this too could have larger more serious implications.  Instead of water pollution affecting the river Yamuna ground water of entire Delhi may become contaminated! 

Moreover decentralisation of idol immersion to multiple water bodies necessitates redoubling of efforts to monitor ground pollution level post immersion days which is manpower intensive.  But do we have the requisite resources for this? The answer is evidently no. Consequently there is a distinct possibility that ground water pollution may rise.

If one were to take a holistic view Yamuna is almost a dead river year-round regardless of idol immersion. If polluting factors for Yamuna were to be measured in a year the share of idol immersion would hardly amount to 5%. Discharge by untreated sewerage and industrial effluents are the primary cause for the river’s sorry state in Delhi. It is estimated that 130 mgd of untreated effluent sewage flows into the Yamuna at present including three major drains which carry more than 70% of NCR’s raw sewage into its main water body.  For this reason even during monsoons the quality of water in the Yamuna is still unsuitable for bathing or drinking.

Inadequate waste management poor implementation of environmental regulation and unregulated construction on the flood plains are the principal issues plaguing the Yamuna. Despite this alarming scenario for 340 days of the year we remain apathetic when untreated sewerage or construction material continues to be dumped into the Yamuna. Only for 20 days during idol immersion our eco-consciousness comes to the fore and intellectual discourses abound on how to avoid polluting the river. 

A somewhat centralised approach is advocated for monitoring the pollutant load due to immersion which is next to impossible in the decentralised model. For instance consider the approach that Kolkata Municipal Corporation has been following. Most of the decorative items including flowers etc. are not dumped in the river but put in a vat placed for that purpose. The idols are immersed in a captive area of the river and cranes then move in to take away the idol debris thereby minimising the pollutant load. This is certainly an approach worth emulating.

So before a potent brew of heavy metals and toxic ingredients percolates Delhi’s ground water table let us adopt sensible measures and proven practices to stop this insidious problem from becoming a full blown crisis. Our gods and goddesses too will be pleased!

Sanjib Pohit is Professor at NCAER. The views expressed are personal

Published in: The Times of India, October 17, 2019