Water from artificial immersion sites, Plaster of Paris idols dumped directly into Thane creek by civic body

An environmental group has cited Thane Municipal Corporation’s practice of discharging water from artificial idol immersion sites and remnants of thousands of Plaster of Paris (PoP) Ganesh idols pushed into Thane creek as a result annually to highlight the damage it is causing to marine life and water quality.

Muse Foundation, the group, first came to know about the practice in 2019 when it received a response under the Right to Information (RTI) Act from the corporation that they had been collecting Ganesh idols at 19 artificial ponds and dumping them at Thane Creek. The corporation cleaned the immersion sites using chemicals before releasing the treated water into the Thane creek.

The group studied the situation during Ganeshotsav festival this year and found there was no change in the practice and filed complaints, including the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) on Thursday, saying it was being done a gross violation of preventive water pollution control measures.

“PoP idols and associated lead-based paint are toxic for marine life and water quality. Remnants of these idols are disastrous for the marine biodiversity of this creek, which passes through a protected flamingo sanctuary and finally meets the Arabian Sea, polluting an entire ecosystem,” said Muse Foundation founder Nishant Bangera.

Muse Foundation on Thursday identified one of the locations where a heap of broken idols and decorative material was found dumped.

The corporation said 45,000 idols were immersed in 2016, 42,000 to 34,000 from 2017 to 2019, and 21,000 idols this year.

The corporation also, under RTI Act, said it spent Rs 11 lakh to construct one of the ponds. “If on an average, the cost of the artificial immersion site is about 10 lakh each, with 19 such sites, the total amount runs into crores of rupees. Thus, the current practice renders artificial immersions as a futile exercise using public money since the disposal is finally happening in the Thane Creek itself,” said Muse Foundation member Sushank Tomar.

The group has requested the Maharashtra government to intervene and direct an end to the practice. “Innovative methods at the city level can be used to eliminate PoP from entering the creek…,” said Bangera.

Manisha Pradhan, who heads the corporation’s pollution control department, said there has been an increase in suspended solids coming from decorative materials with idols. “For this, our treatment practice is effective as KMNo4 [used for the cleaning] acts as an oxidising agent… alum is used to reduce the suspended particles and increase dissolved oxygen in the water. Once discharged into the Thane creek, it does not affect the water quality in any manner as the water easily dissolves and does not affect the biodiversity.” Pradhan added this was being done as per MPCB guidelines.

PoP contains chemicals like sulphur, phosphorus and magnesium and idols made of it are the cheapest and cost between Rs 500-Rs 1,000.

“The toxicity from heavy metals in colour used to paint idols is a problem. Lead-based paints used on these idols are poisonous for phytoplankton’s [underwater plants] and the poison is further transferred to fish and higher animals,” said E Vivekanandan, a marine biologist.

Pradhan said they were encouraging citizens to use clay idols and added in the case of PoP ones, they request them to use ammonium bicarbonate. “[People in] areas like [Covid-19] containment zones or located away from immersion spots were asked to follow this process wherein idols would be dissolved on site. 100kg ammonium bicarbonate was purchased from us by citizens this year. However, this is not feasible on a large-scale level which requires interventions from the state or Centre to ban the use of PoP completely,” said Pradhan.

The Central Pollution Control Board in May banned the use of PoP, thermocol, and single-use plastic for making idols and the use of creeks and natural water bodies for immersion. But on May 22, Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar deferred the ban by a year to help artisans hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic.

An MPCB official said they were unaware of the corporation’s practice. “We will check with our regional officer about the issue and based on his response, follow up directions will be issued to…”

Forest officials said they would check whether water pollution was recorded post immersions at the 1,690 hectare Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary. “If we find remnants of any idols, we will take corrective action. The matter will be anyway highlighted to other state bodies to check the practice,” said Virendra Tiwari, additional principal chief conservator of forest (Mangrove Cell).

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