Across India, the celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi last month witnessed not only devotional joy but also public consternation at the environmental destruction caused by the immersion of idols in water. Notwithstanding the considerable media attention given to waste, fish-kill and pollution, the grandiosity of the idols and celebrations seemed undiminished.
In a sense, this festival is an opportunity to see the failure of the Swachh Bharat campaign. In this, and many other related cases of public celebration, the apparent apathy to civic cleanliness is based on the belief that someone else will clean up. Unfortunately, this campaign appears to be pandering to this aspect of the Indian psyche. Keeping India clean is different from not dirtying it. The nuance may be subtle but its impact is writ large across this country’s landscape, be it in the sewer workers dying on the job or in the penchant to litter in public places.
There are people employed to keep modern India clean. However, those tasked, willingly or via coercion, into this important role have never been respected. So, it should come as no surprise that political leaders sometimes choose to stand uncomfortably with brooms surrounded by artistically strewn waste to suggest the social value of sweeping. Maybe they are trying to simultaneously elevate the status of those who clean up after them.
The polluter pays principle (PPP) is a philosophy that not only deters pollution but also incentivises alternatives. The Swachh Bharat campaign is not based on PPP; rather it emphasises certain generational roles and responsibilities. Thus, there is an uncomfortable silence in the aftermath of idol immersion, both by the devotee and government.
Although clay is environmentally friendly, large statues of Ganesha tend to be made of plaster of Paris. So, it would stand to reason that concern for the environment would limit the Lord’s earthly dimensions for this period. Unfortunately, it does not. Our hubris raises the Lord to new heights for Ganesh Chaturthi and then our callousness brings the Lord crashing down.
Sculptors of eco-friendly Ganeshas have become creative in the last few years — for example, by making idols out of chocolate and bananas, which they later distribute as prasad. However, efforts by some households to make this festival eco-friendly can’t compete with the size and numbers of plaster-of-Paris Ganeshas installed in homes and by various Ganesha mandals.
If the Swachh Bharat initiative had a punitive element, it could potentially drive civic sense forward and change the way people consume, generate and dispose waste. It would ensure that the Lord is not forgotten after the idol immersion ritual, and thus save devotees the visual of idols as detritus. A secondary, if substantively meaningful, benefit would be additional protection gained for the environment.
The writer is the author of 1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People
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