PUNARAVARTAN: Recycling natural clay during Ganesh festival

By Manisha ShethonOct. 18, 2022in Environment and Ecology

Specially Written for Vikalp Sangam

During colonial times, Pune was the city where Lokmanya Tilak, chose the Ganesh festival as a medium to confront colonisation by a collective assertion of Indian culture. He invited the citizens of Pune to convert this festival from one of individual personal worship, to a collective social event in the face of British restraints and challenge them. 

Since then, this festival has grown to acquire great significance in the Punekar identity. However the growing scale of this celebration has also resulted in a large negative environmental impact on the natural water bodies of the city, owing to the immersion of toxic chemical products at the conclusion of the festival. 

Since the early 2000s, several city based environmental groups have been addressing the need to reinterpret the ritual of immersion and take cognizance of the pollution it creates. The use of Plaster of Paris idols and plastic and thermocol decorations, that find their way into the rivers and lakes have been the subject of much concern. A move to replace these chemical products with more natural and biodegradable substances has been gaining momentum and finally resulted in a ban on the immersion of Plaster of Paris idols, established by the Central Pollution Control Board in 2020. 

However, the ban has not yet been easy to implement due to various reasons. The primary material to replace Plaster of Paris, would be natural clay. Before the switch to PoP, Ganesh idols were made using a particular type of natural clay – locally called Shaadu – which is mined from various parts of India. The town of Pen – close to Pune, is the largest producer of natural clay idols. This clay disintegrates when immersed into water within hours and so is a better option than Plaster of Paris. However, if the immersion is done in natural water bodies, the clay gets deposited on the floor of the water body creating an impermeable layer and affecting the eco system.

In 2020, eCoexist Foundation, started to experiment with the idea of reusing and recycling the clay and successfully created a fresh set of Ganesh idols using recycled clays. In 2021, they tested the market to see if this would be acceptable to the citizens of Pune and sent out a small call for people to donate their clay after immersion. The response was encouraging.  

The main challenges in this experiment involved the city wide collection of the clay and the quality of the recycled clay. If the recycled clay is not strong enough, it could lead to damages in an already fragile product. In conversation with several artisans, eCoexist discovered that they were quite willing to rework the clay as long as these challenges were met. 

The following year, in 2022, eCoexist put out a city wide call to a network of environment and social groups to participate in scaling up the campaign, which they named ‘Punaravartan’ a Sanskrit term that means ‘Reformation’. From among the first NGOs to respond, were Center for Environment Education, Swach cooperative, Poornam Ecovision and Jeevit Nadi. Many of these had already worked together on different aspects of the Ganesh festival  in the past years. eCoexist and Swach had launched the Nirmalya flower recycling campaign in Pune city, which has now grown to touch nearly 100 tonnes of collection each year. Jeevit nadi had been speaking about the conservation of the rivers in Pune which get affected by immersions. CEE had worked on the Safe Festivals campaign with Kalpavriksh and then eCoexist for several years. To this history, we invited Poornam Eco vision that has in the past years created a city wide network to collect e-waste. 

Gradually, more and more organisations joined in this initial gathering – Global Shapers agreed to accept responsibility for finding volunteers for the collection. Swach Pune Swach Bharat and Paryavaran Gatividhi  were also roped in to help find volunteers. Radio Big FM offered support for the radio outreach for the effort. Social Seva mentored the eCoexist team. Swach Pune Swach Bharat offered help with transport to artisans. 

As word spread, societies invited by Swach and various schools started to sign up to collect and donate the clay. Two days were identified on which the main collection would be done during and after the festival. On these days, 50 collection centers were identified across the city by Poornam Ecovision and citizens were invited to come and donate their clay. 

The Pune Municipal Corporation was requested to endorse the campaign that was now growing larger and larger.  The initial target of 3 tons of collection, quickly grew to 10 tons as several artisans committed to accept and recycle the clay. In the weeks that built up to the festival, word was sent out to the city, through radio, press and social media and the first reactions were positive. A video explaining how the collection of clay was to be done using a piece of cloth, at home was circulated to avoid the use of plastics. 

As the news of the campaign spread calls started to come in from other cities and Thane, Nasik and Pimpri Chinchwad also joined the list, launching the campaign there at a smaller scale.

The Punaravartan campaign is the first of its kind in the entire country, to collect natural clay at such a large scale and return it to the artisans for reuse. The success of this campaign can be attributed to several factors.

History: Citizens in Pune have been discussing the polluting impacts of Ganesh Chaturthi for over 15 years now. eCoexist began speaking about it in 2007 and they were not the first to do so.  Initially, there had been a fair amount of resistance to the idea of reuse and recycling and fundamental Hindu groups had taken objection to such reinterpretation of the rituals. But as the campaign respectfully managed the waste generated by the festival, their voices faded away.

Social and environmental networks: Pune is proud to be host to several leading social and environmental groups many of whom have worked together on several projects in the past and were able to easily join hands due to the trust built between them over the years.

Systems and infrastructure: Over the past five years or so the solid waste management scenario in the city and the recycling industry has grown to include several public and private players. Materials such as flowers collected during festivals, e waste, old clothes and even furniture are collected and reused or redistributed routinely now. In this existing robust system, it was easy to add yet another material.

Religious openness and generosity: In particular, the Ganesh festival has seen various changes over the decades. From Tilak’s first call to collective worship, this sarvajanik (collective) spirit has steadily grown. The demand that religious waste be treated with the respect it deserves was answered by the Punaravartan effort to help artisans by offering them the clay back for free. 

Government endorsement: The willingness of the Pune Municipal Corporation to endorse the campaign and send out a government circular to the public was helpful even though they were not able to divert the collection of clay idols at the river ghats to the campaign collection during the festival days. 

IT support: The entire campaign was backed by a solid IT team – collecting data and disseminating information in a timely fashion to the nearly 50 people on the core planning team, the 50 collection point coordinators and the over 200 volunteers that had signed up to man the collection points. This support ensure that within a matter of hours several tonnes of clay were collected and transported to temporary storage areas identified in Pune city. 

In the end, around 18000 kg of clay sludge were collected by the Punaravartan campaign efforts. 

The Punaravartan campaign also served another purpose, namely to demonstrate to the artisans the willingness of the public to use recycled materials for their idols again in the following year. As word spread, we started to see calls coming in from artisans asking if they could also receive some of the clay sludge. Omkar Salunkhe, a young 23 year old sculptor in Pune, who is the main earning member of his family, requested to take upto 5 tons of clay mentioning that this would cover all the raw material he needed for the coming years production. Especially for the smaller artisans, this return of clay is a substantial saving. 

Omkar Salunkhe, a sculptor from Pune

In these conversations we were able to remind them of the need to respect the ban on Plaster of Paris and encourage them to only use natural and biodegradable materials. In this way the campaign was able to engage all stakeholders in the project, from the producers to the vendors, the government and the citizens who were the final users. 

The ultimate vision of the campaign is to directly connect the client back to the artisans, so that the return of the clay sludge can happen between the two directly, without the need for all this infrastructural support. Once the artisans see the market for this recycled clay the loop will be complete and the cycle mainstreamed. 

From among the challenges the campaign faced, was the inability to segregate clay idols from POP idols at the river side, a task that had to be done by the government. As the system for this segregation was not yet in place, several thousand clay idols still found their way to the quarries in the dark of the festival nights.  The expectation is that once the POP ban is implemented fully and finally by the government, this need to segregate will be minimised and all collection can go back to artisans. It was also discovered that there is an existing trade of undamaged idols that are collected by the riverside and recyclers are already picking these up for minor repair and reuse. Punaravartan focussed on clay sludge, rather than clay idols, and in this way side stepped the sensitivity around idols. 

Punaravartan Final Collection

The mining of the Shaadu clay used for making Ganesh idols will surely be reduced by this systematic reuse of the clay – and if done in even larger numbers may substantially minimise the use of fresh clay. However the only thing that can make the Ganesh festival a fully zero waste festival is if materials like Plaster of Paris and natural clay are further replaced by renewable and biodegradable materials like cow dung and paper and if the ritual of immersion is itself further simplified. 

A large part of the clay sludge collected was given to artisans in Pen, Pune and Mumbai. Some of the clay collected by the Punaravartan campaignit was offered to students of product design at the MIT University in Loni Kalbhor, where they will experiment with the material to innovate on other applications.  Perhaps the clay can be used to make construction blocks that can help with rural schools and housing in the future. While the rivers and lakes stay free of deposits, the blessings of the Ganesh worship can be carried forward in other forms – a true ‘Punaravartan’ indeed!

Read more about the campaign at www.punaravartan.org

Contact the author at [email protected]

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