WASTE THAT IS NOT WASTE : The management of solid waste generated by the Ganesh Chaturthi festival 

By Manisha ShethonMar. 29, 2024in Environment and Ecology

Specially Written for Vikalp Sangam

In Marathi the term ‘Nirmalya’ translates to mean ‘that which is not tainted’. Physically this term is used to denote the materials used for worship in a religious ritual, which carry the prayers and blessings of the worshipper. Seen in this way, this combination of materials which may include flowers, fruits, sweets, powders, incense and cloth, is not to be considered as waste – it has a sanctity in itself as it is believed to carry the energies and intention of the devotee. This material collectively is traditionally immersed back into the rivers to allow the blessings of the ritual to return to the earth. 

The idol of the deity does not strictly form part of the ‘nirmalya’ and so is not ‘waste’ at all. It is infused with the presence of the beloved through ritual and embodies it for the duration of the festival. After the worship is over, the presence is immersed back into Nature through an immersion in water or soil, and the idol becomes an everyday object once again, no longer considered ‘alive’. 

Traditionally the idols were made using natural materials and the last step of the ritual which was to immerse them in water ensured that they disintegrated and were reabsorbed by the natural eco systems . However much has changed in modern times and the use of non biodegradable substances for the idols has made this reabsorption impossible. The use of toxic chemical paints also pollutes natural water bodies and kills marine life. If the immersion of the idol is incomplete and broken fragments of it lie scattered in the landscape it leads to a sense of desecration.

Shaadu maati, is clayey soil that has been traditionally used by artisans in Western Maharashtra to sculpt idols meant for immersion.This soil can be sun dried and becomes string enough to transport and yet will disintegrate when immersed in water. The clay is mined from the state of Gujarat and is now becoming short in supply. It can be easily reused after it is immersed and artisans are willing to refresh it to use for idols once again. 

The management of the lakhs of Ganesh idols after their immersion during the Ganesh festival has posed a massive challenge to the municipal corporations of major Indian cities, because they cannot be treated like any other solid waste. They demand a respect and care by the Hindu community and therefore have required special handling. 

The scale of the issue is substantial as the quantum of idols go into lakhs. To prevent the idols from entering the rivers and lakes the Pune Municipal Corporation constructed artificial immersion tanks albeit at the banks of the natural water bodies initially. The citizens who brought their idols in processions to the riverbanks were encouraged to rather immerse their idols in the tanks. A decade ago this led to confrontations between the government and religious groups who were not in agreement. On the other hand the rivers themselves highly polluted with effluents from the city hardly seemed the best place to immerse a precious idol. The location of these tanks in proximity of the natural water bodies itself was problematic. Barricades on the river front would be broken down in the last days of the festival as people refused to use the immersion tanks.

Slowly with public outreach and due to the work of several NGOs awareness grew and the tanks began to be accepted by the community. During the covid lockdown as crowds had to be avoided, more immersion tanks were created within the city limits closer to neighbourhoods that allowed citizens easy access to the tanks. Mobile tanks of water were also introduced that would make the rounds and made this option even more easily available. Alongside, there was an appeal to people to choose home immersions and refrain from coming to the riverside altogether to minimise crowds. 

Where do these idols go ? 

Landfill has been the only option available to the Pune Municipal Corporation for many years and the dumping of the idols into abandoned quarries outside the city was done in the dark of the night to avoid harsh critique from the citizens. 

In recent years, there has been a move to reuse and recycle the Ganesh idols to further make the festival totally zero waste. A suggestion from the Solid Waste Management department to the public to simply dip the idol three times in the water and allow officials to keep them aside respectfully has also been accepted by the public. The care and caution with which the idols are handled has softened peoples hearts and the public has been cooperating with this effort. 

However reuse and recycling is only possible for the idols that are not broken. More than 50% of the idols  do end up damaged and still need to be disposed off in landfill. A visit to the quarry in 2022 and 2023, revealed that a system of monitoring has been attempted as they receive and count the idols before immersing them in the water collected in the quarry during monsoon. When this water dries up the idols are covered with gravel and soil so that they are out of sight and out of mind. 

These preliminary efforts to reclaim some of the materials and put them back into the supply chain could be enhanced by introducing a clear segregation at source. Citizens who are already using biodegradable materials such as clay or cowdung are requested to do a home immersion in clean water and then pour the waters into their gardens or potted plants. But what about the Plaster of Paris idols?

In 2015, encouraged by scientists at NCL, the PMC introduced the idea of using Ammonium Bi carbonate to convert the plaster of paris into a sludge. Apparently the sludge could act as fertilizer and would be rendered harmless to the eco system. Packets of this chemical powder were freely distributed and citizens were invited to add it to the water in which they immersed the POP idols. The flip side of this idea was that it continued to enable the use of POP idols and was seen as a step backward by some of the groups working towards a ban on POP. A few years later the idea was withdrawn by the government realising its fallacy and the impossibility of converting POP into fertilizer at a larger scale. 

In 2020, finally the Central Pollution Control Board , issued revised guidelines for immersion that prohibited the use of Plaster of Paris and chemical paints in idols meant for immersion. This ban, if implemented broadly, could result in a return to the use of natural clay for idols. Clay is a step better than POP, in that it disintegrates easily with water and in smaller quantities, can be reabsorbed by the ecosystem. However when clay idols are immersed in natural water bodies in large quantities, they tend to form an impermeable layer at the base of the water bodies. 

In 2021, eCoexist launched the Punaravartan campaign to invite worshippers to collect and send back the natural clay after immersion to the artisans for reuse. This effort was very well received and in 2022, around 23000 kg of clay was collected by a network of NGOS and volunteers to send back to the artisans. In 2023, the campaign was launched across 8 cities in India and gathered further momentum.

Punaravartan display at the Mantralaya in Mumbai, 2023 Photo: eCoexist

The Punaravartan campaign was presented to the Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and offered as an alternative to the purchase and free distribution of natural clay to artisans. In 2023 the Government of Maharashtra set aside Rs 1.8 crore to distribute free clay to encourage artisans to shift from POP to clay . Encouraged by the Principal Secretary, Environment Department of Maharashtra, the Pune Municipal Corporation gave its support to the campaign in Pune. 

A training was held for 200 staff members of the Solid Waste Management team of Pune and discussions around details of the systems that would need to be implemented to make such a collection possible. Visits to the public immersion sites during the festival revealed just how much of a challenge the teams face on the ground. Amidst  pouring rain, with crowds of people and utter pandemonium it is impossible for any kind of discussions to be held with visitors at the immersion site. Some teams clearly separated the immersion for POP separate from clay and collection was easier here. Since the tanks have a limited capacity they need to be frequently emptied to be available for the next day of the festival and so there has to be a robust system of collection and transportation to make this possible. The immersion tanks within the city require water and if clay idols are converted into sludge the water needs to also be frequently replaced. 

Inspite of the challenges , the PMC was able to collect around 5 tonnes of clay sludge through the public immersion system. This sludge is not entirely clean as it may contain other immersible materials such as red earth, cow dung or paper mache and often times some POP as well . These impurities may make this clay unusable for sculpture and so eCoexist has initiated an experiment to explore other applications. 

Ceramic artists in Ahmedabad are exploring its potential for cookware. Several architects are looking at its application in construction as floor panels, wall panels, pond liner, plasters and construction blocks. Challenges include the organic content in the clay, the mixture of various types of clay, the need to process, transport and store the clay. Composite materials that use this clay as a major ingredient are also being tested. The cost effectiveness of the end product also will have to be considered. If these experiments are successful, a new circular economy would have been established by the Punaravartan campaign. 

Eventually the municipal corporations of each city can integrate this cyclic supply chain into their solid waste management plans ensuring that the true value of the material is recognised. Pune Municipal Corporation is showing the way with attempts to mainstream the collection. In 2023 they took several steps to implement Punaravartan which included

  1. Seperate tanks for POP versus clay idols ensured that the two materials do not get mixed up.
  2. Trainings to their staff on the ground.
  3. Temporary storage sheds for idols as well as clay 
  4. Prompt transportation to a central storage location.
  5. Outreach to the public via all PMC platforms to invite public to participate. 
  6. Outreach to artisans to come and collect clay from the storage location or delivery by PMC to the artisans workshops. 

These and other steps can be replicated by municipal corporations across the country during Ganesh Chaturthi. It will save crores of rupees and also leave the landscape free and untainted by the festival.

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