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Vol. XXXIII No. 12, October 1-15, 2023

Festival Fallout: Environmental pollution from public festivities a growing concern

-- by A Special Correspondent

According to the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC), this year Chennai saw over 1,300 pillaiyar idols immersed in spots around Kasimedu, Thiruvottiyur, Pattinappakam and Palavakkam, marking the end of Pillaiyar Chathurthi. The next day, the city woke up to around 50 idols and a slew of debris that had washed ashore due to low tide. The GCC swung into action with more than 300 workers to re-immerse the idols with cranes and clean the beaches.Monitored by GCC Commissioner Dr. J Radhakrishnan as well as executives from Urbaser Sumeet, the cleaning drive is said to have collected over 190 tonnes of garbage comprising of wood, plastic, and flowers, and is still underway at the time of writing this article.

This, sadly, is nothing new. Each year, a large number of idols and great amounts of refuse wash ashore from waterbodies the day after immersion because they are made of materials that are not eco-friendly. Unlike clay – in fact the traditional material of choice for pillaiyar idols during this season – plastic, thermocol, and plaster-of-paris are non-soluble. The paint and glitter that such idols are decorated with tend to leach into the water, turning it toxic. Natural water bodies can take back clay, arugam grass or erukku flowers, but not these. It was precisely to prevent such harm that the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) had issued guidelines a day ahead of the festival, stipulating that only idols made of natural, biodegradable, and eco-friendly raw materials could be permitted for immersion. Reminding the public of their duty to protect the environment and safeguard natural waterbodies, the administration had rightly prohibited the use of plaster-of-paris, plastic, thermocol, and single-use plastic in addition to toxic and non-biodegradable chemical dyes and oil paints. The sale of idols made of plaster-of-paris was banned. TNPCB went a step further, in fact, by strongly recommending the use of natural decorations such as natural dyes, dried flowers or straw for the idols and pandals. Given the aftermath, the awareness campaign has clearly not found takers among a significant portion of the celebrants.

It is unfortunate that measures to protect natural resources are not acknowledged to be the environment-friendly initiatives that they are, but instead seen as burdensome restrictions on religion and tradition. It is starkly the case with the Pillaiyar Chathurthi idols; the problem was never the immersion itself, but the toxic substances dumped into the city’s waterbodies.

While the ban on plaster-of-paris idols is a good start, more thought must be given to immersion guidelines in the future, including creative solutions to accommodate religious sentiments among unyielding celebrants.

For one, there is much room for standardize idols made for Pillaiyar Chathurthi. There was once a time when clay idols were the norm; surely, those days can be brought back. It would serve the administration well to involve agencies such as the Tamil Nadu Handicrafts Development Corporation to not only conduct product research and design that makes use of eco-friendly materials, but also train artisans to utilize such solutions for idols of all sizes. The goods must be subject to a material check before they are sent to the market for public purchase. Decorative accessories can also be standardized to suit eco-friendly norms – after all, people have long been using materials such as kundri mani beads and straw to decorate clay idols. Such practices must be brought back into vogue.

Additional solutions lie on the other side of things – the water bodies themselves. If enforcing the use of eco-friendly materials is an uphill task, perhaps measures can be taken to prevent toxic materials from making their way to natural bodies. Could artificial ponds be offered to celebrants unwilling to change? Can the system devise a check on the idols brought for immersion in designated natural water bodies?

It is surely ironic that the State finds itself facing an uncaring public even whilst in a deadlock over water resources with its neighbour. We conspire at our own destruction by making ill use of scarce natural resources. Debates over environmental concerns must cleave away from religious politics. If public awareness campaigns are unable to nurture such maturity, then perhaps punitive measures are the only path to change.

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