Greening the Idol Industry in India

by Noah M Sachs

March 26, 2014

I’ve been in Bangalore, India for about two months on a Fulbright fellowship to study Indian environmental law.  While I knew India has major problems with air pollution and sanitation, I didn’t expect that one of the major environmental controversies here would be about greening the idol industry.  Apparently, the gods in India can wreak havoc on the environment.

Each year, Indians sink millions of idols in rivers and lakes to celebrate various festivals.   The biggest festival for idol sinking is Ganesh Chaturthi, held each August or September in honor of the elephant god Ganesh.  Hindus sink Ganesh idols for a variety of reasons, including purifying the home, casting away misfortune, and returning the God to the earth.   

The problem is that most of the idols are made of plaster of Paris and are decorated with brightly colored paints that contain dyes and heavy metals such as mercury and lead.   The plaster of Paris gradually dissolves into the water bodies, making the water cloudy and alkaline and depleting oxygen for aquatic life.   The paints and dyes make the water toxic.

Like most environmental problems in India, the numbers are immense.  In just one neighborhood in Hyderabad last year, over 48,000 Ganesh idols were sunk in the lakes.   In the city of Thane, 250,000 idols are believed to be at the bottom of the city’s waterways. 

Indian environmental authorities began to crack down on plaster of Paris idols about three years ago, and within months, the controversy ended up in court.   The gods don’t have standing to sue in India.  The plaintiff in the case was a coalition of idol manufacturers, who argued that they have a “fundamental right to deal in trading/manufacturing of Plaster of Paris idols.” 

In May 2013, India’s new National Green Tribunal gave a partial victory to the idol manufacturers, overturning some of the environmental restrictions and ruling that state pollution control authorities could ban plaster of Paris idols only if they could prove that plaster of Paris is a water pollutant under Indian law.  

A case of environmental protection versus religious freedom?  Not quite:  The Tribunal observed that immersing plaster idols may not be a proper way of honoring the gods and goddesses after all.  The court noted that  “one who has seen mutilated PoP [Plaster of Paris] idols resurging on surface of the seawater, after the high-tide is over, will not forget its pathetic sight and plight…The sight of such mutilated idols . . . give serious jolt to the religious sentiments.”

Since the Green Tribunal’s ruling, states across India have been scrambling to assemble the latest scientific information on the polluting properties of idols.  A complete ban on plaster of Paris idols will provide the most water quality benefits but can’t be enforced.  The problem is that the public likes the brightly colored idols and has largely resisted earth-friendly alternatives, such as clay.

So what’s the solution?  Reduce, re-use, recycle.   The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board is urging the state to adopt a “one idol, one village” policy in which one huge statue would be sunk in each water body, preventing millions of citizens from individually sinking their idols in lakes.  The Board is considering height restrictions on the idols, and it is urging the state to promote idols made of recycled materials, such as paper and cardboard.  

The state of Andhra Pradesh is going one step further.  It is conducting experiments to see if Ganesh idols can be made out of materials that actually clean the lakes and rivers -- a kind of divine remediation.  One promising material is the seed of the Moringa tree, which absorbs dirt, particles, and heavy metals when immersed in water.   

Like so many things in India, old traditions are rapidly eroding.  Dirty industries are being replaced by high tech, and the age of the pollution-fighting idol is just around the corner.

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Professor Noah Sachs is Professor of Law and Director, Robert R. Merhige, Jr. Center for Environmental Studies at the University of Richmond School of Law.

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