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How green is your Ganesh?

‘Any idol taller than nine inches adversely affects the marine environment, even if it is made of clay or papier mâché... even during Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s time, the idols were between six to eight inches tall,’ said an environmentalist.

Vinaya Deshpande  Mumbai | 19th Sep 2015

Children and families make their own clay idols at Sparkles Educentre in Wadala, Mumbai.

In a refreshing break from past traditions, many Ganpati mandals in Mumbai have opted for "green Ganesh" this season with a view not to harm the environment. Thanks to awareness drives by environmental groups, devotees this time have tried to avoid heavy metal colours and the attractive silver and golden colours that are toxic in nature.

Some devotees made sure that the clay or paper idol they bought were coloured with natural, eco-friendly ingredients such as turmeric, kumkum and geru.

But environmentalists feel not many devotees pay attention to the size of the idols. "Any idol taller than nine inches adversely affects the marine environment, even if it is made of clay or papier mâché," Anand Pendharkar, founder of Sprouts Environment Trust, pointed out. He opined that when they try to persuade people to opt for smaller idols, they take it as an invasion of their cultural prerogative. "We, however, tell them that even during Bal Gangadhar Tilak's time, the idols were between six to eight inches tall. Also, there was no garish, artificial decoration," Pendharkar said, adding that only small idols are sustainable. The trust has been involved in cleaning the beaches after idol immersion, for 12 years now. Image 2nd

"People have started selling clay idols for those environment-friendly devotees who do not wish to harm the environment. But when you colour the idols with the traditional toxic, bright colours, the danger to environment is clear. Plaster of Paris (POP) idols and the toxic colours used to paint them kill millions of fish, cause miscarriages in humans and deformities in human and animal foetuses," he said.


This year, Pendharkar's environmental trust partnered with advertising giant O&M (Ogilvy and Mather) to come up with the innovative concept of environment-friendly Ganpati idols. They have placed edible material for the fish in their idols. A catchy, blue poster designed by the O&M team and circulated over 3.5 lakh times on WhatsApp, reads: "Apparently, the fish are looking forward to this Ganesh Chaturthi. After visarjan, the toxic materials used in making Ganesh idols pollute the sea and kill the fish. At SPROUTS Environment Trust, we've made the idols from vegetarian food ingredients that the fish can consume. A noble way to keep the ocean clean. #GodSaveTheOcean".

"It was O&M's idea. I have received over 7,000 calls in the past eight days from various cities across the country and from abroad, lauding us for our initiative. Currently, we are delivering the idols in Mumbai and Nagpur. But if we get partners, we might expand to other cities," Pendharkar said.

Various small organisations have also started making eco-friendly Ganpatis. For 37-year-old Mukta Gosavi, conducting an art workshop for making eco-friendly idols was a gratifying experience. Her Sparkles Educentre, situated in Mumbai's Wadala area, is an activity centre for people of different age groups.

"Eighteen families participated in the one-day workshop. Many of the families and children worshipped the same idols they made. It was a very fulfilling experience. We have to go green. That is the requirement of our times. We used only clay to make the idols. We did not use any moulds. No colours were used," Mukta said.

Suman Chhabria-Addepalli, 39, who participated in the workshop along with her two daughters, said they made a "green" idol to mark the festival. "This year we have two idols made by my two daughters Leela and Koyal," she said.

An ardent environmentalist, Suman was instrumental in running an awareness campaign about the need for eco-friendly celebration of Ganeshotsav. "Look at our beaches during Anant Chaturthi now. They have toxic colours dumped in them. There are dismembered parts of huge Ganesh idols. They make a comeback on the beaches. Is this how we want to treat our Gods?" she asked.

Many families who opted for eco-friendly idols said their main concern was to contain the adverse effect on marine life. "You may not want to do it for the environment. But do it for yourself at least. The same toxins that are dumped in the sea, affects the fish. That is what you will buy and eat, and feed your children," Suman said.

Commercial idol-makers too are adopting eco-friendly methods of making the idols, albeit slowly. They have changed the base from Plaster of Paris to clay, but have not changed any colour palette used for painting the idols.

"Yes, the demand for eco-friendly Ganesh idols has been on the rise. But the big Ganesh mandals still want huge idols made of Plaster of Paris, which are quicker to make. While a small household clay idol takes four days to make, one large PoP idol takes barely half an hour. That reflects in the cost too. The price of a clay idol is at least one and a half times more than the PoP idol. Also, there are restrictions of height in clay idols. They cannot be built more than four feet tall," said Chandrakant Angre, the 60-year-old owner of Pooja Arts Ganesh Chitra Shala at Naigaon.

He said that earlier all the idols were made of clay. "The trend changed in the 1990s when PoP idols started flooding the market. But now, for the last three years, the demand for clay idols has picked up again," he said.

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