Paint and pageantry threatens to pollute India's rivers and seas

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The Independent Online

On the dusty banks of the Yamuna river, where Delhi's elephants graze, Himanta Das was putting the finishing touches to a clay statue of the Hindu god Ganesh. The statue, with a human body and the head of an elephant, was curiously mirrored by the full-size elephant nearby, blowing dust over herself to keep cool.

On the dusty banks of the Yamuna river, where Delhi's elephants graze, Himanta Das was putting the finishing touches to a clay statue of the Hindu god Ganesh. The statue, with a human body and the head of an elephant, was curiously mirrored by the full-size elephant nearby, blowing dust over herself to keep cool.

It is hard to tell which was the more startling: the sight of the elephants grazing in the city centre while cars rush past or Mr Das's stall, on which scores of statues of the elephant-headed god were crowded together, painted in brilliant pinks and greens.

Mr Das and his fellow workers are producing Ganesh statues ahead of the festival of the god's birth, Ganesh Chaturthi. But, like most of the statues, these will end up being deliberately sunk into the waters of a river or sea.

The festival culminates with the immersion of old statues of the god in what Hindus believe to be the holy waters. In Delhi, it is a relatively low key affair, but in other parts of India, it is spectacular. In Bombay, crowds will gather on the city's beaches and immerse giant statues in the sea.

But this year, environmentalists are calling for controls on the practice. They say that the increasing use of plaster of Paris to make the statues, and synthetic paints to decorate them is polluting the water, killing fish and poisoning supplies.

"If they ban the immersion of the statues, we will put them in the water anyway," Mr Das said. So far, no state government has actually proposed a ban on immersing the statues. But in Madras, Tamil Nadu state's Pollution Control Board has appealed to the public to minimise the effect on the environment.

Findings from surveys in Madras after the festival have been alarming. In 2000, 16 water samples collected around the marina just after the festival by People's Agenda for Saving the Sea showed dangerous levels of soluble toxic metallic paints.It has been claimed that 0.0025 grams of chromium pthalate, a chemical in the pink paint used on the statues, would be enough to wipe out marine organisms in a five-mile radius.

In the days immediately after the immersion, fishermen found themselves scooping up netfuls of dead fish.

But rather than ban the immersions, environmental groups areseeking a return to traditional methods of making the statues.

It is not brand new statues that are sunk beneath the waters; households buy a new statue each year, and confine the old one to the waters. The practice began because clay statues would crack with time, and it is considered disrespectful to use a cracked statue in worship. So the old statues were immersed.

"By reverting to clay for making the idols and leaving them unpainted, a lot of damage can be minimised," said one environmental campaigner. "Let us remember that our religion also teaches us the sacredness of water."

Mr Das's statues are all made of natural clay. But the bright paints with which he decorates them might not go down so well with environmentalists.

You do not have to spend long near the banks of the Yamuna to gather that pollution is already a big problem for India's rivers - and precious little has been done about the toxic chemicals spewed into them by factories. The environmentalists may have their work cut out.

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