As festival season approaches for Indian Hindus, environmentalists are trying to avoid a catastrophe caused by the faithful tossing millions of decorated statues of gods into rivers and waterways. The usually elaborately decorated effigies often contain toxic levels of heavy metals including lead, mercury and chromium as well as cancer-causing dyes and plaster compounds that can deplete water oxygen levels. This leads to severe water pollution, which can kill fish and other aquatic organisms and threaten human health.
"The commercialization of holy festivals like Ganesh Chaturthi and Durga Puja has meant people want bigger and brighter idols and are no longer happy with the ones made from eco-friendly materials," said Ramapati Kumar, a toxics campaigner for Greenpeace India. "Traditionally, the idols were made from mud and clay and vegetable-based dyes were used to paint them, but now it's more like a competition between households and between corporates who sponsor the idols to gain publicity".
About 80% of India's 1.1 billion population are Hindus, but in recent years their religious activities have been subject to increased scrutiny due to growing public awareness of environmental issues.
"No one is saying the immersion of idols should not happen," says the Centre for Science and Environment's Suresh Babu, "but the government should impose guidelines to craftsmen who make the idols to use eco-friendly materials and organic paints so that we give the environment as much respect as we give god."