The Business of God

For Ganesh festivities this year we decided to take kids where all the actions take place. The Central Railway Loco Works in Lower Parel, near the Lalbaug flyover in the heart of the city. This is one of the several hubs of Ganapati idol manufacturing and there are others in Lalbaug, Parel and Chinchpokli. Once you enter, this place looks like a huge industrial shed of several thousand square metres of workshop made in a temporary makeshift arrangements of bamboos and metal sheets. As we walked in, we saw many statues lined at various stages of finishing. There were few workers just gearing up for the morning shift. Several of them are migrants, who come into the city for just the season. Once monetised they move back to their villages or migrate elsewhere looking for work. On an average around one and a half lakh people get employed in these idol making factories and generates about 10-12 crores worth revenue (source: TOI).

The idol making works begin starting from the month of July at least 2-3 months in advance. Some of these idols are as tall as 25 feet. A young worker mentioned close to 25,000 idols are made at this workshop in Lower Parel. Any other small talk with him didn’t make any head way, our fervour of citizen journalism seemed to bother him. Until few years ago the number of ganesh idols across the city had touched more than 2 lakhs. Standing there I looked at all the incomplete and half done idols and was wondering the number of man-hours that would be required to bring them to completion. I assumed there would be a chief sculptor, probably an old lanky fellow in dhoti-kurta and topi, commanding his workforce with a series of his assistants measuring off of the model sculpture with vernier callipers and making diligent corrections. But soon after 5 minutes I understood the workings of the place and how all this was achievable. 

All you need to make these gigantic statues is few sacks of gypsum, some beaten coir and a FRP (fibre reinforced plastic) mould. That is it. Oh yes, some average dexterity, like un/screwing. If you have them then you can make them. The magic lies in the FRP mould and a very streamlined assembly line. Just like any factory where the kit of parts are made separately and then finally joined together for the final product. Every idol is a combination of seven pieces made separately in their moulds, i.e.,  head, trunk, legs, hands, palm and abdomen. Nothing is left to the sculptor’s imagination not even the humble rat. The design and its assembly is quite flexible, for example if you fit the palm facing up you can put a modak, if you put it front then it would look like the hand giving blessings. 

The idol is hollow and hence lightweight and can weigh anywhere in between 800-1000 kgs. The moulds are crack opened and lined with a mixture of beaten coir dipped in a paste of gypsum and water. After which it is closed like a sandwich and screwed at the edges. Then further layers of gypsum paste is lathered inside by hands till some significant thickness is achieved. The mould is let alone for 15-20 mins, while the other mould is picked up and its crevices are cleaned. After the small wait the mould is unscrewed and viola the leg is ready. After all the parts are readied this way, different combination of body parts are used to assemble the God of your likes.

God here is a commodity waiting in the assembly line. Smaller statues are as expensive as 15,000 Rs. whereas the big ones can be 1-1.25 lakhs.

From here, the idols will be spray  painted and worked upon by hands for finishing touches. The paints and decorations that were being worked upon gave this toxic smell. None of these workers had masks or decent gloves. They live and work among these fumes and chemical compounds. After 10 days of festivities the idols are immersed in the water body. One of the curious child asked what happens after you immerse them? It stays there, in water. The next day BMC and NGO people remove it, said one of the workers.

One of the blog written by an employee of the Pollution Control Board, Gunwant Joshi, says that the pollution has already reached at alarming levels.

“Heavy metals like lead, cadmium and chrome from which these paints are made are not easily assimilated in an aquatic environment and this leads to contamination of water bodies there by affecting various fish and prawn species. Further, they may even reach humans via the food chain when we consume the fish and other sea food. High levels of lead and other heavy metals can damage the heart, kidneys, liver, circulatory and central nervous system. The problem becomes more acute when the amount of input to these water bodies far exceeds their decomposition, dispersal and/or recycling capabilities. The toxics from anthropogenic inputs not only alter the natural fresh waters, but also have detrimental effects whose impact can be felt for long time.” Below shows the before and after concentrations harmful chemicals as measured by MPCB.

Screenshot 2019-09-06 at 12.34.02 PM

The problem is here and not going anywhere. Some of these pictures I have taken from newspapers and other media. Here I am also attaching a link of an article from India today

Screenshot 2019-09-06 at 10.36.58 AMscreenshot-2019-09-06-at-10.38.41-am.pngScreenshot 2019-09-06 at 10.39.48 AM

First there were amputated gods now there will be half broken, battered and soggy ones, waiting to be loaded and dumped on a landfill with 10 days of merriment in between. Once out of sight, it’s out of mind and either ways the public perception and sentiments are very short lived. I wish to go around taking signatures of people on these pictures. Because once we are past the threshold then we can’t look the other way saying we didn’t sign up for this. How do we show the damage that we are doing?  I hardly see any political will and public is ignorant or apathetic.  Changing public perception and behaviour is herculean task, and we are racing against time here. What do we do and where do we start?

3 thoughts on “The Business of God

  1. Very nice assembly of various aspects around the festivity. While may be bringing valuable short term jobs, certainly looks like a toll, long term. Worth assessing true economic costs of these traditions.

    1. We will need activism like Lokmanya Tilak to repurpose the festivities. It was he who reinitiated the public celebrations to encourage community gatherings for hidden means of political activism, intellectual discourse, poetry recitals, plays, concerts, and folk dances. Those were more relevant goals of those times and as understood the rituals back then would have been as best eco friendly as possible, since all the toxic items used in making ganesh idols these days happened much later in history. Focus should be on community building and preparing the masses for what is coming. Back then it was political activism, as preparing a nation to demand freedom from the British was no easy manifesto. To have public support for such a big cause, when most of the people are working hard for two square meals, was not easy. Especially in the times, when literacy levels were low, news papers were not enough to spread current affairs. Internet, social media, email, whatsapp, were not even remotely imagined as possible channels of information, as there were no computers. Fast forward to today,…..we have a different challenge: We have mostly literate people, who are not necessarily current with current affairs but have access to internet and social media and youtube, whatsapp and fairly in touch with all the people that matter to them in their lives, however spread out they may be in the country or world. They are busy with their own lives and hardly have time for any religious activities. In order to not feel left out, they reserve 2 to 10 days for practicing religious activities and added merry making. There is no war going on or any directly percieved threat on a daily basis, that would warrant the need for community gathering. There are several pandals that do have sarvajanik (public) ganeshotsav where they have models of current affairs to spread awareness on different topics. But they are scattered and generally not accessed by all. So we have hoards of masses celebrating the festival as they are preserving their family traditions (sanskriti, parampara), and they have concieved several misconceptions along the way as to the size of the idol has to be increased every year and you need to follow the practice every year, once you become a follower, inspite of any hardships, etc. We see people planning their annual leaves around the festival days, visiting their villages or hometown, they spend time and money on rituals and displaying the best idol and the best decoration and invite friends and relatives to come and visit. And in the process use up hoards of one time use plastic, several other unnatural products that end up in landfills or pollute the ocean. Especially the tiny forms of plastic, like bindi, tikki, small glitters, jari. No one is interested in knowing where all these toxic products are coming from and where they will eventually pollute. This one time use and throw mentallity is a cause of serious concern. But everybody feels, they are too small to bring about a change. People generally visit pandals that have the largest and the most artistic idol. Who has the best prasad? Which is the most expensive idol?Discussions on the need for freedom at these pandals, ultimately played its role in the freedom struggle. Similarly, any such relevant discussions at Ganesh Pandals on water scarcity, climate change, effects of plastics, will eventually have effect on building a nation free of these vices. We have education, but lack awareness. We have the ego of knowing the 12~table byheart, but have never tried experimenting what is the least possible water that needs to be used to clean a plate and thereby extend the worth of every drop. If we really wish to pay homage to Lokmanya Tilak, by keeping the Ganesh Utsav alive, our main purpose should be to educate the masses on the existing climate crisis our planet is facing. Every generation should revise the challenges they are facing and encourage spreading awareness. And as for the rituals, it should be a government rule, to allow people to only use eco friendly bio degradable materials during the entire festivities. They should generally ban the use of materials that are known to cause harm to the environment, if not disposed properly. We only have one planet. We cannot leave it on fate. We all need to act responsibly. We all need to evaluate individually what harm am I causing to the enviroment every year, every month, every day and every minute and how can I work towards reducing it one step at a time. Resolve to avoid using plastic spoon and fork. A month later graduate to avoid using disposable cups. Likewise gradually excel in your goals of reducing your carbon footprint as much as possible. Not that I wish to push the climate agenda more than any other, but as of now it is the most pressing issue, which most of us choose to believe, will go away on its own without having to do much.

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