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Can Green Ganesh Idols Replace POP Gods?

Despite the expensive price tag, environment-friendly Ganesh idols slowly catch on

October 26, 2012 / 01:48 PM IST

Nikita Peer

We usually see things more clearly in hindsight. So, post the recent Ganapati festivities, here’s something to think about: At the end of the ten-day festival every year, at least 1.5 lakh Ganesh idols are immersed in small water bodies in the city and at Mumbai’s seashore. The resultant pollution causes oxygen levels in the water to plummet by as much as 50 per cent.

Now here’s something else to ponder: Would God in another earthly avatar be as sacred? As if answering this metaphysical question, the elephant-headed God made sporadic appearances during the festival – in an eco-friendly avatar.

Replacing the traditional plaster of paris (POP), eco-friendly Ganesh idols are made of papier mache and clay. When immersed, these materials disintegrate completely and do not choke our water bodies. But the really poisonous pollutants come not from these materials but the colourful paint used to dress up the idols. So, replacing highly toxic metals such as mercury and lead, eco-friendly paint is made from natural materials such as turmeric, multani mitti and extracts of vegetables and flowers.

What are the comparative costs? While a small-to medium POP idol costs Rs 1,000, a similar eco-friendly one is pegged at Rs 2,500. Is it worth the additional cost? Well, by using a green Ganesh idol next year, you would be fulfilling your religious obligations while also sparing Mother Earth.

So why aren’t these idols more popular?

The Challenges
The high cost of manufacturing these idols is a huge deterrent, not to mention that Ganesh idol manufacture is an unorganised sector. Thus, artisans receive no financial support or incentives to manufacture them. Also, sales are driven largely by the ‘oh!’ experience as customers randomly stumble upon these idols while shopping for the traditional POP murthis.

Manufacturing eco-friendly or clay idols is time-consuming as they take a long time to dry. They are also very fragile and breakage while transporting them costs manufacturers dear.

Anand Pendharkar, founder of Sprout Earth Shop, incurred a loss of Rs 40,000 due to breakage of murthis during transportation. “It is easy to repair a POP idol but you cannot repair clay murthis. In addition, with fuel prices rising, transportation contributes to close to almost 50 per cent of the cost of the product. We buy a murthi from a manufacturer for Rs 2,000 and, by the time it reaches our warehouse, its cost escalates to Rs 3,500. There are a lot of vendors of eco-friendly idols, like us, but not many artisans manufacture them.”

Ganesh Mokal, an artisan from Pen who makes POP idols, shrugs. “Eco-friendly idols are very expensive and we cannot afford to make them. Moreover, I have not experienced sufficient demand for these idols and hence I have never thought of venturing into this segment.” He says Pen district in Maharashtra, the traditional hub of artisans who make Ganesh idols, has over 100 factories or workshops but only a handful of them make eco-friendly idols. “Getting a loan to make these expensive idols is a big challenge. In Pen, Bank of India now offers loans at 13 per cent per annum.”

Pendharkar rebuts this, saying that artisans are slow to accept change. “They want to believe there is little or no demand because they want to make idols the traditional way. They do not want to upgrade and engage in R&D. They want to play safe.”

Greener Festivals
Despite the challenges, there are a few idol-makers who are committed to cleaner, greener festivals. eCoexist is a company that promotes eco-friendly practices while celebrating festivals. Founded by Manisha Gutman in 2006, with a seed capital of Rs 1 lakh, the company involves prisoners in jails, mentally challenged individuals and other socially sensitive groups of individuals in the manufacture of products used during festivals. Besides Ganesh idols, the company also manufactures natural Holi colours and cloth bags of various kinds.

“We are constantly trying to create a demand for eco-friendly Ganesh idols through our awareness campaigns. We therefore link our products to campaigns and activities that promote environmental causes,” reveals Gutman. Ingenuity is a big part of promoting their Ganesh idols. “Recently, during the Ganesh festival, we invited a Vedic scholar to give a lecture to housing societies about the tradition of the Ganesh idol and its links with nature. This endorsement from a priest and scholar set to rest doubts people have about using smaller idols or biodegradable materials,” she adds.

The Bright Side
And their efforts are paying off. Through these campaigns, eCoexist sold 3,000 Ganesh idols this year, compared to 1,000 idols last year, and just 50 when the company launched in 2006. Pendharkar too is all smiles about his profits this year. “We made a profit of Rs 7,000 this year, a margin of around 10 per cent. Last year, we suffered a loss of Rs 40,000 due to breakage,” reveals Gutman.

But things are looking up. According to news reports, 70,000 Mumbaikars bought green Ganesh idols this year – an additional 25,000 Mumbaikars couldn’t due to lack of availability.

Innovative solutions call for out-of-the-box thinking and Pendharkar has a suggestion. “The demand-supply gap can be bridged if architecture institutes and fine art colleges across the country contribute to making these eco-friendly idols. It’s a step that will spare our water bodies from eing completely contaminated.”

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