Delhi's idol pursuits

In India where people tend to stand on  their right to disrupt in the name of religion, the Delhi government has demonstrated that it is possible to impose discipline on religious festivities without hurting their so-called sentiments. This year, the state government managed to ensure that no idols were immersed in the Yamuna after the Ganesh Chaturthi and Durga Puja festivities. This is the first time this has occurred and is no small achievement on the Arvind Kejriwal government’s part, especially at a time of heightened politically motivated public displays of religiosity.

To be sure, Mr Kejriwal was following the directives of a National Green Tribunal (NGT) order passed last year. This order came after the findings of tests conducted by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) after Durga Puja and Ganesh Puja immersions last year. The tests revealed untenably high concentrations of chromium, lead, nickel, and mercury, which made the river unfit for bathing. The NGT had suggested setting up colony-level immersion pools to ensure that the idols did not come to the Yamuna for immersion. The Kejriwal government, however, chose not to rely on the arbitrary compliance of local residents’ welfare associations (RWAs). Instead, it rose to the occasion, literally, by setting up of 89 immersion pools across the city to ensure that the exercise did not become too burdensome for the puja committees. More remarkably, the state administration worked in rare cooperation with the Delhi Police — over the control of which Mr Kejriwal has had many famous run-ins with the lieutenant-governor and the Union home ministry. Police personnel were co-opted to man the immersion ghats and ensure that immersion traffic was diverted to the pools. Police were present every 20 metres along the traditional immersion sites to ensure that no one slipped through the gaps. It is worth noting that the idea of immersion pools is not specific to the Delhi state government. The NGT had, in fact, drawn on the idea from Surat, Gujarat, a hotbed of Hindutva ideology, which successfully enforced a ban on idol immersion in the River Tapti.  

That this event occurred without major disruption, beyond the expected grumbling from some RWAs, is testimony to the state government’s ability to mobilise cooperation across stakeholders to achieve goals in the public interest. The seamlessness with which the state government has managed to organise its odd-even traffic orders in cooperation with local enforcement agencies is another case in point. Both these events suggest that it is well within the state government’s ability to work with RWAs and the police to enforce a ban on burning crackers during Diwali. It may be recalled that it is the Delhi Police’s cussed refusal to cooperate with the state government and enforce a Supreme Court order prohibiting the burning of crackers during the festival of lights that turns the National Capital Region (NCR) into a sinkhole of lethal air toxicity for at least a week that followed.

Equally, it should not be impossible for Mr Kejriwal to take the lead in curbing pre-sowing stubble burning in surrounding fields that shroud the NCR in lung-burning smoke for days. The odd-even traffic scheme that he has launched for the first fortnight this November is but a unilateral initiative to tackle this biannual menace and past schemes have not yielded conclusive evidence of reduced air pollution. Equally, it is hard to see why the state government cannot enforce effluent norms on factories near the Yamuna. In the immediate future, however, it is vital that the state government ensures that these best practices in idol immersion are institutionalised so that the city does not lapse into the bad old practices if the political regime were to change. 

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