Ban on PoP-based idols during Ganesh Chaturthi, 2021

In July 2008, the Bombay High Court directed the respondent in the Public Interest Litigation of the case of Janhit Manch v. The State of Maharashtra & Ors. (2008) W. P. No. 1325/ 2003 to lay down comprehensive guidelines at the National level for the immersion of idols and other pooja materials (including idols of gods, goddesses) in relation to the pollution of water bodies under the Water (Pollution and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, wherein the court directed the Central Government and the State Governments to curb water pollution in the context of environmental degradation. In pursuance of the aforementioned order, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) made a committee in February 2009 to draft the said guidelines, wherein the CPCB published the ‘Guidelines for Idol Immersion’ in 2010 to mandate the stakeholders to draw a balance between religious observance and environmental degradation of water bodies.

The following guidelines were drawn by the CPCB in the ‘Revised Guidlines for Idol Immersion’ for Idol Makers/ Artisans/ Craftsman, published on May 12, 2020:

  1. Idols must be made of natural, biodegradable, eco-friendly raw materials without the use of any toxic, inorganic raw materials (including non-usage of Plaster of Paris (PoP), Thermocol (Polystyrene), single-use Plastic).
  2. Complete ban on idols made from PoP.
  3. Ornaments of the idols must be made from dried flowers and other materials of natural origin while the resin of trees must be used to give a finishing polish to the idols, wherein toxic, non-biodegradable, chemical, synthetic dyes, including enamel and oil-based paints must be swapped for eco-friendly, water-based, biodegradable, non-toxic and natural dyes.
  4. Craftsmen and artisans involved in the manufacturing of the idols must be registered with the local civic authorities, wherein the latter must grant licenses/ permits within their respective jurisdiction to only those artisans who choose to make idols with eco-friendly and natural materials.

On August 27, 2021, the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court was hearing a petition where the petitioners claimed that the blanket ban on PoP-based idols in the Revised Guidelines, 2020 caused them massive losses since they were unable to sell the said idols during Ganesh Chaturti, wherein the sudden nature of the guidelines did not give them enough time to adjust their manufacturing process; additionally, the petitioners claimed that the guidelines violated heir Fundamental Right to practice any profession/ occupation/ trade/ business under Article 19, Clause G of the Indian Constitution.

However, the bench of Justice S. B. Shukre and Justice A. S. Kilor pointed out to another petition by the petitioner in 2012 where they had challenged the original guidelines published in 2010, wherein the case concluded with the petitioners withdrawing their challenge while agreeing to erect a notice outside their shops for prospective customers that mandated the said customers to immerse the idols purchased by them from the petitioner’s shop in artificial water bodies only; hence, the court held in the present case that the notion of the petitioners having received the revised guidelines too suddenly for them to reasonably act upon the same is prima facie wrong since the petitioners had known about similar guidelines existing since 2010.

The bench pondered upon the financial interests of the petitioners and suggested that the petitioners can sell their PoP-based idols if and only if they inform the prospective customers about neither worshipping the said idol nor immersing it in any water body, either artificial or natural.

The bench in the present case of Vinodkumar Rameshchand & Anr. v. The Union of India, Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Control & Ors. (2021) W. P. No. 3146/ 2021 held that the immersion of PoP-based idols made from synthetic and toxic materials in natural water bodies can not only pollute the said water body but also increase the toxicity of major food sources of the aquatic marine life while causing high-level damage to the marine ecosystem, wherein the presence of heavy metals like cadmium, mercury and lead in the raw materials of the idols and the paint put upon the idols proves to be neurotoxic and nephrotoxic to the aquatic life while posing a threat to human life since we consume fishes whose bodies can accumulate large concentrations of the toxins due to biomagnification and extensive bioaccumulation.

The bench reminded the constitutional duty of the petitioner under Article 51-A (g) to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, rivers, lakes and wildlife, wherein the petitioners were reminded of using biodegradable materials in making eco-friendly idols to fortify their aforementioned duty.

The court upheld the petition and asked the Registry to prepare a properly documented Public Interest Litigation and submit the same on August 31, 2021; additionally, the court appointed Advocate Shrirang S. Bhandarkar as an amicus curiae for the court to submit relevant information during the next hearing.

In a nutshell, the bench held that the artisans and craftsmen of PoP-based “idols” must sell the same to customers as PoP-based “objects” that must be instructed to be neither worshipped nor immersed in any water body, natural and artificial, by the said customers since the ban exists on PoP-based “idols” meant for religious worship in the form of a  God and not on PoP-based “objects” and “artefacts.”

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