New Delhi: After the defiling, comes the cleanup. With the immersion of hundreds of idols of Goddess Durga into the already polluted Yamuna after Durga Puja, civic authorities now have to set about dredging up a large quantity of insoluble waste like wood, plastics, and toxic material that were consigned to the waters as per Hindu religious beliefs.
"The municipal corporation is collecting waste from the Yamuna`s banks, while the irrigation and flood control department is cleaning the river. The waste collected after the idols were immersed is mostly biodegradable, so we dump it in landfill sites in east, south and north Delhi," Yogendra Singh Mann, spokesperson for the East Delhi Municipal Corporation, told IANS.
"The cleaning of the Yamuna is a routine drive of the corporation, but during the festive season, special measures are taken to clear the river of waste thrown in after religious rites," Mann said.
The Yamuna meets nearly 70 percent of Delhi`s water needs. Over the past two decades, nearly Rs. 1,500 crore was spent on cleaning it up. Despite that, however, the river continues to run polluted. While 2010 data of the Central Pollution Control Board had shown that about a 500-km-stretch of the river from Wazirabad on the outskirts of Delhi to Etawah in Uttar Pradesh was most polluted, 2012 data show that the most polluted stretch now begins about 100 km upstream from Wazirabad, at Panipat in Haryana.
After Durga Puja, though, pollutants are more visible than water in some stretches of the river.
The Yamuna was a sorry sight Friday, with litter floating near the bank and herds of cows grazing on sodden coloured paper and offal in shallow water. There was also rather menacing looking froth on the river.
After the immersion of idols late Wednesday evening, a gray channel in the river was choked with ritual litter, wilted flowers, bamboo skeletons of idols and other waste that was non-biodegradable.
However, the irrigation and the flood control departments had set up temporary enclosures to collect flowers and waste and the Delhi Jal Board had released extra water into the river to ease the clogged channel.
"There are 12 employees assigned the task of removing waste from the ghats. The process will continue till the end of this week," an official said.
Permission for immersing idols was granted in some sections of the river, at Ram Ghat, Kudsia Ghat, Geeta Ghat and Kalindi Kunj.
An officer of the irrigation and flood control department said that plastic bags and clothes were also found in the river, and efforts are being made to clear these.
"Preventing people from immersing idols into sections of the river where this is not encouraged has proven to be difficult. The river fronts are open, and there is a general lack of awareness of where immersion is allowed," said R.M. Bharadwaj, a senior scientist, Central Pollution Control Board.
Bharadwaj said that the board is concerned that many paints used on the idols contain harmful chemicals.
In 2009, the Municipal Corporation had promised the Delhi High Court that it would build 12 enclosures along the Yamuna for the immersion of Durga idols. An environment department official pointed out that three years later, little has been done to make good that promise.
Before the immersion of idols, the environment department had met representatives of several Durga puja commiittees to persuade them to use eco-friendly material for the idols.
This year, several eco-checks like recycling projects and removal of polluting waste from clay idols of the deity were put in place by the Delhi administration to curb the flow of toxic effluents.
At least 200 idols of goddess Durga from across the capital and NCR are immersed in the Yamuna every year at Kalindi Kunj alone. At the capital`s four immersion sites, at least 760 registered Durga idols are immersed.
Multiply 760 with four - the idols of her children who are also immersed - and you have nearly 3,000 idols going down into the river in a day, says NGO activist Madhumita Puri, who collects ceremonial flowers from the four immersion sites under a "Trash to Cash" flower recycling project.
N.K. Thakur, a functionary of the Palam Vihar Durga Utsav, said, "Something must be done to save the river," but he did not know where to begin.
"We do not want to immerse the bamboo frames henceforth," Thakur said, attempting to contribute something meaningful.
Shankar Roy Chowdhury from the Matrika Ashram in Dakshin Puri said: "The immersion points have to be relocated further down the river outside city limits."
"All those who bring the idols also use vehicles; all they have to do is to drive a little further to go out of the city for immersion. We had approached the government for new immersion points, but the government is sitting on the demand," Roy Chowdhury told IANS, acknowledging that even that would only cause contamination further downstream.
An estimate by the government says 19 sewer channels drain urban waste into the river at various points in the capital and NCR. A study by The Energy Research Institute says toxins from the river have entered the groundwater along its banks and taken a toll on vegetation.