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Festival blues

Fire CrackersThe months of October, November and December bring good cheer into our lives, as they make up the ‘festival season’. We forget our differences and, for the few days that mark the festivities, we decorate our homes, wear new clothes, distribute sweets and visit temples, mosques, churches and gurdwaras to offer prayers. It’s after the festivities are over that we suddenly become aware of the increased levels of pollution and the impact of our overindulgence and careless exploitation on our surroundings and the environment.

Why can’t we celebrate festivals in a more responsible way?

Take, for instance, the indiscriminate use of firecrackers that increases air pollution levels and causes acute discomfort to asthma patients. Or, worse, the effects of noise pollution on the elderly and the sick. And on animals.

Then again, do you know how much contamination is caused by the annual immersion of idols into rivers? Or how traffic snarls caused by religious processions affect both our physical and our mental wellbeing?

When thousands of devotees take a holy dip in the Yamuna river during Chhat puja, they do not realise that they are exposing themselves to a dangerous health risk. They could develop illnesses like typhoid, cholera or jaundice, a variety of skin diseases, or conjunctivitis. Fungal infections too are common.

Just how contaminated is the Yamuna?

  • According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the total coliform count in water should be 500 or less. In the Yamuna it is over 1 crore!

  • The biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) at Palla, where the Yamuna enters Delhi, is within the norm (3 mg/1). At the point in Okhla where the river exits from Delhi, the count is 13 times over the limit.

  • The amount of dissolved oxygen is dropping from the accepted norm of 5 mg/1 or more at Palla to almost nil in Okhla.

  • The 22 km stretch of the Yamuna as it flows through the city from Wazirabad to Okhla barrage contributes 80% to the river’s pollution load.

Yet, we continue to pollute the Yamuna. Take a look at the figures:

  • Of the 719 million gallons per day (MGD) of domestic sewage generated by the city of Delhi, 384 MGD is discharged untreated into the river.

  • Most of the industrial sewage of 42 MGD is discharged directly into the river.

And all this continues to happen despite the fact that our government has spent Rs 123 crore on constructing 10 common effluent treatment plants.

Is there something seriously wrong with our civic sense? It is time to stop and reflect. Do we simply not care about our health? Or do we not understand what the effects of environmental degradation could be?

Perhaps the answer is more political than we think it is. A few years ago, the festival of Chhat puja was an obscure one, observed quietly by most people. Today, the government has set up 75 ghats; the puja was conducted in 700 places in Delhi. Naturally then the pollution load will be that much more.

Seventy per cent of Delhites have no choice but to drink water with high levels of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltricchloro) and HCH (hexachloro hexane) in it. That’s what a recent study by the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Environmental Science and the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa, revealed. Around 1.5 crore Delhites get their potable water from the Yamuna.

Although we may set aside a few days in our calendar to pray to our gods and to mother nature, perhaps our prayers will only be answered when we learn to respect nature. 

-- Suroopa Mukherjee

November 2005

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