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  • Ekta Kumar

Cleanliness is next to Godliness? Not always!

We are generous when it comes to the gods. But millions of tonnes of flowers that briefly find a place at the deity’s feet everyday, should not end up in garbage bins.

"Let there be balance in the space. Let there be balance in the sky. Let there be peace on the earth. Let there be growth in plants. Let there be growth in trees. Let there be bliss in Brahman..."

These lines were written over three thousand years ago - a hymn from the ancient text 'Yajur Veda', recited in prayer, as a reminder to maintain our equilibrium with nature. Of course, we're not listening. Our swollen population has poisoned our rivers, polluted the air, killed trees, littered the earth and even figured how to dump our debris in space. After centuries of neglect and abuse of the earth's ecosystem, it is only now that we are beginning to talk about sustainability.

There is an increasing recognition of the damaging impact of environmental degradation, and efforts are being made to understand the connections and challenges between the social-environment systems, and how best we can meet the needs of the people without destroying our planet.

While there is a push for sustainability on various levels - individual, governmental, industrial and so on, there is a pervasive need to extend the conversation - and religion can play a huge role in this. Let us consider flowers that are brought to the gods everyday. Freshly plucked, fragrant and beautiful blossoms that might briefly find a coveted spot at the deity's feet, only to wilt towards the end of the day and be thrown out as garbage or dumped in a river nearby. This is tradition, how things have always been.

It is only recently that we have begun to question it, and for good reason. According to one estimate, 800 million tonnes of flowers are offered in prayer every single day across the country. There was a time when the place for worship was a simple vermillion smeared stone or an ancient tree standing tall in an open forest. From there it evolved into a basic shrine made of leaves, or moved inside a cave to protect the deity. Over centuries it kept growing, both in number and in size. Today we have millions of temples, mosques, churches and gurudwaras in India. Big and small, they can be found everywhere. Tucked away high up in the snow capped mountains, in dusty forgotten villages, in the middle of a busy traffic junction, inside dark and damp caves, and on practically every street in big cities and small towns. Millions of holy places attract several million visitors everyday. The number increases on festivals, auspicious days and big events like religious processions, the Kumbh mela or the Jagannath Yatra. Pilgrims usually make their way into the hallowed sanctum with their hands full of offerings - and we are generous when it comes to the gods.

A single temple, Tirupathi, disposes off 12 tonnes of flowers everyday, and on a festival that number can go upto 25 tonnes the city of Mumbai alone generates 1200-1500 tonnes of flowers every day the famous Ajmer Sharif discards between 3 to 5 tonnes of roses daily Rivers in Europe are too dry, too low, too warm Good intentions and traditions aside, mountains of flowers callously thrown away is such a humongous waste. It is quite common to see our waterways choked with the dead, rotting remains. Floral waste alone accounts for over 16% of river water pollutants. Their decay causes the growth of algae and depletes oxygen levels in the water. The flowers also leach deadly pesticides into the fragile ecosystem and harm marine life. But awareness has begun to seep in and things are perhaps beginning to change.

Savita is a devout middle aged woman, who works in a small unit that segregates floral waste. Picking out the trash from the flowers, bits of camphor, charred incense sticks, bangles and half burnt wicks. 'It is mostly marigold' she says as she pushes a heap to one side, 'we will make it useful'. There are many others like her. Their job begins when truck loads of waste flowers are dumped in their small enclosures. Floral waste is now being used to make hand made paper, fertilizers, natural dyes, fragrances, incense sticks and so on. There are heartening stories of innovation, where technology being used to create a sustainable cycle.

There are temples in Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai that are composting flowers, to create nutrient rich organic manure. Helpusgreen based out of Kanpur, recycles around 4.5 tonnes of floral waste every day, much to the relief of the choking river that runs along it. Cyanide spill highlights environmental toll of mining There are other solid waste management projects that are being implemented, but the efforts are haphazard and small. A few of the larger places of worship like Tirupathi are more organised. It is one of India's most famous temples, and has a long history of sustainable practices. With over 50,000 pilgrims a day they realised early enough that they had to have a formal system in place so as to be able to take the pressure of the local natural resources. The trust has planted over 4 million trees, initiated projects for soil and water conservation, banned plastic bottles inside the premises, adopted solar cooking technology to feed over 25,000 visitors everyday, and are generating their electricity and even selling carbon credits. It can be a stellar example of good practices, but with over billions of dollars in assets, it has both size and resources on its side. The others are not so lucky.

India is dotted with smaller places of worship that need support. They depend on donations and do not have the resources to take meaningful steps towards sustainability, and the problem is compounded because of a critical lack of awareness and also a resistance to change mindsets and old habits. They need a little nudge and help from the government. For example, it is not always practical to run a waste processing unit for one temple. Management of individual composting bins may not be practical given the 45 day cycle and expensive real estate, especially in urban areas, and this could be an area where the local municipality can step in - to collect the waste and create common composting pits. For example large religious gatherings like the Kumbh Mela, with over 150 million visitors, has over time established good practices for crowd management, eco-friendly toilets, clean up action, sanitation and clean drinking water. But given the enormous volume of waste generated, we must find a way to manage it and put it to good use. There is a lot that still needs to be done. And much of this is possible only through policy intervention on waste management and good civic planning by the government.

Religion is an intrinsic part of our country. There is a tremendous opportunity for the government to reach out and sensitise millions of devotees who visit the shrines every single day. This can be done through awareness campaigns run by religious places of worship themselves, and also through the implementation of eco-friendly practices. 'Holy flowers are used to make manure' says Savita, 'and then we can use it to grow more flowers.' It is pretty simply put, and hopefully not too difficult to achieve.

Religion can be a powerful tool to inspire and inform the people. It has the potential to reach out to a large mass of people and talk to them about the environmental crisis that is facing us. The lessons need not be limited to school classrooms, corporate boardrooms and developmental organisations. It is time to extend the conversation.

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