Pollution and Religion: India’s Environmental Dilemma
As a region with deep spiritual connections to the natural world and high vulnerability to the effects of climate change, South Asia is central to the global concern of pollution. With diverse religions emphasising the significance of natural features such as rivers for the prosperity of cultures and societies, the region seems suitable for effective environmentalism. However, as the case of India shows, the issue is far more complex as pollution increasingly places individuals in danger. Representing 30 of the World Health Organization’s top 100 most polluted cities, with New Delhi holding the world record for particulate pollution, India reportedly sees 2.5 million air pollution related deaths every year (Luedi, 2018). Furthermore, despite the central importance of rivers within the dominant religion of Hinduism, India’s “Central Pollution Control Board has warned that the water in half the nation's rivers is unsafe to drink and at least a quarter... cannot be used for bathing” (Sharma, 2014). Ultimately, this highlights a complexity in marrying the theoretical strengths of Hinduism with the reality in which it is situated. While pollution and climate change increasingly threaten certain core values of Hinduism, a reluctance to update certain traditions to reflect modern demands continues to impede the nation’s conservation efforts – a record that needs change while remaining respectful.
Likely the most significant barrier to Hinduism as a route to effective environmentalism is the role the religion itself has played in the pollution of the nation. While India’s rising pollution can partially be attributed to the demands of the nation’s growing population, especially in trying to alleviate poverty, there is a unique religious element to the issue (Luedi, 2018). Through major Hindu festivals such as Diwali, Holi, Durga Puja, and Ganesh Puja, and traditional activities such as cremations, the nation’s water and air have been further polluted, affecting both biodiversity and health (Rosencranz and Nath, 2017: Sharma, 2014). Despite the significance of rivers such as the Yamuna and the Ganga to both Hinduism and the wider South Asian region, the former’s ecosystem is largely dead while the latter is in such a state of ruin by Bangladesh that Hindus of this nation are unable to benefit from its cultural and religious value (Noolkar, 2017). This is concerning for the welfare of the planet as a whole, and also the protection of ancient religions and traditions. Representing a strong contradiction, the spiritual value attributed to the natural world within Hinduism provokes the actions that then destroy it – with the sacred nature of aspects such as rivers encouraging behaviour that cumulatively pollutes them. Importantly, this indicates the necessity of a shift in the current ways of life as without this, pollution may ultimately strip individuals not only of their quality of life, but the depth of the religion that they hold close. Despite this concern, there has been resistance to more sustainable Hindu practice, especially within the Indian political realm. Although there has been an acknowledgement of the pollution that plagues the nation’s rivers – through initiatives such as the Ganga Action Plan from 1986 and the Yamuna Action Plan from the 1990s to reduce their pollution – plans have either been withdrawn or ineffective in preventing further deterioration (Sharma, 2014). This highlights that the severity of the issue has not been fully understood, especially due to the minimal attention paid to the extent to which religious festivities have exacerbated pollution. In 2016, the Supreme Court order temporarily suspended the sale of fireworks within New Delhi until November 2017 to limit Diwali-related air pollution in the region (Rosencranz and Nath, 2017), however, while pollution did decrease, the lack of robust enforcement and general public opposition have limited long-term improvement (Luedi, 2018). As political forces failed to secure firm action from this legal decision, or even attempt to create a positive conservationist narrative, polluting practices were further entrenched and environmental movements undermined. Furthermore, this has ultimately fed into a lack of regulation for other festivals such as Durga Puja and Ganesh Puja that involve the immersion of statues covered in toxic paint into holy rivers (Rosencranz and Nath, 2017). Innovations in sustainable Hindu practice continue to face strong resistance as a consequence, as alternative eco-friendly cremation materials may be viewed as lacking in spiritual significance compared to traditional pyre (Luedi, 2018). In further polluting the rivers that Hinduism and the welfare of India is built around, individuals are cumulatively removing the spiritual purity of nature – showing the necessity of sensitive change.
Yet it is Hindu traditions themselves that have been presented as the most viable course to environmentalism. As the roots of nature conservation themselves are deeply spiritual and built on protecting God’s creations, protection of religion may often coincide with protection of the natural world (Abraham, 2017). Theoretically, this means that religions like Hinduism, which emphasise physical and spiritual connections to nature, could have much to offer conservation if able to instill environmental accountability within individuals. With the Constitution guaranteeing freedom to practice religion under reasonable restrictions to ensure that they do not conflict with fundamental rights such as a clean and healthy environment, Hinduism could reasonably be guided by the central state to ensure the greater good of the nation (Rosencranz and Nath, 2017). While protecting the integrity of Hinduism, the Indian government could better work to provide alternatives, such as the creation of immersion sites near rivers for religious ceremonies and widespread education of these dual modern ecological and spiritual values (Sharma, 2014). Individuals may feel increasingly comfortable in pursuing eco-friendly Hindu practices – reducing the negative impacts of religious celebrations without sacrificing cultural significance. Fortunately, efforts to make certain festivals more environmentally friendly would align with public preferences to return to more traditional routes – as the powders thrown during Holi could again be made from the seasonal herbs and flowers they originally consisted of, rather than modern toxic chemicals (Luedi, 2018). Although this undoubtably would not solve all of India’s environmental concerns, as the preference for traditional cremation materials is a key polluting activity, this could allow a better balance of old and new – modernising practice enough to protect the nation and environment, while maintaining the sanctity of beliefs. As an approach to environmentalism, this represents a form of ‘eco-resurgence’ – a bottom-up mechanism that emphasises traditional cultures and societies as the foundation of sustainable development by protecting the link between people and nature (Janardhanan, Nishioka, and Zusman, 2020, pp.2). This empowerment of individuals through their religious activities could then effectively counter the water and air pollution of the region, and simultaneously deepen the spiritual connection between people and their surroundings.
While the very nature of Hinduism remains under threat, this is not due to efforts to regulate the use of fireworks or traditional cremation pyre, but through the pollution of the rivers central to India’s history and culture (Noolkar, 2017). Although likely to be difficult and face backlash from individuals and governance, opportunities are undoubtably available for Hinduism to become its own protector and contribute to lifting India from the dangers of pollution to which it has partially contributed.
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