Maharashtra: Ganesh idol makers stare at grim future amid COVID-19

In a big relief to Ganesh idol makers, the Centre last week stayed the ban on POP Ganesh idols for a year. The decision was taken amid the COVID-19 crisis which has affected many artisans

Ganesh idols, plaster of paris, Maharashtra, manufacturing hub, coronavirus, COVID-19, Lockdown
An artist gives final touches to an idol of Lord Ganesh at a unit at Hamrapur village in Pen Taluka of Raigad district. Photo: PTI

Akshay Bhagat, 25, quit the family vocation of farming three years ago and began a Ganesh idol painting business with a dream to eventually own a full-fledged factory to make the idols.

The business is supposed to be a stepping stone for bigger pursuits, but the future is bleak as artisans depend on plaster of Paris (POP), which is not environment-friendly, for making the idols.

In a big relief to Ganesh idol makers, the Centre last week stayed the ban on POP Ganesh idols for a year. The decision was taken amid the COVID-19 crisis which has affected many artisans, said Union minister Prakash Javadekar.

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A motorcyclist moves past plaster of Paris (PoP) idols of Lord Ganesh kept for drying along a road at Hamrapur village in Pen Taluka of Raigad district. Photo: PTI

Earlier, the Central Pollution Control Board had banned the use of plastic, thermocol, and plaster of Paris in making idols of gods and goddesses for their safe and eco-friendly immersion.

This year, Ganesh Chaturthi falls in August. The decision is expected to bring some relief to the idol makers who are already facing a tough time due to the lockdown.

“The reprieve came in too late,” Bhagat told PTI.

Maharashtrians observe the Ganpati festivities every monsoon by installing idols of the elephant god for 10 days. There are community pandals which have very large idols, while households make do with smaller ones which are manufactured in Pen.

The family of 40-year-old Krunal Patil is into making idols for the fourth generation now and he heads the Sri Ganesh Utkarsha Mandal, an umbrella body representing artisans from 17 villages in the area.

The plaster of Paris (PoP) idols of Lord Ganesh at Hamrapur village in Pen Taluka of Raigad district. Photo: PTI

Usually, the around 500 workshops or factories in Hamrapur start delivering the idols from January, starting with those under one-and-a-half feet. Many early deliveries are for the
export markets, directly from the country’s largest container port JNPT, located nearby.

Dyes for larger and more revenue-earning idols are cast later and the idols are made quickly courtesy the best of the weather conditions as the summer sets in.

“Due to the lockdown, we were unable to get the raw material, especially the POP from Rajasthan. Allowing us to use POP for this year will not help much as the damage is already done, Patil says, claiming that the impact of the lockdown will be in crores.

Output will fall to a third of the original to about 6 lakh idols this year, Patil estimates, adding that the only silver lining to the last weeks announcement is that they will be able to sell more idols.

Artists carry a plaster of Paris (PoP) idol of Lord Ganesh at a unit at Hamrapur village in Pen Taluka of Raigad district. Photo: PTI

Mumbai and Pune constitute for over 40 per cent of the business for the idols made in the town, but with the two largest cities of Maharashtra continuing to report a high number of COVID cases, it is unclear if the idols which are ready can be ferried to these cities.

At present, idols dot virtually every lane in this town of over 2,000 people. A few are kept to dry in fields and many others wait in warehouses for buyers.

Despite being May-end, the scenes in the town are unlike the past when factories put in night shifts.

At one such factory, Rupesh Patil is busy plastering an idol with liquified POP and meshing it with kaabal (as the coir is locally called) and fears a dip in wages this season.

The plaster of Paris (PoP) idols of Lord Ganesh at a unit at Hamrapur village in Pen Taluka of Raigad district. Photo: PTI

Patil estimates the factories – mostly cottage units yet to be classified as a micro enterprise by the government – produce 20 lakh idols a year ranging from six inches to nine feet.

Crores of rupees worth idols are made every year and the idol making supports over 10,000 jobs, Patil said, adding that a high school kid from the town also wields a smartphone these days because of earnings from the idol making.

Key to the flourishing industry is POP, which helps them make a raw idol (without the painting) in as low as 2-3 days. The alternative is making idols of natural clay but the industry cannot achieve the volumes, Patil said.

An artist works on the plaster of Paris (PoP) idols of Lord Ganesh at Hamrapur village in Pen Taluka of Raigad district. Photo: PTI

Idols made of natural clay are hard to transport as compared to the more strong POP ones, Patil said, adding that the umbrella body will be fighting out for POP idols in the courts.

Each factory owner borrows in advance for paying the labour and raw materials, and gets paid only during Ganesh festival, once the idols are sold, Patil explained.

The idol makers will protest if the ban on POP is enforced next year, he said.

A five-year notice and also a package for the idol making industry is needed before the ban
is implemented, he adds.

The plaster of Paris (PoP) idols of Lord Ganesh at a unit at Hamrapur village in Pen Taluka of Raigad district. Photo: PTI
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