Does burning wood helps reduce pollution?
Well, a school goer who has to read environmental studies these days would yell a resounding 'no'.
If one wants to go deeper, one can come across guidelines issued by the central pollution control board itself to avoid wood burning. Just a while back, when there was a dip in the air quality of Delhi, the advisory issued by the state government specifically urged people "..not to burn dry leaves, crop residue, wood, coal, etc."
But as they say, some people like doing things differently.
An organisation in Meerut (which is not very far from the national capital) is going to hold a megaevent - a mahayagnya - wherein it plans to burn 500 quintals of wood, to supposedly 'reduce pollution'. This would be a nine-day affair which would begin at the end of the third of week of March. As reports are coming in there would be 108 havan kunds (fire places) where around 350 Brahmins would be performing the rituals. A big yagnashala (where these priests would sit to perform the yagna) has been prepared at the place.
Perhaps to counter the scientific proofs available and to ward off any possible criticism from concerned citizens, a spokesperson of the organisation (Shri Ayutchandi Mahayagna Samiti), which is conducting this megaevent, has tried to provide 'theological' proofs to substantiate his argument. He is reported to have shared the belief that in Hinduism ''yagna leads to purification and removal of pollution. Mango wood burnt after pouring ghee made from cow milk helps in reducing pollution." Interestingly, he was candid enough to admit that these are all claims and "there is no scientific evidence to it yet because no research has been done so far."
Another representative of the same group seemed more confident about it and claimed that "Mango wood, that is burnt after pouring pure ghee, does not form pollutants." He even claimed that "It only purifies the air". According to a scientific report, the Ozone layer above our country is the least damaged because yagnas are done here frequently.” The tremendous confidence exhibited by this gentleman reminds us of one of the much-discussed speech by the honourable PM while inaugurating Ambani hospital, a few months after his assumption of office. He had associated medical sciences to mythology, citing that “plastic surgery” and “genetic science” explained the creation of Lord Ganesh and Karna respectively.
Anyway, coming back to the issue in focus, regional officials of the pollution control board have been apprised of the mega event and they have emphasised that "it would only contaminate the air further". However, they have also expressed their helplessness in not doing anything about it as there is "no policy to initiate a probe into it''.
As of now, when one contemplates the ecological impact of this burning of hundreds of quintals of wood, with ghee being poured on it and the 'decorative' nature of policies framed to control pollution, one is confronted with a few other questions.
First and foremost, it is undeniable that this proposition - that burning of mango wood reduces pollution - is based on scriptural authority, ( as said in the Vedas, etc) and cannot be proved or disproved, which extinguishes the very possibility of doubt which is supposed to be the first step towards knowledge. Thus it erases the need for any causality/causation in the way. One can see that it is a method which is being promoted with vengeance at the level of ruling dispensation itself.
Looking at the fact that this programme would receive wide coverage in the media, its tremendous negative impact on the minds of the people - especially children and adolescents of an impressionable age - need not be exaggerated. Students who would be studying environmental studies would find it difficult to reconcile with what the textbook tells them and how the 'great scriptures' negate it. A few students might also think why their textbooks have not told them about this 'holy truth'.
One can see that in a country like India, where superstition is the order of the day and rationalists are being killed for telling the people that they should stick to the core value of the constitution of scientific temper, this programme, which peddles pseudoscience would further complicate/impede the development of reason and inquisitiveness. In a growing ambience, where raising doubts is not encouraged, where the government seems keen to establish clarity' ( the Vedas already know this") or to offer a way out ("the Vedas can help") " such a public spectacle of glorifying ''scriptures" is dangerous.
The gravity of the situation could be better understood once we know that there already exists people who are ready to sacrifice their own daughters, as a gift (to god) to the temple authorities or where they are condemned to live a life of sexual slave (Devadasi custom) ; where ordinary people - mainly belonging to the so called lower castes - are ready to roll over the plantain leaves, once food has been partaken by Brahmins (made snana) and taking a dip in the nearby river, for supposedly curing skin diseases; or where a doctor has no qualms in calling in 'Tantrik' in ICU to 'treat patient; etc.
One can enumerate hundreds of other such examples from our daily lives, which emphasise the need for the development scientific temper.
Secondly, it is highly disturbing to know that a primitive ritual associated with a particular (majority) religion and limited mainly to the society's uppermost/dominant sections, is being provided with a new rationale and new prestige in a multireligious and multicultural society like India, by claiming that it serves a 'secular purpose'. Remember Yagya is a ritual associated with Hinduism which is done in front of the sacred fire; where oblations and libations are offered and have continued to play a central role in a Hindu's rites of passage, such as weddings, major Hindu temple ceremonies, Hindu community celebrations etc.
One would have no objection if care could have been taken to hold the programme as a private event so as to lose its traction among broad cross-sections of people and noe invite attention.
Thirdly, only Brahmins - the topmost on the Varna hierarchy - are allowed to perform the rituals associated with it as per scriptures, and this would reinforce the purity and pollution based caste system and related discriminations in the minds of the people. One cannot forget that since the last 70 years after independence , only Brahmins have been discharging such duties. This raises further uncomfortable questions. It is true that a few state governments have started with courses for priesthood where people from any caste can be admitted. Such formally trained priests could be appointed in different Devasthanams, but all such attempts have basically proved to be symbolic gesture only.
A close watcher of the unfolding situation would vouch for the fact that faith gettting precedence over rules and laws and in deciding what is right or wrong, is not an exception anymore.
A few months back, people in Pune were in for a shock when the higher education department in Maharashtra instructed the Savitribai Phule Pune University and its affiliated colleges to refrain their students from indulging in practices such as the eco-friendly immersion of Ganesha idols, as it 'hurts religious sentiments'. The said circular, which was received by the institutions on the eve of Ganeshotsav celebrations, caused such an uproar that the state government was forced to issue an objection to the letter and the education minister had to order an enquiry.
On further investigations it was revealed that a controversial organisation called Hindu Jagruti Samiti (HJS) – which along with its sister organisation Sanatan Sanstha, has remained in news since more than the last ten years, for the alleged involvement of its activists in many violent incidents - had written to the education department and targeting the 'phoney environmentalists' and their 'shallow environmental concerns'. The focus of their letter was on the opposition of immersing idols in public tanks/rivers and artificial tanks because it 'violated Hindu tradition'.
And the university officials, without trying to look into the veracity of the fact that how immersion of idols increases quantity of metals and decreases dissolved oxygen in the river and thus leads to choking of water bodies ; without bothering to know how mercury concentration in the water bodies is nil in normal period and it goes up in the festive season after the idol immersion; how the people dispose of flowers, plastics and ashes in the river also adds to the pollution levels, bowed before the order issued by the Higher Education Department and instructed various different departments as well as colleges to keep a watch on these students who were busy with the Green Ganesha.
The irony was not lost on people because Dr Narendra Dabholkar, founder of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), who was assassinated by reactionaries in Pune itself, was at the forefront of encouraging eco-friendly immersion.
Would it be possible to believe that officials in the education departmentt or leading academics in Pune University were unaware of the pollution caused by idol immersion?
The fact is that when faith starts dominating your thinking process itself, when you start bowing before scriptural authority by abandoning doubt itself - which is said to be the first step towards knowledge - then you can start believing in anything. For example, one can see for oneself how country's leading scientist and former ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair propounded a theory sometime back that some shlokas in the Vedas mentioned about presence of water on the moon, or how Union science and technology minister Harsh Vardhan claimed before a gathering of Scientists that cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who passed away this week, once said the Vedas have a theory that is superior to Albert Einstein's groundbreaking equation, E=mc 2, but later dodged queries on the source of the information. ()
If things continue in this fashion then that day is not far off when our educational campuses will begin looking like that of our neighbouring country Pakistan. The leading Pakistani physicist and human rights activist Pervez Hoodbhoy tells us how workshops are now being organised in premier universities titled 'Jinns and Black Magic' there, or how schools, colleges, and universities are inviting ‘motivational speakers’ who claim to have paranormal knowledge, are becoming a rage or why elite universities are flourishing deriding scientific reasoning.
Well, as we go the press one is witness to another mega mega yagya which would continue till March 25 in the national capital itself. Organised by an MP of the ruling Party itself, it will have 108 hawan kunds, 2,100 priests and 51,000 attendees which would pray for BJP’s re-election in next Lok Sabha polls. All the leading lights of the BJP would be there on one of these days. Services of a leading Bollywood set designer were used to prepare the set for the yagya.
If the Meerut people want to reduce pollution by burning wood, their Delhi counterparts want to retain power by similar voodoo tricks. More about this sometime later, but for now, one is rather reminded of a nursery rhyme :
If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
If turnips were bayonets, I'd wear one by my side
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author's personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of Newsclick.