The holy composting unit

A composting unit installed in one of the temple premises in Pune (Image Source: Jeevitnadi Living River Foundation)
A composting unit installed in one of the temple premises in Pune (Image Source: Jeevitnadi Living River Foundation)
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Cleaning the river banks has been a regular activity taken up by Jeevitnadi Living River Foundation (an NGO working on saving the river Mula Mutha in Pune city through citizen involvement) as a part of the Adopt a river stretch initiative. In 2017,  Jeevitnadi members adopted the Aundh river stretch between D’Mart  to Rajiv Gandhi bridge in Pune city and took up regular cleaning activity along the stretch. 

Holy waters, unholy outcomes

Along with cleaning the river ghats, we also started observing stresses on the river in this stretch. We decided to dedicate an hour to the cleaning activity and would gather every saturday morning for this work.  While we were few in number in the initial phases, we were overwhelmed by the enormity of the religious waste (nirmalya) thrown here.

"When we started working on adopt the river stretches, we saw nirmalya (religious waste like flowers, offerings etc) being thrown everywhere. This is mainly because of the common mindset that nirmalya is holy and that it needs to go into the river. Since this has been going on for years, we as a society do not see any wrong in doing this", says Shailaja Deshpande, Director, Jeevitnadi Living River Foundation.

"But there is a limit on how much the river can take in or digest. We could see the river waters gradually deteriorating. We thought, why can't we give a better solution for this, and turn this into compost so that this holy compost can be used for growing plants in the garden and in the homes", she adds.

We found a large amount of waste in the form of flowers, garlands, ash etc deposited into the rivers, mainly from religious offerings thrown into the river after the rituals. This practice made sense as long as the river had good amount of oxygen in it to oxidise such waste.  But rivers these days unfortunately have become sewers and in the dry seasons, the oxygen levels in the river drop to almost zero, which isn’t enough to oxidise any kind of waste.

The polluted river with nirmalya (Image Source: Jeevitnadi Living River Foundation)
Collecting nirmalya from the river (Image Source: Jeevitnadi Living River Foundation)

This results in incomplete decomposition due to anerobic conditions, which leads to formation of several poisonous gases including methane. These bubbles of methane and other poisonous gases can be seen emanating in still waters. To prevent wastes from being dumped into the river, the Pune Municipality has put up nets on the sides of several bridges across the city.

However, people continue to dump waste into the water bodies and many religious practices too still blindly continue to propagate these habits, oblivious to the severe consequences of these practices for river health. We soon realised that the situation would continue to go from bad to worse unless some drastic measures were undertaken to change the situation.

Holy compost to the rescue

We started thinking of solutions. We wondered, while  owning up responsibilities sounded too preachy, why would anyone consider our suggestion for not throwing anything in the river? Why would anyone listen to our pleas?  This made us search for alternatives to prevent offerings like ‘nirmalya’ from going into the river waters.  This is when the idea of installing a compost pit in the temple premises close to the river and water bodies came up. 

"First, we stood on the bridge and stopped people asking them to refrain from throwing nirmalya in the river. But we thought we also needed to provide solutions. People often donated money for colouring, electrification and for providing mattresses and other forms of material to the temple, but there was no money available for taking up activities such as composting. We fortunately got donors who supported us and we met trustees of the temple near Rajiv Gandhi Bridge and requested them to start a composting unit, recalls Shailaja Deshpande, Director, Jeevitnadi Living River Foundation.

"The impact turned out to be totally unexpected. Women from Aundh gaon who visited the temple regularly soon took up the activity, as it gave them a chance to get together and make compost which they gave away in small bags. Gradually the message spread and people regularly started coming to the composting unit to dispose their nirmalya. Another effect of this initiative was that this improved safety for women as men who used to gather in groups behind the temple to drink stopped because of increase in temple visitors. But when trustees changed, the composting unit was removed from the premises and the temple fenced. Then women found it difficult to manage the composting unit", she adds.

A 700 kg capacity compost unit was installed at the temple premises of Vithoba-Rukmini Mandir on the auspicious day of Rakshabandhan.  Since then, more than 2100 kg of compost have been harvested.  Regular visitors and the trustees play a vital role in day-to-day maintenance, management and in  creating awareness among the locals about the importance of composting.

It takes almost 45-50 days for the composting mixture to ripen in dry season and little longer in wet seasons.  Upon harvesting, the sieved compost is sold at a nominal cost of Rs 20/kg.  The amount thus generated goes in upkeep of the composting unit.  

One such awareness program was held for regular devotees of the temple one day before the installation of the compost unit - on the eve of Rakshabandhan.  It was explained to all the attendees about what can go in the compost unit along with the nirmalya and what should not be put in it.  The role of humidity and temperature was also explained to the people. A number of concerns related to composting such as what could be done in case of dry or wet waste, adding culture to fasten the composting process were addressed in the programme.  

Raising awareness on composting of nirmalya in one of the temples in Pune (Image Source: Jeevitnadi Living RIver Foundation)
Raising awareness on composting of nirmalya in one of the temples in Pune (Image Source: Jeevitnadi Living River Foundation)

Long term sustainability, a challenge to overcome

Permission was  taken from the trustees of the temple to install the unit inside the temple premises and Jeevitnadi members also participated in the  regular maintenance and management of this unit. The  whole process was operating smoothly, but with the change in the managing committee of the temple, the composting unit was moved out of the temple premises and started being dumped with nondegradable waste. While the unit is now managed by Jeevitnadi members, the long term sustainability of the effort continues to be a challenge.

However, another initiative taken up at  Sangameshwar, Shiv Mandir of Bopodi has yielded positive outcomes showing that active interest and participation shown by organisations such as temple trusts can play an important role by demonstrating the way to manage waste – an example that people will readily emulate if  a temple trust takes such an initiative.

Trustees of Shiv Mandir, Bopodi taking personal interest in making of the compost (Image Source: Jeevitnadi Living River Foundation)
Trustees of Shiv Mandir, Bopodi taking personal interest in making of the compost (Image Source: Jeevitnadi Living River Foundation)

The project was funded by Rotary club of Pune Pride.  This being a relatively small temple, the composting unit was also of lesser capacity.  Here, the trustees welcomed us with this idea and readily agreed for setting up of composting unit.   The composting unit continues to function successfully even now. More and more temple trusts are now joining this effort,  which provides solutions for safe and clean disposal of religious waste.

"We have realised that for the effort to be sustainable in the long run, temple trustees, caretakers, people as well as state level institutions need to be involved in the process. We also feel that lot of awareness is required. If the state brings out a law that this needs to be done the effort can be upscaled, and we will be able to implement this in a number of temples near the river ghats. We started this process of dialogue to take the issue to the state level, but then with the Covid  pandemic followed by floods, it was difficult to follow it up", says Shailaja Deshpande, Director, Jeevitnadi Living River Foundation.

She adds, "while people do call us and inquire, it is important that people get more aware of this need. More resources and institutional support will greatly help in taking this initiative forward and make it sustainable in the long run.  If all temples along the river can do this, it will be great".

Black gold, in the making!

With composting the results are for everyone to see!

Black gold, in the making! (Image Source: Jeevitnadi Living River Foundation)
Black gold, in the making! (Image Source: Jeevitnadi Living River Foundation)

Composting provides a host of benefits:

  • It significantly cuts down on the amount of trash in a landfill and reduces the costs and carbon emissions it takes to haul and process the material. Meanwhile, the valuable nutrients in your compostable materials make composting a favourable alternative to shipping your organic waste to a landfill.
  • It enriches the soil with nutrients, which reduces the need for fertilisers and pesticides. Fertilisers and pesticides require fossil fuels for their production and shipping, and some of them are potentially harmful to our health.
  • It increases the ability of the soil  to retain moisture, thus helping to prevent erosion by reducing runoff. Use of compost prevents and suppresses plant diseases and pests. Moist and healthy  soil improves the workability of the soil and reduces fossil fuel emissions that would otherwise be needed to produce and ship soil-maintenance products.

Composting can help sequester carbon, meaning that composting can help remove carbon from the atmosphere. Studies have shown that plants grow more rapidly in soil supplemented with compost, meaning they can pull more carbon dioxide out of the air. According to the EPA (Environment Protection Agency), the amount of carbon sequestered in soil and plants after wet compost is applied could significantly reduce greenhouse gasses if applied on a large scale.

Composting is a great way to manage waste sustainably and generates what people call as black gold, and greatly helps in soil health and even helps you to grow your own food sustainably.

We encourage citizens to come forth and adopt such practices.

Mrinal Vaidya is the core member of the Jeevitnadi Living River Foundation and the team leader for the river cleaning effort for the Rajiv Gandhi stretch under the Adopt a river stretch initiative.