At a time when the concept of an eco-friendly Ganesh festival is gaining currency, botanists and forest authorities are alarmed over the use of rare and endangered plant species in the Western Ghats as part of the ‘Ganapati Patri Puja’.
The puja forms an important part of Ganesh Chaturthi where 21 varieties of leaves (patri) are used to worship Lord Ganesh.
“Much of the leaves in the patri puja are illegally harvested in the Ghats. They are not mentioned in any of the puja manuals of antiquity or in modern handbooks,” said city-based botanist Dr. Sachin Punekar, founder of the NGO ‘Biospheres’ and a senior research scientist at the Naoroji Godrej Centre for Plant Research.
The excessive use of endangered plants is throwing the conservation ethic in the Ghats astray, remarks Dr. Punekar. “These include plants like wild turmeric, mahalungi (known for its medicinal value in curing diabetes) and screw pine, especially its variants, pandanus odoratissimus and pandanus tectorius,” he said.
“There has been no quantification on the damage as yet. But this is extremely worrying because if seasonal plants are harvested excessively, then pollination and multiplication are affected. These grasses and small plants are vital for soil conservation. There is an urgent need for an awareness drive,” said Sunil Limaye, chief conservator of forests (wildlife), Pune Division.
Many who celebrate the festival prefer wild plants and exotic flowers owing to their attractiveness, despite their lack of significance in puranas. These varieties are sourced from areas like Bhor, Raireshwar, Mulshi, Junnar, Waranda which are rich in bio-diversity.
A single kewra flower (pandanus tectorius) sells for as much as Rs. 150. There lies the rub. “I manage to make as much as Rs. 4,000-5,000 a couple of days before the Ganesh festival kicks off,” says Abdur Razzaq, a patri seller in the city’s Gultekdi market yard.
“The entire ‘patri’ business is more than Rs. 30 lakh. The days before the festival is where we break even,” says Gulzar Ahmed, another seller.
“People ought to restrict themselves only to easily and extensively available patris, like the traditional tulsi, bel or durva leaves,” said botanist Dr. Shrikant Ingalhalikar.
Even medicinal and threatened species from the Northern Ghats are being affected, which affects insects like butterflies dependent on them, explained Dr. Punekar.
As forest authorities urgently mull over amending environmental laws, a fresh truckload of rare plants duly arrives at the Gultekdi market – in time to propitiate the gods.