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Kerala’s eco-friendly weddings: Paper lanterns, flowers and ceramic plates

From June 5, 2017, Kerala government has made green weddings a rule in the state to avoid wastage during weddings. Here’s everything you need to know about this new phenomenon taking over the matrimonial industry.

sex and relationships Updated: Jun 24, 2017 22:24 IST
In an eco-wedding plastic and other disposable items, whether in the form of crockery or decorations, aren’t allowed anymore.
In an eco-wedding plastic and other disposable items, whether in the form of crockery or decorations, aren’t allowed anymore. (YouTube)

On the day of her wedding, Anita Pai had diyas arranged along the path leading up to her house, and their large back garden. It was summer and there was no chance of rain in Kochi, so her sister had spent the previous night hanging colourful paper lanterns from strings tied between trees. Flowers were strewn along in the grass. The furniture in their hall had been cleared out to accommodate caterers who brought ceramic plates and glasses with them; there were around 120 guests who were allowed to eat where they wanted. Pai made sure two dustbins were placed at every corner — one for organic, another for inorganic waste.

“By the end of the evening, there wasn’t much to clear up,” 29-year-old Pai says. Only the diyas were put away. The lanterns they had bought stayed where they were for a week and were then brought into the house; the flowers remained strewn in the grass. And spectacularly, the dustbins for inorganic waste were mostly empty.

They had pulled off a completely eco-friendly wedding at home, and it had cost roughly Rs 2 lakh.

Pai, a homemaker, got married three years ago, back when such eco-friendly weddings weren’t mandatory in Kerala. They had done it because she’d come to believe that it wasn’t fair to dismissively say the waste would be “thrown away”. “Just because we don’t have to see the waste once we throw it away doesn’t mean that it magically disappears,” she says.

“Each wedding produces around one tonne of waste,” said Amir Shah, programme officer at Suchitwa Mission .

Now, on June 5, 2017, the Kerala government announced that they had decided to make green weddings a rule. Suchitwa Mission, the state agency for sanitation, declared that the green protocol they had successfully carried out at major events like the 2015 National Games (that reportedly stopped the generation of 120 metric tonnes of disposable waste), will now have to be implemented in weddings. “Each wedding produces around one tonne of waste,” Amir Shah, programme officer at Suchitwa Mission claims seriously. In Bangalore, Shyamala Suresh, who helps plan eco-friendly weddings, has another figure — earlier this year, she told YourStory that a wedding with 1,000 people produces at least two truckloads of waste going to a landfill.

The hope is that these small steps will make the waste produced in Kerala more manageable to handle. Eventually, if inspections by district officials show that the green protocol has not been followed, action will be taken (although there’s no sense yet of what the penalty will be). Currently, the pilot project has already started in Kannur, Kollam, Ernakulam, and Alappuzha.

A traditional Kerala Hindu wedding feast. (Spykster via Flickr CC by 2.0.)

What is an eco-wedding? It means that plastic and other disposable items, whether in the form of crockery or decorations, aren’t allowed anymore. Shah says that if people want big weddings, marriage halls and hotels will have to use either banana leaves or plates and cups made of steel or glass to serve food. They will have to replace plastic flowers and thermocol balls (a strange staple decoration at almost every wedding) with other decorations, and cloth or canvas must be used instead of flexes.

The new rule is the end of some things Kerala has grown to expect recently in weddings, just like it might be the beginning of several other sunrise industries in the wedding business.

Environmental activists at the organisation Thanal say that Kerala, like many other states in India, has been battling large-scale waste disposal issues, since there’s nowhere to discard the waste. What was referred to as the massive stray dog menace in Kerala throughout 2016 was partly caused by a severe lack of waste management systems. Then, in November 2016, The News Minute reported on the ‘ghost town of Bhramapuram’, an almost-dead village next to Kochi Municipal Corporation’s dumping yard. The villagers were understandably upset that the government wanted to build a bio-medical waste treatment plant there (there was already an existing plant).

When the rule was first announced, CV Joy, the director of the Suchitwa Mission had cautiously said that even though they had legal backing, they would try to implement the rule with everybody’s support, as though ready for backlash. But they haven’t faced any.

Undoubtedly, however, the new rule is the end of some things Kerala has grown to expect recently in weddings, just like it might be the beginning of several other sunrise industries in the wedding business.

Reports say that India’s ever-growing wedding industry is currently pegged at Rs 4,000 – Rs 5,000 crore. Scroll.in reports that estimates from a leading event management firm in Kochi put Kerala’s wedding industry at a staggering Rs 10,000 crore, and while wedding planners are hesitant to disclose how much clients spend on a wedding (for tax reasons, they say sheepishly), Ken Research has found that in 2016, weddings in Kerala cost anything between Rs 50 lakh to Rs 1.5 crore.

Often, this doesn’t include the cost of gold jewellery — a hot topic for discussion in 2015 when the Kerala Women’s Commission came up with a proposal (amidst much consternation about loss of jobs) to curb marriage expenditure to Rs 5 lakh, and allowing only 80 grams of jewellery, with a maximum of 200 guests. Just last week, CPI MLA Geetha Gopi was heavily criticised and called an “embarrassment” to the party, when photographs of her daughter swathed in huge amounts of gold on her wedding went viral.

Pai says that a long time ago, Kerala weddings had the reputation of being over in five minutes. “The running joke in my husband’s Mangalorean family was a warning to their relatives that if they stepped out for five minutes, then they’d miss the ceremony by the time they returned,” she says.

There will be a jump in the amount spent on weddings. But it isn’t people who are economically better off who’ll be particularly affected by this increase. It’s women and men with much lower incomes.

This was certainly true of all her cousins’ weddings. The only difference was that for each of these five minute ceremonies, money was spent on elaborate plastic flowers for every table and along the walls (sometimes pinned on styrofoam), on getting flexes printed, on creating a large plastic backdrop that nobody could re-use, and small things like thermocol balls and confetti. There were at least 1,000 guests (sometimes more), and while they used re-usable plates, they did serve water and juice in plastic cups, provide plastic water bottles, and use paper napkins instead of cloth. “And the choice not to use ceramic plates wasn’t for environmental reasons, but just because disposable plates would look tacky,” Pai says dismissively.

Now, with the new rule, it’s obvious that there will be a jump in the amount spent on weddings. But it isn’t people who are economically better off who’ll be particularly affected by this increase. It’s women and men with much lower incomes, who live in houses that aren’t big enough to have a wedding there, and whose families spend years saving up for that one occasion, who will have to pull back. Perhaps they will have to cut down on decoration to pay caterers, who’ve in turn had to invest more money in buying crockery.

In contrast to Pai’s wedding for instance, Malvika John, who worked as a teacher in a government school in Thrissur, says she’s in two minds about this new rule. John’s daughter is getting married next month, and while she understands the urgent need to manage waste in Kerala, she’s wondering how much more her family will have to spend on the wedding if her daughter still wants to have it just like it’s been planned so far.

Wedding ceremony decorations. (publicdomainpictures.net)

Unlike Pai, John’s daughter’s wedding is already expensive because it isn’t at home, and there are going to be at least 500 guests. “She’s my only daughter and this is the one occasion that we have wanted to celebrate in as big a way as we can afford,” she says. But this new rule will mean that the many plastic flowers she had planned to use will have to be replaced by fresh ones, and flexes, which are much cheaper to print on, will have to be replaced by more expensive printed cloth. With the ban on disposable cutlery, this doesn’t even begin to look at the new catering costs they will have to incur.

At this point, Priyanka, John’s 24-year-old daughter, jokingly says that now her extended family has one more angle from which to discuss every last detail of her wedding. “Now the pressure is for it to look fancy, and be good for the environment,” she says. It can’t be either or.

Even Shana Selvam, the founder of Wedding Factory, a leading Kochi-based event management firm that often plans destination weddings in Kerala’s backwaters and beaches, says that the impact of this new rule won’t be felt strongly by people from the upper-middle class. The families approaching her and other wedding planners belong to this category, and usually already have this eco-friendly plan in mind, since freshly-cut flowers apparently look much elegant than plastic ones. Not surprising, since elegance seems to get automatically reconfigured as something most people will find difficult to afford. Selvam then rattles off a long list of eco-friendly objects that can be used for décor — paper mache, bamboo, flowers, candles, and painted backdrops are just some of them.

Wedding decoration. (zoe.wang via Flickr CC by 2.0.)

On the other hand, Sofia Mathew, who is the director of the wedding department at Watermark Event Solutions, says this new rule might even positively affect small handicraft industries that create beautiful decorations, by providing employment. It would mean the beginning of new industries in the wedding business.

This same logic extends to the people running the wedding industry whom this will impact — well-established wedding planners like Selvam and Mathew will not be affected by this new rule. Instead, some predict that the brunt will be on caterers and wedding halls. Robin John Precious, who runs Precious Wedding Planners in Kottayam says, “Caterers and halls usually make the arrangements for food and how it’ll be served, not the wedding planners.” Since they get rid of the waste generated, the new rule affects them directly.

Sunish, from the well-known Star Choyz Caterers in Kochi, confirms this, but again, the new rule will only affect smaller caterers. “Disposable cutlery is a lot cheaper to buy. Being a fairly large outfit ourselves, we serve elite customers and already had (non-disposable) cutlery and crockery. With the new rule, smaller outfits are going to have to spend money buying plates and glasses, but it’s a good cause,” he says. V Vijaykumar, the manager of Vinayaka Caterers and Kalyana Mandapam, also says that while this is a good move (they’ve been trying to make the switch before the rule came into place), this also means that there’s the problem of now having to find someone to clean the large number of plates used.

Perhaps CV Joy and officials at Suchitwa Mission needn’t have worried. Kerala, it seems, will willingly attempt to transition into implementing this new rule, even though it will affect some people more than others. As Pai says, “Since it doesn’t strike anyone to wonder where their waste is going, this new rule takes care of it.”

Published in arrangement with GRIST Media

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