Anand Pendharkar Column: Cut-throat festivities

Anand PendharkarIt’s the new year and I have read about all the arrests for drunk driving, public nuisance and resolutions of friends wanting to quit drinking; the last is likely to last less than a week. Schools and colleges have reopened, and those studying botany and zoology are gearing up for study excursions to wilderness regions. Some, I’ve heard, are going to Mahabaleshwar to understand the flora of the Deccan Plateau. There are others booking up jeeps and canter safaris and luxury rooms in resorts near various tiger reserves, national parks and bird sanctuaries. There is hardly anybody talking about dormitory accommodation or trekking and beach-combing as that would mean arduous study and fieldwork. Among all these honeymoon-like plans, one student even declared, “Let’s go fly a kite”, suggesting a combined trip of culture and nature, to Ahmedabad.

The penchant for festivities never subsides in the true blue-Mumbaikar. Hence, the student’s suggestion didn’t seem in the least absurd to most faculty members or students of the institute. There was some concern about logistics and how soon all arrangements could be made. Within a fraction of a second, however, there was an animated display of joy. A few pointed out shopping options and others started discussing eateries that could be visited. But among these excited beings, there were a bunch of grey and boring nerds, who were nature club members and hardcore academics. They posed the uncomfortable and unwelcome question, “Don’t these paper kites and sharp threads harm our birds, trees, powerlines and landscape?”

An injured pigeon during Makar Sankranti
An injured pigeon during Makar Sankranti

As a distant observer, I remotely patted their backs and then sulked in introspection. A lot is wrong with these educators, their skill-sets, the focus of today’s education and awry parents who will spend thousands to send their wards on useless study trips. Shouldn’t the focus of such study tours be to learn more about various flora and fauna or methods and procedures to conserve them or to meet inspirational people who are attempting to study, safe-guard or document the mysteries that nature has so intricately woven? And here we are contemplating participating in a rowdy kite-flying festival that leaves humans, birds and trees injured and the fire-brigade and animal rescuers overworked for months.

The kite-flying festival or Makar Sankranti, also called Pongal, Uttarayan or Maghi, is celebrated across India as a harvest festival. It generally falls around January 14 and 15 and coincides with the winter solstice in the Gregorian calendar. The name Makar Sankranti has an astronomical significance as the sun enters Capricorn (Sanskrit: Makar) Constellation on that day. The migration of the sun from one constellation to another is called Sankranti in Sanskrit. Flying kites symbolise changing winds and the colourful kites signify arrival of spring.

However, one has to realise that with changing times, traditions, festivities and cultural practices need to be modified as well. In the same vein as we have abolished the heinous practices of sati, bali and child marriage, so must we look at kite-flying, which is dangerous for high fliers, specifically owls, kites, crows, parakeets, pigeons, herons and fruit bats.

Animal rescue NGOs and fire-brigade numbers ring incessantly, with calls from distraught neighbours, requesting that a hanging bird be removed from a tree top or electric pole. The ground glass used in the kite strings has cut many a biker and cyclist too. Do you think this needs to change?

This year, colleges and schools should cancel their study tours and instead, spend time dissuading people from flying kites in urban spaces. While at it, they should get trained in animal rescue and make individual attempts to remove hreads from trees, electric wires, building tops and dish antennas so that no unwary bird, human or other creature gets injured during our celebrations.

This will be the true measure of their education and love for the creatures we study.

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