At street corners, in slums, in the few available maidans, young boys and men meet these days to practise their moves for Dahi Handi. Drum beats reverberate. Boys and men attempt to make the human pyramid that could potentially make all of them richer by a few thousand rupees. That is, if they do not land up on hospital beds with life-altering injuries.
Last year, two govindas had died during such rehearsals. Newspapers unfailingly carry reports of deaths and injuries every year while reporting the celebrations. The Devendra Fadnavis government, coming to grips with the nuts and bolts of governance, has thought it fit to classify the Dahi Handi as an adventure sport which means some guidelines will be set down for the pyramid formation and safety of the participating govindas. Can we hope for landing pads and sand bags as in say, pole vault?
This is a welcome and long-delayed decision. Accordingly, minor children cannot participate without explicit consent from parents or guardians, all organisers have to ensure proper insurance for all participants, provide safety gear including helmets and harness, and arrange for first-aid facilities on site and ambulances to shift the injured govindas to nearest hospitals.
But it is anybody’s guess if these will be followed or the guidelines when mandated will be adhered to. In fact, there is no guarantee that the guidelines will favour the participating govindas over influential organisers. The reason is simple. There is a bare conflict of interest here. Though there are an estimated 800-1,000 Dahi Handi mandals across Mumbai and Thane, some of the most influential organisers are politicians with immense financial and political clout.
They have resisted efforts all these years to streamline the pyramid formation and introduce safety measures. They vehemently argued against the restrictions put by the Bombay high court last year – minimum 18 years for govindas and tiers limited to 20 feet – and were relieved when the apex court eased these.
It is the BJP’s Ashish Shelar who led the committee that recommended making Dahi Handi into an adventure sport. High-profile organisers such as NCP’s Jitendra Awhad and Sachin Ahir continue to complain that the scales are already loaded against them. The Congress too has joined the bandwagon as its leaders enter the organisers’ club. Awhad pointed out that people playing cricket have died on the field while BJP’s Vinod Tawde, education and cultural affairs minister who announced the classification, likened the risks in Dahi Handi pyramids to the dangers of Formula 1 car racing.
The Dahi Handi was meant to be a symbolic recreation of the little Lord Krishna’s attempt to grab the pot of curd/milk strung at a reasonable height in his house. In its evolution in Mumbai, it incorporated elements of physical endurance, old-style gym training, skills of balance, discipline and poise as gymnasts do, and the art of teamwork and mutual trust. Some argued that it helped make men out of boys.As with festivals and celebrations, the Dahi Handi too was colonised by individual politicians across party lines. The pyramids scaled higher and higher with each passing decade, govinda pathaks began to be sponsored by politicians or their financiers, competition was brought into the celebration which in turn led to the formation of professional govinda groups, and the prize money soared from a nominal amount to Rs 1.11 crore two years ago – and counting. As the stakes grew higher and politics turned more competitive, the Dahi Handi pyramids, govinda groups and the tournamentlike competition allowed the politician-organisers to expand their sphere of influence and use the religious platform for a political purpose. The template for this is, of course, the Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s public festival of the Ganesh puja in 1893.
Politicians, driven either by religious fervour or otherwise, are deeply involved in public celebration of festivals including the Dahi Handi. It follows then that they, as a class, are not involved in drawing up the guidelines for the safety of the lakhs who participate. They should entrust the task to experts in adventure sports. They cannot wear both the hats — organiser and rule-maker.