The Dahi handi Utsav Samanvay Samiti has dug in its heels. The apex body of more than 1,000 dahi handi mandals, or groups, wants to celebrate the dahi handi festival, to mark Krishna Janmashtami, in the manner that it has been doing for years now. It wants the human pyramids to have children, mostly boys, below the age of 12 years; multi-tiered pyramids; pots of dahi and other goodies hung high as high as possible, almost at fifth floor height or above. The Samiti office-bearers are upset with the restrictions set out by the Bombay high court and the state Child Rights Protection Committee.
The belligerence of the Samiti, which wants to defy the court and conduct dahi handi in violation of the court’s norms, raises a simple question: why are adult and presumably reasonable men unwilling to see the dangerous, even life-threatening, side of the annual activity they preside over? It has to do with the stakes, raised higher each passing year with obscene amounts of prize money, mostly sponsored by powerful politicians.
Jitendra Awhad, Nationalist Congress Party leader whose dahi handi in Thane has become iconic, offered Rs. 1.11 crore as prize money in the recent past. NCP’s Sachin Ahir has matched the amount in Worli. The Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leaders have ratcheted up prize monies over the last few years. Pratap Sarnaik, Ram Kadam, Bala Nandgaonkar, among others, are the big players. It’s not a coincidence that Awhad was among those who declared he would challenge the HC decision in the Supreme Court.
This commercial dahi handi, unlike its purely religious avatar, is a noisy, raucous and reckless sport. In 2011, 205 govindas were injured including a few paralysed for life. The following year, two died and 225 were injured. At least two died and more than 360 were injured last year. This year’s practice sessions have already claimed lives. There’s no reason to not regulate the sport when played in an organised high-stakes manner. This is what the HC did with specific directions to the mandals and the government.
“There is a considerable risk of serious, life-threatening injuries inherent to human pyramid formation and descent in the dahi handi festival. Safety guidelines are urgently needed to minimise risk and prevent loss of human life,” concluded a KEM Hospital study in 2012. It noted that the injuries have seen a significant rise in the past few years. Nearly 59% of the injured were in a human pyramid reaching for the dahi handi placed 30 feet and above; one of every two injured were in the middle layers of the pyramid; 81% suffered injuries during descent and more than half were injured while attempting the pyramid after 6pm, the study pointed out.
Organisers, who declare large amounts of prize money in addition to providing for boys of competing mandals, have to ensure that the backend has been tied up. There’s an entire network of local retailers and major corporates which underwrites the organisers; riding on the back of influential political leaders, they are assured of thousands of footfalls at the venue and several times more eye-balls as regional television channels extend live coverage.
If the organiser manages to rope in a Bollywood or Marathi film star, the branding rises several notches. The higher the stakes, the higher the number of govinda pathaks that attempt to break the handi. The religious celebration turns into a competitive spectator sport with thousands watching – the Jai Jawan Govinda group climbed its way into the Guinness World Records with a pyramid 43.79 feet tall in 2012, more than twice the height mandated by the HC. The auction of television rights is perhaps the only revenue stream waiting to be tapped.
There are arguments to not have courts sit in judgement over celebration of festivals, but the dahi handi has long ceased to be one. With the milk, curd and honey, there’s dosh for the brave-hearted participants and a lot of it for the organisers. It’s an economy, govinda.