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Greed and Govinda: poverty and politics in Mumbai's Dahi Handi

Dahi Handis are competitive and the prize money for breaking a particular handi runs into crores. Each year I am terrified as I drive past these children on human pyramids on my way to work, writes Sujata Anandan.

columns Updated: Aug 12, 2014 22:48 IST
Sujata Anandan
Sujata Anandan
Hindustan Times

We all know how the Ganesh Chaturthi tradition began in Maharashtra - it was a private affair before 1893 when Bal Gangadhar Tilak decided to make it a public event to protest against the British ban on large public gatherings.

More than a century later, the celebrations are more political than social, having transited through a criminal phase when notorious dons in the city used the shadow of the Ganpati idols to effectively execute their nefarious activities. It was only in the late 1980s that the Mumbai Police restricted the height of Ganpati idols to put an end to gangster Varadarajan Mudaliar's bootlegging and smuggling activities.

Though much of the criminal element in the Ganpati celebrations may have been restricted since then (I am not sure if a particular one in Chembur does not still have the blessings of a particular gangster even now), the festival has become more politically competitive. Each politician must patronise his/her own Ganpati and so far as the popular ones go, their blessings more often seem to be reserved for our political leaders than the common people.

Janmashtmi in Bombay, however, has been rather different and I am not sure if any one knows how or when and for what specific purpose the Dahi Handi celebrations actually began. But these Dahi Handis are as competitive as the Ganesh pandals and the prize money for breaking a particular handi runs into crores. Each year I am terrified as I drive past these children on human pyramids on my way to work. I have seen one or two kids fall and get hurt. I have always wondered why their parents allow it.

But it stands to reason that most of these children are from the lower middle classes, their parents not too well-off and the extra income they bring in goes a long way in making their lives somewhat easier. The Bombay High Court in a significant ruling has directed the state government to ensure that the maximum height at which the handis can be strung is 20 feet. The court also restricted the human pyramid layers to five and suggested that a safety kit including helmet, cushion and mattresses be provided to govindas. I have always wondered what pleasure do people of various housing societies find by tying the handis so high in the sky that seven or eight layers of children, some of them nearly six feet tall (children under 18 are now banned from forming these pyramids) are unable to reach for the handi.

Practically every politician of consequence and virtually every political party had a Dahi Handi celebration in his or her locality. For them, it is not the fun, the sport or the prize money that is at stake here. For them getting these children to enter the competition is akin to fomenting and fostering future vote-banks. Many of the children grow up to be, if not party workers, at least loyal to the political party, which organises Dahi Handis in their locality. Everyone is equally guilty in this regard. The Dahi Handi became politicised after Bal Thackeray in 1966 attended one such celebration and participated in the pot-breaking ceremony. This was seen by many Shiv Sena leaders as the ideal means to connect with the masses. The core voter area of the Shiv Sena then lay among these chawls and slums where the children came from.

Over the years the Congress, the BJP, the NCP and now even the MNS have put in lakhs of rupees, if not crores, in prize money for various Dahi Handi celebrations across the metropolis. Although the festivities are an indelible part of Bombay and I would hate to see it disappear, I am glad that the high court has made some efforts to put an end to the greed - at both ends - that drives the grandeur of the celebrations that mark the birth of Lord Krishna.

There are better ways of saying 'Govinda aala re' - and catching votes - than with the deaths of young innocent children.

First Published: Aug 12, 2014 19:45 IST