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Ban on kids: How Mumbai’s dahi handi became a political event

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If it is Dahi Handi, then Thane has been the place to take a crack at forming a human pyramid, reach the pot held up by a crane, touch it, and take the prize money home. Mandals, or groups from all over the metro region come into this city, neighbour to Mumbai.
Dahi Handi is not a blood sport, but it can cause serious injuries, and has even caused death, when people fall in the attempt. Normally, the persons who form the last tiers are intrepid children – the higher a person is placed, the lighter he needs to be. It is all about physics.
The opportunities to crack the handi are found in many places in the Mumbai metro region but the competitive Jitendra Avhad of NCP – now a minister – and Shiv Sena’s Pratap Sarnaik have literally taken it to higher levels. The prize money, which amounts to lakhs of rupees, is a massive draw.
The Sarnaik-sponsored event has seen tiers of people forming pyramids; Avhad’s team got close to ten. The Guinness Book of Records has noted a nine-tier pyramid of 43.79 feet. For a couple of years, teams from Spain also arrived to try their hand but simply couldn’t match the locals.The spectacle overwhelms any concerns of the spectator at the risks participants take, and once it is over, the authorities move back into inaction. Live telecasts, bringing in movie stars add glamour, all making this a far cry from a small community event.
Earlier, the Dahi Handi was a community event, the local boys getting together to get the pot in their neighbourhood with curds or cream or milk in it, to the cries of Govinda. Hoisted at a height higher than a human’s, raised toe-to-stretched-arm, they formed small pyramids.
It was all fun, with the event meant to mimic Lord Krishna’s playful stealing of the stuff. After all, this event also known as Dahi kala comes a day after Krishnastami.
Now, it is all politics, and possibly, all commercial.
Sarnaik has given up following a recent High Court order restricting the age of participants to a minimum of 18, and limits the height of the human pyramid to 20 feet. Avhad, on the other hand wants the ruling challenged, or else, move the entire event to Goa where he can run it like the Indian premier league.
The Maharashtra Government, which hitherto looked at the events as a tradition, also thinks like Avhad, who is a cabinet minister, and the cabinet decided on Wednesday to hurriedly form some rules and seek a review of the order. All this can of course, be explained by the fact that it is now election time.
The government never notified regulations including safety. Children gingerly move up to the peak without even a safety helmet, and if anyone falls, it is up to the people around the base of the pyramid to cushion their fall. This has weighed in favour of a review petition what with the elections a few months away.
Sarnaik’s withdrawal respecting the High Court has numbed the Shiv Sena establishment for which the show was a big mobilisation against Avhad, whose clout is increasingly felt in the district. His intra-party rivals have backed Sarnaik’s wisdom.
But there is an unstated intent to not heed the court’s restraining hand which is an alarming trait amongst the political class, and The Times of India’s headline says it all – Dahi handi violations may go unpunished. If they can’t get it reviewed, they may turn a blind eye and ear to the events.
Enforcement anyhow has only been benign, limited only to seizing the expensive sound systems used and leaving everyone free except the supplier who had only hired them. This year, they have been reluctant, saying they are punished for the misuse by others and getting them freed from the police isn’t easy.
Authorities, all sound and fury with warnings, don’t even enforce the noise rules of keeping the blaring music and the gusty drum beats below 65 decibels. A set of Thane ENT specialists in Thane claimed last week that human ears can cope with it, to facilitate a scientific alibi, only to be mocked.
Disregard for safety over the years even as the event got more and more robust has so far marked the authorities’ attitude but the fact that this is an election year seems to have put some spring in its steps. After all, a dahi handi is a platform for politicians who use proxy trusts or bodies to fund and run them.
These groups or mandals of Govindas are supported by local political patrons whose names are stencilled on the participants’ T-shirts, and roam Mumbai and Thane in trucks though it is illegal to use these vehicles to transport people.

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