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Basant ban and the loss of livelihood

Basant ban and the loss of livelihood

LAHORE: The Punjab government brought Basant to a drastic end in 2007 following deaths due to chemicalised twine.

Motorcyclists, especially, were more susceptible to injuries or even deaths while speeding through narrow lanes of the Walled City with almost invisible stray kite twines that would appear out of nowhere, twines allegedly laced with glass and metal that would slit throats as they sped through.

But the blanket ban did not only contain deaths, it affected every aspect of the huge informal industry that started functioning weeks ahead of Basant. More than one sector of this industry has been destroyed, rendering many people jobless.

Entertainment was only one superficial aspect of the spring season. People of the Walled City where Basant was famously celebrated fondly remember instances of the days gone by.

“There was real brotherhood in those days,” says Hanif. “If someone cut another person’s kite, it often led to physical brawls, sometimes even murders. But during Basant everything was forgiven, such was the tolerance among kite flyers. Even harmless foul play was forgiven with a grin and some teasing.”

As celebratory fervour rose, so did romance. One resident smilingly reveals the secret tradition of sending letters to girls through kites. He laughs as he remembers old women in every neighbourhood who only used to keep an eye on such things.

“But the innocuity of the whole culture and intimacy among people has died with the festival,” he laments.

Those with businesses in the area say there was a loss of billions of rupees and thousands of people were affected in Lahore only. The industry used to be supported by several thousands of workers all over Punjab, including home-based women.

In the late 1970s, kite paper was imported from Germany and thread for twines brought in from the UK. Later, Indian thread was also used. String-makers held thread taut like a clothesline and laced with finely crushed glass in powder along with egg and starch. The problem began when bits of glass and metal started to be used.

Those firmly against the ban say the government could have ensured strict control and monitoring of manufacture and use of these dangerous strings rather than simply banning the entire festival.

“When the ban was announced we suffered terrible losses,” says Mohammad Moazzam, a kite-maker. “We lost Rs10 million after shutting down of our shop, but had to keep paying the rent for some months. Our kites became useless and we ended up burning them, as did many others. These things have a shelf life and the glue and wood used can easily ruin, especially during rainy and humid weather.”

He says his business was only the tip of the iceberg; there were several “ustaad” or master kite-makers who suffered worse fates. Their skills developed over decades were now lost and they without any work.

“Ustad Goshi was one of the masters,” says Raheemul Haq, who has organised a ‘Basant festival’ on Saturday – where there would be no kites, of course. “He used to make huge profits, but today he is doing some small work, earning only Rs400 a day.”

Many others almost starved to death having no work to do.

“There were some very old ustaads and others who did not find work, or did not have the strength to learn a new skill and ended up sick without money or food. Some were brought out on the street,” says Shahid, another kite-maker.

The art of kite making was such that there were different names for different types. There was ‘Salaara’ -- so artistically made that it is said other kite flyers would back off from its space in the sky. “It was a sight to behold. No one would try to cut it,” says Hanif.

But shadows began to mar the beauty of the festival; machines were brought in to wind around various objects, instead of manually winding it as was always done. “These machines were too fast and the speed at which the string – especially the poor quality one – was wound could kill a man,” says documentary filmmaker, who has worked on the issue. “Today if someone wants to fly a kite they have to travel to the outskirts and this is obviously not an awami sport anymore. It’s become exclusive and even corporate.”

As a response, Kite Flyers Association (KFA) has been formed, which continues to speak out against the ban.

“It is not tough to control the quality of threads and strings for kite flying,” says one member of the association. “If police can arrest people under Anti-Terrorism Act for possession of kite-flying equipment, then I am sure they can help implement rules too. We are willing to write it down and sign that we will do our part, but the government should trust us and give us a chance.”

Published in Dawn, February 14th, 2016

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