Zaheer Mahmood Siddiqui calculates the economic repercussions of the ban on Basant.Lying on a charpoy in a dark room and coughing at intervals, Aslam is popularly known as Ustad Achhu in the Walled City for the patangs he used to make. The 55-year-old resident of Mori Gate is slowly recovering from tuberculosis; however, the scars on his soul that he suffered after being humiliated by the police in the streets and bazaars of Bhaati and Lohari gates merely for practicing the only skill he has to earn a livelihood, may never heal.
The government had banned Basant in 2005 and also declared kite-making a crime but Aslam somehow managed to continue with the help of a number of friends and the ‘indirect’ patronage of Salman Taseer, the then governor. “A day or so after the burial of Salman Sahib took place, they raided my house, dragged me out, tied the patangs with twine around my neck and made me walk bare-foot in the streets as if I had committed some heinous crime,” recalls a tearful Achhu who started suffering high-degree fever soon after this episode and was diagnosed with TB within a week or so.
Hard times followed as the disease made him unable to work as a daily wage labourer and one of his daughters also contracted tuberculosis.
Both the father and the daughter are now recovering, thanks to the moral and financial support of Achhu’s friends and neighbours. Talking about his passion, his eyes still twinkle while describing different types of kites on the basis of their design and patterns, be it Kup, Salara, Teera, Gulhar, Dobaz, Paana or Shistroo.
The ban on Basant has not only strangled the culture of Lahore but also robbed hundreds of thousands of people like Ustad Achhu of their livelihood. The exact number of the now banned kite, string and allied businesses cannot be gauged as the majority of those involved in it have switched over to other trades to survive but one can easily estimate that it used to run into billions of rupees, providing direct and indirect employment to millions.
Even the roof-tops in the walled city would generate revenue. The rate of renting a roof-top just for a day and a night would vary according to the location and quality of kite-flying available in the area besides its capacity. For example, at Mochi, Lohari, Bhaati, Taxali, Yakki and other gates, roof-tops used to be booked for between Rs50,000 to Rs100,000 a night. In Shah Alam, rates would be higher at Rs100,000 to Rs400,000 because of the presence of professional kite fliers and the larger roof-tops. The roof-tops in Heera Mandi were being rented out for up to Rs700,000 for 24 hours or so.
Till 2005, when Basant was banned, kite-making had attained the status of a cottage industry, providing employment to hundreds of thousands of people, especially women and children. The cottage industry would have thrived even during the ongoing acute shortage of energy… its production was not dependent on uninterrupted electricity or gas supply.
Thousands of women and children at Shahdara, Baghbanpura, Sahuwari Jora Pir Colony near Pakistan Mint, around the shrine of Hazrat Madhu Lal Hussain, Kot Lakhpat, besides Muridke, Kamoke, Ferozwala, Kot Abdul Malik and Kasur used to earn a livelihood by making kites at home but now they are sitting idle because of the ban.
“Kite-making alone had been providing livelihood to more than 150,000 people in Lahore and its suburbs besides 180,000 in Gujranwala and Kasur districts. Most of these artisans are now facing difficult times,” says Khwaja Nadeem Saeed Wayeen, the chairman of All Pakistan Kite Flying Association and one of the founders of Basant Festival in Lahore.
“We have proposed to the Punjab government to establish a ‘kite city’ outside the limits of Lahore but have yet to get a positive response. The Basant Festival had also helped to improve the soft image of Pakistan abroad. Instead of taking concrete measures to prevent tragic incidents, the kite flying festival has been banned,” he lamented.
For most traders of the Walled City, especially in markets around Mochi Gate, Basant was a sort of economic feeding frenzy that used to sustain them throughout the year. The same is the case with the then Guddiwali Market and streets surrounding Madina Market of Pakistani Bazaar in Baghbanpura. While traders of the Mochi Gate markets have started selling roasted grams, dry fruit and ‘beid’ (sweets and dried dates distributed after Nikah ceremony), toys are now sold at the Guddiwali Market.
However, the skilled labourers involved in the preparation of twine are not fortunate enough to find alternative employment. People like tani laganay wala (who spreads thread around wooden spikes on poles or adda), laivi or tunposh karnay wala (who fixes glue to thread), dor laganay wala (who adds crushed glass to the thread) and the charkha or pinni lapaitnay wala (who folds the twine) are unable to find a regular source of income.
It was difficult to get a room at any hotel of the Punjab capital during the kite-flying season. Multinational companies would book the roof-tops of the big hotels in advance and would invite foreign diplomats to the festival. “Basant was the distinctive feature and the biggest festival of the city with people from all over the country and abroad thronging Lahore,” recalls a senior official of a major hotel on The Mall.
A tour operator on Davis Road said that the festival had also been instrumental in promoting tourism industry in the country. A number of foreigners used to go to Murree and even Northern Areas after enjoying Basant.
Bakers or naanbai near Ichhra, Bhaati and Lohari gates, Wahdat Road, too strongly supported holding of Basant. Like the hotel industry people, they would not disclose their income during the two-day festival but said it was considerable and enough to make their lives a bit more comfortable. “We did not have time to take a nap during Basant,” said an Ichhra naanbai. Drummers too are among the affected lot of the ban on the kite-flying festival like electricians, cooks and people in the catering business besides the painters and billboard makers.