When the Punjab government announced the holding of Basant in 2019, there was widespread happiness among those who understand the spirit and history of this ancient spring festival. Pakistanis in Europe and the USA started to book flights back home.
Amazingly in London’s Southall a travel agent started advertising a five-day ‘Basant Holiday’. But then bad news could not be far behind when it comes to Basant. A legal gent went to the Lahore High Court claiming that it was a “dangerous pastime” that kills young children. Bizarre that such a claim is, the PTI government added to the disillusionment of the people of Lahore when it told the honourable court that a “decision on the matter has yet to be made”. The political decision-making paralysis one can understand, but it spoke more of the incompetent bureaucrats who run the city and the province. More so it also spoke of a police force that now completely lacks imagination and is incapable of creating serious well thought-out strategies at problem-solving.
In this piece my attempt would be to analyse the pros and cons of holding Basant. But before any specific matter, it would be interesting to see how other countries tackle similar spring festivals. Take Spain as an example. Every spring they have a ‘Bous al Carrer’ festival. In this up to just six bulls each are let loose on the narrow streets of the old cities and people chase them, or duck being gored. It might come as a shock that over the last 10 years almost 1,266 persons have been killed by goring all over Spain and Portugal.
Now, if that had happened in Pakistan a lot of people would have been in prison. The animal protection brigade in Catalonia, Spain, forced a ban. But then a group of lawyers went to court challenging the ban, and, ultimately, the Bous al Carrer festival was deemed to have a ‘protected cultural’ status and Spain’s constitutional court struck down the Catalan ban.
Then take the Rio de Janeiro carnival in which huge floats rush through teeming crowds. Every year a few people are crushed. Take the Up Helly Aa Fire festival of Scotland where young and old people rush through huge bonfires. Often a few fall and are burnt or die of burns. Yet it remains a festival of happiness which is protected by law as a cultural festival. The most bizarre is the Spanish La Tomatina spring festival in which people fling tomatoes at each other. Every year two or three are fatally injured. But again it is protected by law as a ‘cultural event’.
In ‘educated’ Cambridge in England there is a crazy spring event where students jump from the University Senate building roof to the next building. Yes, there have been a few deaths, but the ‘jump’ has never been banned by the university in the name of tradition going back to when Catholic priests escaping the tyranny of Edward the Eighth managed to get away. The only precaution taken by the university is that they make sure the ‘jumping’ student is ‘in his senses’.
In every country of the world spring brings with it a variety of festivals. Basant depicts the colours of our countryside fields when the yellow flowers of the ‘saag’ fields are in full bloom. The term Basant, or ‘Vasant Panchmi’ means the fifth day of the Punjabi month of ‘Maagh’. On this day people enjoy yellow-coloured sweet rice, or yellow coloured ‘ladoos’ or green ‘saag’ with yellow-coloured ‘makai de roti’ (corn bread). There is laughter and girls wear yellow clothes and men whites with yellow scarfs. The highlight is kite flying, which meshes in with the colours and the foods and the music. By all accounts this is an ancient ‘cultural event’ that needs legal protection.
Now what are the issues at stake? Why is the government, blindly led by the nose by our bureaucrats, a bit shy of taking on the task of safeguarding a small area of Lahore for just one day? The death of any child is sad. But then it also betrays the irresponsible attitude of parents, let alone the police, from educating the young to be conscious of their own safety. On the one hand, people refuse to educate the young about their own safely within the confines of their own homes, and on the other when an unfortunate incident happens they want to ban a whole cultural festival.
This should not be acceptable to any civilised society. Festivals and happiness go hand in hand. They balance the pains and the thrills of society. Safety precautions are the responsibility of parents, and guardians, and the police and their bureaucrats. Politicians should be leaders in this, not shy of ‘cultural events’ that people love.
Now to the main reason a recent menace of motorcycle deaths have come about. With our governments failing to provide any public transportation, a unique happening in a city of over 14 million, people have found a solution by finding mobility on fast motorcycles. This means that Lahore has the world’s largest concentration per capita of motorcycles. Our police records put them at 4.3 million and rising. For every family of seven persons they have 1.7 motorcycles. It goes without saying that the motorcycle deaths are the result of reckless young people without helmets rushing about.
So what needs to be done to overcome this menace? The solution is simple. In any area marked for kite flying, use of motorcycles should be discouraged for just one day. That is not seeking much. But if it is critical, then the riders should use a helmet. But much more important is that they should not exceed 15 miles an hour. If this can be enforced one can be confident that not a single death will take place.
Can the authorities, more so the police, and even more importantly every responsible household, educate and motivate the young about sensible precautions like not running on high walls, not jumping from one roof to another, and not racing on the roads at breakneck speed within a confined area. If our bureaucrats and our police can ensure this simple matter, then Basant is there to be enjoyed, not feared. Let the slogan be ‘Fun not Fear’.
Just to add another point. The British colonial rulers encouraged the use of large gardens and parks for kite flying. This made sure, as an official notification says: ‘Open spaces will mean fewer will use confined areas to celebrate, leading to the probability of fewer children getting hurt’. It seems even they appreciated ‘cultural events’ which by law are protected.
The police records tell us that in Lahore in 2018 over 130 persons were killed crossing roads, with 97 being hit by speeding motorcycles. Had there been proper footpaths and people educated to cross at zebra crossings only, all these could have been prevented. Accidents related to kites come to a mere five, with four being speeding motorcycle related and one falling off the roof. Do not the official figures speak for themselves? This reminds me of the motto of the Punjab Police: ‘Service and Safety’. Makes you think.
Published in Dawn, January 6th, 2019