It is strange how all over the world casualties during public celebrations is an accepted fact of life, not that one desires or wills even a single one. Just last week five men were gored to death in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu while watching a bull-taming contest known as ‘Jallikattu’.
But then we have eight people gored to death and 35 seriously injured at this year’s Pamplona festival in Spain. At least 16 people are killed in bull runs in Spain every year. In every country public sports claim victims. In the “gentleman’s game” of cricket the records tell us of at least five deaths all over the world on the average every year. The same is true of hockey. Even in American sports like basketball, head injuries claim on the average six fatalities a year. Yet none of these sports is banned. Psychologists say the public good and happiness is worth the risk, which managed sensibly.
Why then is Lahore’s magnificent spring festival of Basant – that colourful kite-flying bonanza -- banned? Is it because others are more civilised than us, or is it otherwise. Have we lost the art of management? It is for the reader to reach that personal conclusion. In this column let us explore the reality of this ban. Let us start, and remain with, facts. The Punjab Police website provides amazing information, and it is there for all to see. We clearly see that 97 per cent of all kite-flying deaths are because young motorcyclists without helmets were speeding. The other three per cent were kite-flyers who fell off walls and roofs. In both cases, which make up all kite-flying deaths, it is the element of ‘super high’ risk, a complete lack of personal safety precautions and a total disregard for the laws of traffic. Let us examine a few of them.
First why does Lahore have the world’s largest motorcycle population? The Punjab Police website says there were 4.3 million of them in Lahore alone in 2018, and it is growing at an exponential rate. This means 1.7 motorcycles for every household. This crazy population has come about because governments of past have refused to provide the people with any public transportation, like buses. The few that exist are merely exhibitionist in nature. Instead of over 9,000 needed, which is one bus for every 1,300 persons, as a first step, Lahore has an ‘impressive’ 200 buses. So people have found an economically viable solution. Hence so many motorcycles.
If we assume that all vehicles must be driven by aptly trained and qualified people with proper licences, we see that is not the case. Laws and rules just do not matter. They just buy a licence (if need be as a precaution), or just ignore that need. Does the police care? One assumes they will say ‘Yes’, but the reality, as we all know, is otherwise. The end result is that young ‘under-aged’ children without crash helmets, naturally without licences, ignoring all speed limits, race around the city. If a kite string cuts them, and the chance of that is one in a million, if not more given statistical analysis, then who is blamed? Is it the kite-flier not the motorcyclist. Is this fair?
Kite-flying in Lahore - where it all started a few thousand years ago - is very much part of our culture that springs from a Spring Festival. The saffron fields of the Punjab and the grain crop and the optimum vegetable production and the optimum milk production provides the farmer a maximum. He is, naturally happy, and throws his delight ‘sky high’. So what went wrong with our rulers, who operate through bureaucratic and police enforcement? We must understand that the ban was, and remains, an effort to end out cultural history and an over thousand year old festival that brings nothing but joy.
Initially, the rise of extremist religious mind-sets, backed by a military regime, set about to crush all cultural norms in order to enforce a system that reduced opposition to an illegal and immoral system. This is how all dictators operate. They crush cultural events – that uniting factor in society - and try to change the very way people think. But such a way of life is invariably resisted, and every year the people defy this ban.
Who really is to blame for this ban? Initially, the Gen Ziaul Haq era brought with it the rise of religious extremists. They set about eliminating all the colour of a society that has rich and meaningful symbols of diversity and seasonality. Their effort was, and remains, to plaster our colourful people with the culture of a desert. So the rulers since those dark days follow that very dictation. Our bureaucrats have stopped using their mind and want to continue a system that is against the very culture of our country. A change scares them.
The police follow that very military dictation, and over time have become incompetent and unable to enforce sane solutions that make society click. They are unable to make the motorcycle users wear proper helmets. They are unable to enforce speed limits. And to be fair our people are not tutored to follow traffic laws. So with a bureaucracy unable to become ‘problem solvers’ and the police incapable of enforcing traffic laws, what can the government do to see that Basant returns in a safe and sensible manner. No one wants deaths of young motorcycle offenders, no matter how wild they be.
So what should the government decide? One solution was to restrict it to the old walled city of Lahore as a major tourism attraction by clamping down on motorcyclists. Given the will that would be the best solution. But then if that is not possible, the next best solution is to restrict it to five major and large parks with traffic police controlling crazy motorcyclists around them. That is the solution everyone would love. Let the colour return to Lahore.
Published in Dawn, February 15th, 2020