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India's 'killer' kite festival

Joyous festival in state of Gujarat turns gory for birds with sharp strings often cutting them down.

Last updated: 17 Jan 2014 09:49
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Despite the dangers, India’s kite festival in the state of Gujarat has grown into an $81m industry [Kamala Kelkar]

The much anticipated kite festival to herald the onset of spring has just come to an end in the western state Gujarat in India. It was a joyous occasion, when spirits soared as thousands climbed on to rooftops to fly kites that dotted the sky. But as the revelry ended, animal rescuers are still left counting the dead and tending to the wounded.

This year hundreds of trained volunteers were on call throughout the state to drive ambulances, execute amputations or even rappel down buildings to save thousands of birds and other animals wounded by the festival’s unique sharp kite strings.

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Instead of partying with friends and flying kites, Gujarat’s growing animal brigade was responding to what they call an animal disaster.

"I have to do it because when I see animals like my dog or my cat get hurt, it hurts me too. I feel it." Anand Zaveri, 25, told Al Jazeera en route to his local rescue "command centre" with two injured pigeons he had just saved.

Zaveri, a software engineer who has been rescuing animals for seven years, is a volunteer for the non-profit organisation PRAYAS, which saved 562 animals during the month of January.

PRAYAS’s command centre was the control room for nine other bases in Surat, just one of several major cities shut down for the celebration.

It takes us 30 seconds to mobilize the nearest person and 12 minutes over the entire 372 sq km of Surat to get the animal to a rescue centre

Darshan Desai, PRAYAS president

During the past five years dozens of emerging non-profit groups like PRAYAS have built an army to respond to the yearly holiday that brings millions of people to rooftops to paint the blue sky with vivid squares.

The festival is a sensational sight especially in big cities such as Surat; it looks like confetti was thrown in the air. But the sharp strings known as manja are gummed with powdered glass to cut down the competition. They fill the migratory paths of birds and also hang from every tree, telephone wire and building, creating a massive, treacherous web.

The control room during the latest round of festivity was alive with phone operators taking calls while medical students either performed operations or nurtured the animals back to health.

Rescuers would run in with bloodied animals, mostly rock pigeons with a cut under the wing, get an assessment and hurry it to an operating table if necessary. There were also owls, a black kite bird, an egret, a parakeet and other foul.

Using a custom-made phone application and tracking system, the control room fetched data, tracked animal ambulances and sent the information to volunteers.

"It takes us 30 seconds to mobilize the nearest person and 12 minutes over the entire 372 sq km of Surat to get the animal to a rescue centre," said the president of PRAYAS, Darshan Desai.

'Cutting Edge' campaign

On one particular day last week, one of 300 PRAYAS volunteers rappelled from the roof of an eight-storey building to save a pigeon that was cut and trapped on the balcony of an apartment because no one was home to let the rescuer in. The pigeon survived.

People know to call PRAYAS because the non-profit launched its "Cutting Edge" campaign in 2009, with billboards that showed gruesome pictures of the birds and a helpline to call in case. The non-profit also went to schools and taught children about the dangers of manja.

Doctors are on standby to treat wounded birds on operating tables [Kamala Kelkar]

Desai said he had not realised until a year into his well-received Cutting Edge campaign that humans were also at risk. Every year many people are also killed or severely injured during festival time, often when they are riding a motorcycle and get caught and sliced by a string. This year at least two children and two men died.

"Maybe it’s the people’s psyche here as numbers are big, or maybe a Bollywood star or a politician's son or a police commissioner’s son meaning no special person has suffered, and much has gone unreported," he said.

"People had already responded to the intense first wave that we had launched, and when we included the human cause, we found it gave more impetus…to the birds’ cause."

There are at least two other non-profits in Surat, with a population of six million, that follow the lead of PRAYAS.

Raju Desai, a former Surat mayor, in an interview with Al Jazeera said the problem was that there were no rules and the only way safety curbs could be enforced if there was a bigger discussion on the human toll.

C R Paatil, a member of parliament, told Al Jazeera that though there were increasing awareness about the dangers of kite flying, no progressive laws were still on the table.

"That’s something that could happen in the future," Paatil said.

Thriving economy

Paatil, however, was quick to point out the festival's economic benefits.

He said the celebration has turned into a 500 crore ($81m) industry, echoing what the state chief minister and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi said during the festival’s inauguration.

"Poor people make these kites with their families in their homes. It is their livelihood," he said.

The fragile, square foot of paper sells on the streets for as little as Rs. 2 (a third of a penny) without the string. A single family can buy hundreds in a few days. If the neighbours cut one of the kites, people cheer and move on.

One street vendor said he usually sells 300,000 kites in half a month.

Desai says that because there is no chance that the tradition will die, the idea is to create another ritual that families can decide to adopt as an alternative.

"People can’t say no to the festival, so we try to use the same logic. Let’s make our tradition so popular they can’t say no to it, too," he said.

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Al Jazeera
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