The minister announced that the Punjab government has decided to lift the ban on Basant. The region will celebrate the cherished festival for the first time in 10 years.
Basant was so much more for Lahore than a simple festival; it was a day that served us well. A day of getting together with friends and family, engaging in the nerve wrecking competition of kite flying, or just leisurely letting your kite soar through the spring skies. It was a day of colour and splendor, the Lahori populace dressed in a ridiculous, but dear nonetheless, shade of mustard yellow to celebrate the mustard crop, and the sky dyed in a kaleidoscope of hues. You could hear the children in the streets and see kites being sold at every shop, no matter what the shop actually sold.
Perhaps Lahore’s obsession with its favorite festival went a little too far. The mass commercialization of the festival helped a lot of people; it provided a platform for the artisans and craftsmen who made the strings and kites and created an industry that employed thousands of people. It allowed for event management companies to cash in too, for people in the walled city to rent out their roofs to people so they could experience the best of Lahore’s Basant at its hub. But the same mass commercialization also hyped up the kite flying competitions, people wanted to win no matter what. All that mattered to a lot of people on this day was to have the last kite flying in the skies; and it came with a heavy price.
The craftsmen saw an opportunity to serve a demand in the market; a demand for stronger and stronger strings. Hence they innovated, first came the glass coated strings, not the strongest but stronger than the usual string. But that was not enough for hard-core kite flyers, they needed a string that just couldn’t be cut, which led to the horrible “chemical coated” strings. These strings were very strong and durable, it was nearly impossible to break the string unless with a sharp object or with another piece of string.
This string coloured the yellow festival in a shade much darker; a crimson red. Stray strings falling from the skies would get tangled in the necks of motor bikers and dig into their necks. This way a lot of people started losing their lives but the government never moved against the festival itself. It understood what it meant to the people and the region, the saner option was to ban the dangerous strings. But that did not yield any results. So Basant was banned in 2005, due to a decision by the Supreme Court, as it endangered public safety.
This decision impacted thousands who were associated with the industry, craftsmen, artisans and workers, leaving them without a source of income. But the people did what people do best; picked up the pieces and moved on. But the city didn’t quite move on from the festival; every year before February arrived, rumors of lifting the ban would make rounds and fade away without Basant.
The previous Chief Minister Punjab Shehbaz Sharif – a Lahori who once patronised the festival like his brother, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – had categorically rejected the demand to remove the restriction.
Now that the PTI government is allowing the beloved festival to return, we must ask some pertinent questions. Has the government done its homework? Because as much as we many love this festival, human lives may be endangered due to this. The government needs to carry out a vetting of string makers who made the banned strings, one way to go about it would be to establish government approved workshops for the craftsmen where only legal and safe material is used.
Bringing Basant back to ban it once again would not serve anyone.