Every year kite-flying during Sankranti sees a number of birds lose their lives throughout the country. It’s time to take care of them.
Pic courtesy: Soham Mukherjee, Rahul Sehgal, Sahyog, Elizabeth Soumya
There are perhaps few things as beautiful as kites. Just a piece of paper hugging a frail stick frame and followed by what seems like flimsy thread they climb up higher and higher into the sky, as if reaching to the heavens. Making up for our own lack of wings, we’ve flown kites with childish fascination for centuries. Believed to have been invented by the Chinese two thousand years ago, it was around 549 AD that paper kites became popular. These flying ‘birds’ were then perhaps introduced to India by travellers Fa Hein and Hiuen Tsang. But it was during the Mughal era in India that kite flying or kite-fighting became an avid hobby that occupied much of our time and skies. While most paper kites are torn and lost, the first evidence in Indian literature of a kite comes from Madhumati by Manzan in1542 AD. Marathi poets Eknath and Tukaram also described kites in their verses, where the word vavdi was used.
Over the years, kite flying continues to be part of traditions and is a symbol of vibrancy and revelry in India. As Makar Sankranti approaches and people from all over India prepare to celebrate the harvest and the transitioning of the sun into a new ‘makara rashi’, kites slowly ascend from rooftops, playgrounds and tiny street corners to crowd the Indian sky with a kaleidoscope of unimaginable colours. Nowhere in India is this sight as dazzling as the state of Gujarat where millions of kites are flown as a metaphor for reaching out to God during the kite flying festival of Uttaryan. Not only are kites flown, but kite fights that span for hours are waged from rooftops to slash someone else’s kite as one shouts exultantly ‘kaipo che’ and the one whose kite remains till the end wins.
While it’s difficult to imagine kites as anything but lilting objects of art, each year kites are responsible for hundreds of bird injuries and deaths around India. Soham Mukherjee, a conservationist based in Gujarat learnt this 10 years ago. “It was a picture of a dead vulture in a newspaper article. This was my first exposure to the horrifying side of Uttaryan,” he says. Soham visited an animal rescue centre first thing in the morning to be faced with a sight that left him stunned. Injured birds — “Some dead, some dying,” all due to the manja (the sharp string used to fly kites in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh), he says. But it was his first rescue that made the deepest impact on his young mind. “I was sent to rescue a large bird, a Sarus Crane. I reached the spot only to find a fledgling Sarus Crane bleeding profusely. I picked it, rushed to the rescue centre. I could feel my clothes soaked in blood, I saw the Sarus take its last breath in my hands,” he recounts, “Uttarayan had turned its first flight into its last.”
Sherwin Everett, a young volunteer with the Jivadaya Charitable Trust in Gujarat says the kite flying season starts from December and stretches on till February and even March. “These days we rescue 25 pigeons and 6-7 kites every day,” he says of the recent toll. Birds are injured when they fly into kite threads as they’re not visible. Many have their wings, legs and necks slashed when they are entangled in manja threads on trees and poles. For bigger birds in flight, it isn’t easy to suddenly change the direction of their flight either. A majority of the casualties are caused by free drifting kite threads, explains Mukherjee.
While a kite in itself is harmless, the manja, the razor sharp invisible thread that it is tied to, is even capable of human death. Bird biologist Aditya Roy tells us that the manja used in India and Pakistan is fortified with crushed glass, chemical colours, gelatin or rice glue to make it a weapon in kite fights. So deadly is this string that kite making, its sale and kite flying was banned in Lahore, Pakistan a few years ago. This, after increasing number of deaths, people were tangled in kite strings, slit by it in road traffic, electrocuted due to it and even fell to their deaths during kite flying. Kite flying has also been banned in as many as 15 cities in India. It was banned in Chennai in 2006 under Section 71 of the City Police Act after an eight-year-old boy was killed when a drifting piece of ‘manja’ slashed his neck. Despite the ban, deaths continued in the city due to manja. As recent as January 1, 2013, a 33-year-old motorist, K Jayakanth, who was travelling with his wife and daughter on the pillion died as a result of a stray manja that slit his neck. Injuries and deaths, even of children, from all over the country have made for silent snippets in newspapers for years. Recognising manja as a safety hazard, places that have banned or issued circulars against it include Ahmedabad, Chennai, Mumbai, Bangalore, Nagpur, Ludhiana, Amritsar and Jammu & Kashmir among others. Despite these restrictions, the thread is sold openly both due to ignorance and indifference.
Popular kite flying threads include Luddhi Manja or Bareilly ka Manja that comes from Rai Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh; Chinese manja (not made in China) or tangus manja made in North India and Kolkata. The recent Chinese manja made of nylon and coated with abrasives are fast replacing cotton threads making the danger graver. The fact that these non-biodegradable threads are sold at a cheaper rate than cotton threads makes them an obvious option “These sturdy threads last even after the monsoon and cause deeper cuts,” says Roy who has counted more than 100 species of birds affected by kite strings. All birds — resident and migratory, regardless of size and age are injured and killed, says Mukherjee. While house pigeons, barn owls, crows and pariah kites are commonly wounded, white-rumped vultures, long-billed vultures, storks and peacocks are no exceptions. The kite flying season also coincides with the nesting of the critically endangered white rumped vultures, thus injury and death of adults means starving fledglings with little chance of survival. In seven years, Roy has seen 39 vultures sent to captive breeding centres after being grounded.
Most birds are injured in the front side of their wings, just where the wings connect to ‘the shoulder’ and ‘wrist’ of the bird. These injuries vary from skin and ligament tears to amputations that leave most of the birds incapable of flight forever.
Apart from Gujarat, kite flying is also popular during Sankranti in rest of India, particularly in Bihar, West Bengal, Rajasthan and Hyderabad. The sport is also an integral part of other festivals such as Vishvakarma Puja, Akshaya Tritya, Raksha Bandhan, Janmashtami, Independence day and Republic day.
In Hyderabad, the tradition of kite flying has been particularly popular in the old city. Mahesh Agarwal, member, AP state animal welfare board and volunteer with animal NGO Sahyog that runs a 24/7 helpline to report bird injuries during Sankranti, says kites were popularised in the city by the Nizams. Recalling last year’s avian causalities he says 235 birds were injured between 14 and 26th January, 2012 and the city saw the death of three people as well. The frequent causalities in the old city are of course its omnipresent residents, the pigeons; while parakeets, pariah kites, Indian roller birds, bats and cats also figure. According to Agarwal, each year the number of injured birds seems to be increasing. This could be due to more volunteers and more cases being noticed now. However, he believes that this is merely 10% of the birds that are injured. When contacted, the NGO’s volunteers across Hyderabad will pick up an injured bird or auto fares are reimbursed for those that bring injured birds to the NGO’s office. What could help is if the GHMC (Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation) sent a circular to city sweepers to keep an eye out for fallen birds, he suggests. While this is just fire fighting after birds have been wounded, to deter people from flying kites is difficult because it’s associated with traditions, he says. “Birds are injured during Makar Sankranti due to kite strings, people even type ropes to birds and fly them instead of kites; snakes die every year during Nag Panchami and animal sacrifices are offered during Dussehra”, reminds Agarwal. “Andhra Pradesh’s state bird, the Indian roller bird or ‘palpitta’ is tortured each year as it’s considered auspicious during Dusshera.”
In Gujarat, even the government promotes the festival of Uttarayan for tourism. Therefore it should do it “very very responsibly,” and the government can play a huge role in educating and motivating people to make it safe for themselves and birds, says Mukherjee. He gives the example of the International Kite Flying Festival that doesn’t use manja or promote kite fighting. “Flying big designer kites with kite lines can be great fun and is safe because at the end of the day, everything is packed back in bags leaving nothing to endanger birds,” he says.
According to Roy since kite flying is cultural, boycotting it might not be welcomed by enthusiasts. But they can take few steps to perhaps lower the risks on birds. Most birds tend to fly more between 5am to 8am and return to their nests in the evening between 5.30 to 7.30pm. At least during these hours kite flying must be checked, he suggests, while adding, kite flyers must be responsible enough to use safer threads instead of manja as in many parts of the world. Agrarwal advises enthusiasts to fly from open grounds instead of rooftops. “All kite flyers must make sure strings entangled in the neighbourhood are collected,” he adds.
Mukherjee though insists that abstinence is the only solution. “Flying kites have been part of our tradition, but now we know better about how these two days [Uttaryan] of sheer entertainment cause deaths of thousands of birds including some rare and critically endangered species,” he says. Since majority of deaths occur due to cut kites with manja tangled in trees and other spots, safe flying will have little impact on avian deaths he points out. His rather tough advice is short — Quit flying kites.
ANIMAL RESCUE HELPLINES
Blue Cross of Hyderabad, Jubliee Hills: 040 3298 9858, 2354 4355/5523
Wildlife Rescue (Chawri Bazaar, Old Delhi)-98100-29698, 98101-29698, 98106-39698
Angel Eyes (Prasad Nagar, Delhi) Small animals & Birds Ambulance: 9999-4111-93
Fauna Police (Sarojini Nagar, Delhi): 921211111-6, 9868355222
Wildlife Rescue (For Kites/Eagles and other non-vegetarian birds; located at Old Delhi): 98100 29698
Wildlife SOS (For all wildlife Located at Defence Colony in South Delhi): 98719 63535; 011 2462 1939/ 2464 4231
Bannerghatta Rehabilitation Centre (WRRC): 080 22947307/ 22947300/ 22947301
People for Animals (PFA):
080 28603986/ 2860 4767/ 2273 3350; 99803 39880
Bombay Central: 022 23018863
Western Suburb: 022 28763856
Thane to Kanjur: 022 32522588
Virar-Vasai: Nalasopara 95202502222, 95203203333, 09970170780,
09429600108, 8128257004, 8141565606,7878171727
Jivadaya Charitable Trust: (079) 26620368 (M) 9624024949, 9904401017, 9924418184
Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre: 020-24367712
Police 100; Fire: 101: Police and Fire Rescue Service also direct wildlife related calls to respective NGOs
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