“Dahi Handi” & the many parallels with India’s Economic Growth

It was the 29th of August, a day after people celebrated Krishna Janmashtami with gaiety and religious fervour all over India.  It was almost around 9 pm and I was flying back after a same day return business trip, obviously tired.  I was lost in thoughts of the happenings around the Indian economy the last few days. The rupee had its worst fall in the last 20 years and nobody had a clue where it is heading to. The worst nightmares around India were coming true one by one.  Finally India beat ChinaChina was supposed to slowdown first but we beat China on this!!! On the flight for a change we were spared of the usual traffic congestion over Mumbai and we were promised a prior to schedule arrival.  Closer to touch down, one could see the narrow streets of Mumbai lit up in sparkling Chinese lights, crowds gathered around some junctions and an overall frenzy. It just dawned upon me that on that day in Mumbai and may be in few other cities in India, the Dahi Handi (Curd pot) ritual was played with increasing vigour year after year.  As per Hindu mythology, Lord Krishna as a child used to steal butter from earthen pots hung high from the ceiling of neighbours. The practice to emulate this has become an increasingly popular event in cities. The earthen pots migrated from inside houses to main roads, streets and housing complexes and Krishna’s surreptitious acts of theft have now become open opportunities for groups of men (called Govindas) to excel in broad day light in front of thousands and take home rich bounties chipped in by many a sponsors!!!

As my cab took right from the Western Express Highway (yes, in Mumbai we call long stretches of road at times narrow, at times wide, with intersecting signals every kilometre, with slow inefficient toll plazas slowing down the traffic and with no concept of a hard shoulder to use in case of emergencies – as Highways and Express ones in that) the traffic congestion which we were spared of while on the sky came to haunt us with a vengeance on the ground. The traffic quickly graduated from being slow moving to “No” moving. I got out of the car and it took me just few seconds to realize that the battle between the “Govindas” and the “Dahi Handis” perched few metres from the ground was gathering steam and so traffic blocks be damned. I decided to let myself consumed in the atmosphere and observe what’s going on. I had not watched one in such close proximity before frankly. As I watched the proceedings I could draw few parallels between the Dahi Handi ritual and our country.

dahi handi,1

The Handi I guess was suspended about 20-25 m high and I heard that the height varies from mandals and it could be even 40 m +. The chants of ‘Govinda ala Re and ‘Haathi Ghoda Palki Jai Kanhaiya Lal Ki’ accompanied by beats of the Dhol amplified the already noisy surroundings. It signaled the arrival of a group of Govindas all attired in yellow with sponsor’s logos (as is the wont nowadays) to take a shot at breaking the pot. They took a few minutes to size up the challenge and as the beats started hitting a crescendo they began the task of putting together the human pyramid. Expectedly, strong, taller men formed the base and layer by layer they built the structure. So far so good. With few thousands of people watching the scene with breathlessness some with jaws open like me, the tension was palpable. It was now time for the kids to be lifted up as the pyramid gathered height.  The pace slowed now. One could hear many instructions going around. It was clear that these groups practiced collective leadership and were mainly driven by instinct. With just few meters away from the pot, it was time for the last part of the pyramid – a small kid may be 6-7 years of age to be thrown into the ring. The boy wearing a yellow protective vest (happy to see that but surprisingly he was the only one to wear that) slowly helped by many limbs, biceps and shoulders gradually made his way up. The cheers now get really boisterous.  And as he reached the top and tried to balance himself – lo somewhere something went wrong and the pyramid fell apart and with it the hopes of the participants to hit the pot and jackpot accompanying it. It’s very difficult to pinpoint who did what and what went wrong.  What happened immediately after this was interesting. Few seconds of disappointment later, the group recouped itself.  Took a few minutes off breaking into a dance to ‘Sheela Ki Jawani’ and goading chants and went for the 2nd attempt.  Ironically they didn’t manage to break the pot in that as well. When the crowd withered away, we got some leeway and got out of the spot. Another group may be in a red uniform might have come next. They also might have given a crack at the pot. Might have failed once and may be finally accomplished on the 2nd or 3rd attempt. The 1st yellow group forgetting the experience would have moved on but with renewed energy to the next mandal and hopefully succeeded there.

I was soon in the cab continuing my journey back home and couldn’t help myself reflecting on what happened.  What I hear is that while the Govinda groups are highly enthusiastic about hitting the pot, there is no training or rehearsals done before the day. There are also no structured strategy / tactics adopted to hit the pot which could be of different heights from mandal to mandal. The groups just move on from place to place, size up the task, put together a quick approach and give it a shot to hit the bull’s eye. If it’s achieved well and good. Everybody is happy. The prize is won.   People all around are excited. If they fail, there is disappointment for few seconds. But there is no despair. They again give a try. May not do anything much differently.  May succeed this time. If not just move on and may be give a better try next year.  Political parties associate themselves with different mandals. Bollywood joins the party. As I mentioned before businesses are anyway part being sponsors for different teams.  The next day every year invariably newspapers report of a few hundreds of people who got injured and a few who even died due to mishaps and accidents in the whole Dahi Handi revelry. I asked the cab driver if there is any formula for success here. He said – Nothing Sir, just try, try and try till you suceed oops succed sorry succeed (YES!!!)

Unfortunately our approach to managing the economy and achieving growth rates is eerily similar. The breaking of the pot is similar to the GDP growth rate India can achieve. Just like the different heights of the pots it can be 6 %, 9% or whatever. Just like different groups trying to hit the pot, there are different groups working in different areas to make the economy grow and hit a GDP rate figure. The target may be 8%, 9%,.. in the beginning of the year but only at the end of the year depending upon the height of the handi we will know if we have hit the same or not.  Though we want to grow there is no structured plan or strategy which is put in place. We just hope that the consumption fuelled by our great growing population or economic growth in the developed nations will use more of our products and services and propel our economy. That’s the reason why our economy grows one year at 7 %, few years at 8%, drops to 5% and so on. If the GDP target growth rate is achieved, everyone is happy, plenty of jobs are generated, billions of FDI comes in, stock market booms, realty picks up,.. ,.. and there is happiness all around. On the other hand when the economy doesn’t achieve its growth, and goes down, it drags with it thousands of people who lose jobs, have to take pay cuts,.. like the hundreds who end in hospitals the next day injured. But is there a major despair?? No. Just a bit of disappointment and people just shrug off and continue their day to day work hoping to contribute to a better growth next year.  In governance too there is no leader but something called a collective leadership which essentially means no accountability. In the whole process of driving the economy, politics, government policies and corporates all play their part – sometimes helping the cause and (as we see these days) at times hampering the cause.

On the day when rupee depreciated close to 2 rupees to a dollar, there was panic and gloom in the corporate board rooms as reported by pink papers. But not on the streets. The Dahi Handi was going on in usual raucous fashion.  So that is India. We have our own way of balancing our lives by shrugging off our woes and still moving on in life with fun and revelry. The festival season has just kicked in. Janmashtami was just the start. Tomorrow is ‘Ganesh Chaturti’ – a time to chant “Ganpati bappa morya’ and forget what’s happening to our Rupaya!!!

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