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Raiders of the cash pot

- Death and injury threats can’t beat lure of the crores for youth

Mumbai, Aug. 18: Dharmendra Bansode has seen five men in his extended family physically disabled by accidents during the Dahi Handi festival. Two of them, in their sixties, are near-destitute.

But their fate does not deter the 19-year-old.

“Lord Krishna pilfered dahi (curd) and makkhan (butter) from his neighbours’ homes, so they slung the stuff in handis (pots) from their kitchen ceilings to thwart him. Like Govinda (Krishna) and his gang, we too form human pyramids a day after Janmashtami to get to the handis,” the teen said, explaining the blend of faith, greed and sport that defines the festival.

“For a day we flirt, frolic and break the handis for the goodies. That’s why all young men forming the pyramids are called Govinda on this day.”

Cash has long replaced the curd in the pot, though. Or, more specifically, a chit promising a certain sum to whoever can reach the handi.

Dharmendra was part of seven human pyramids that formed through the day, hoping to reach the pots suspended by politicians over alleys and thoroughfares across Mumbai for local youths to raid. The higher the pot, the bigger the booty inside.

Dharmendra says he has been doing this for over a decade “but this year’s spoils have been the best”. The festival this year has been a tad more raucous than usual too.

With less than two months to go for the Maharashtra elections, the electoral code of conduct is expected to come into force by end-August.

“This means the political parties that spend massive sums during festivals to woo voters and pander to neighbourhood strongmen cannot do so during the state’s two biggest festivals, Ganeshotsav and Navaratri,” said Rani Asghar, who teaches sociology at National College.

“So the biggest cash flow has been earmarked for the Dahi Handi festival this year.”

An estimated Rs 150 crore in prize money has been put into pots across the city, with Maharashtra Navnirman Sena lawmaker Ram Kadam’s handi at Ghatkopar said to be worth Rs 1 crore.

The winners — who generate an awe-inspiring spectacle for cheering crowds as they create 50-60ft-high pyramids — also get gold bars. There are big-ticket runners-up and consolation prizes too.

“Although top politicians sponsor the prizes, they never acknowledge the total spend openly. They show it as money raised through collections,” said Praveen Saraf, one of the organisers of a Dahi Handi at the Lower Parel chawl where Dharmendra lives.

But the mega prizes are not the only reason behind this year’s massive revelries.

With Bombay High Court setting strict caps on the height of the pyramids and the age of the participants, a pall had descended over festival preparations. A Supreme Court stay on it changed things in the nick of time.

“So people are out on the streets in a big way. There aren’t many tall pyramids this year, and there mayn’t be any in the coming years as the courts may finally rule against them,” said Dharmendra’s mother Vanita, 37, a domestic help.

The high court had directed that the pyramids cannot be higher than 20ft and the Govindas must be over 18, upturning a state government order that set the minimum age at 12.

“We did not do much rehearsals this year. We weren’t sure what would happen. Usually we rehearse for a full month before the Dahi Handi — creating 50-60ft pyramids with 8-9 tiers needs heavy practice,” Dharmendra rued.

“By the time the court order came, it was too late. So, in many areas, the pyramids are not as high as usual. For that, we need really young children to be perched at the top and that has been banned.”

But confusion can be a blessing in disguise. Compared with 485 injuries and 13 deaths last year, 50 were injured this year, one critically.

To offset the absence of tall pyramids, Sachin Ahir, a strongman turned NCP lawmaker from Dharmendra’s locality, invited pop singer Yo Yo Honey Singh to perform at a local park. Dharmendra was there too.

“This year has been the best. Nobody I know has been injured and I won the largest stash of cash ever. The prize money for the pot we won was Rs 25 lakh. Our mandal (neighbourhood) has 50 people — I shall get at least Rs 40,000 to Rs 50,000,” he said.