Standing outside a tea stall near Fatehpuri Masjid, a group of youths stare at a blue kite fast approaching a yellow one. As the combat begins, the boys keep their eyes glued to the competition, gripping cups of tea. Within seconds, the blue one is down. One of the boys, Bashir (20), says: “Chinese se kaha jeet payega (How can one beat a kite with ‘Chinese’ string)?”
The group of young men is oblivious to the fact that such ‘Chinese manjha’ is responsible for a string of deaths in the national capital. The latest casualties include a four-year-old girl who died on Saturday while going to a temple with her family, and a 28-year-old civil engineer who was heading to a relative’s home for Raksha Bandhan. Both victims were on two-wheelers.
In January 2017, the Delhi government moved a notification banning ‘manjha’ (kite string) made of nylon and plastic (popularly known as Chinese manjha) and ones made of cotton coated with glass or metal (popularly known as Bareilly ka manjha). In 2017, the National Green Tribunal ordered a total ban on manjha made of nylon or any synthetic material.
But in the city’s skies, the ban remains in the wind.
Old Delhi’s Lal Kuan has around a dozen shops with kites of all shapes and sizes. When The Indian Express visited the spot, some shopkeepers were ready to provide a spindle of ‘Chinese manjha’ for roughly Rs 300.
A wholesaler who did not wish to be identified said: “We don’t sell it to most people but when the regulars come, we ask them to wait a while and fetch the manjha from a storehouse nearby.”
Balbeer Gupta, a shopkeeper, however, said that the Chinese manjha is largely sold by “temporary businesses” that set up shop around festivals, and it gives a bad name to the entire market. “It has also affected our business because the traditional manjha costs more than double the plastic ones,” he said.
In July and August, traders from Gujarat, Jaipur, Agra, Moradabad and Bikaner come to the capital and rent accommodation in Lal Kuan, selling kites and strings. Police said it is harder to track them since they often “camouflage” the banned string with cotton.
(No) Chinese connection
Bablu, who owns one of Old Delhi’s oldest kite shops, Bishan Chand, and is from the fourth generation of his family in this business, said, “Until a decade back, manjhas used to be sharp enough to cut another string, but weak enough to break when they got entangled with a body part.”
The Chinese manjha entered the market in the mid-2000s. “When a synthetic kite string coated with chemicals was introduced, shoppers started calling it ‘Chinese manjha’. They thought anything that is cheap but strong must be made in China. But in truth, it had no Chinese connection,” he said.
DCP (North West) Vijayanta Arya said the source of most of these banned strings is, in fact, Meerut and Noida.
Kites, though, are believed to have a Chinese connection — historians say they were brought to India by Chinese travellers who used them to send messages, measure distance, test the wind, and even signal and communicate during military operations.
After Independence, they became a symbol of freedom, and slowly, kite flying competitions evolved around festivals like Basant Panchami and Raksha Bandhan.
While most people used a plain cotton string, enthusiasts preferred the Bareilly ka manjha, which was largely made in Bareilly and distributed across India, prepared with rice, dalchini, eggs, sabudana and some glass powder.
Moin Khan, a kite seller, said, “With several competitions being held across India, the Chinese manjha caught on because it was difficult to cut and this attracted the youth. Shopkeepers were excited as it was cheaper and had a longer shelf life.” A spindle of synthetic manjha costs Rs 250, while the traditional one costs Rs 700.
Moinuddin, a veteran kite flyer who has won several competitions in Delhi, said the Chinese manjha destroyed the city’s kite culture. “Strings were just like a cricket bat and kite flying was mainly about the skills of the flyer. But Chinese manjhas, being of high tensile strength, limited the role of kite flyers.”
Now, several kite festivals and competitions, including the one by Delhi’s tourism department, have stopped because such manjhas pose a threat.
The many tragedies
Every manjha death is a grim reminder of a personal tragedy for the families of Saanchi (3) and Dipti (5).The five-year-old died due to head injuries caused after the bike on which she was travelling crashed and fell off the Badarpur flyover in July this year. Dipti’s uncle Mohan (33), who was riding the bike, said, “We were on our way to my mother’s house in Faridabad when I saw a stray kite flying towards me. Before I could react, the string got entangled around my neck.”
“Dipti was sitting behind me. I tried to stop the vehicle but lost control. The bike rammed into the divider and fell off the flyover. The manjha slit my throat; even after a month, it hasn’t healed,” he said.
Saanchi died when she peered from the sunroof of her car by standing on her mother’s lap on Independence Day 2016.
“She just collapsed on her mother’s lap. The manjha had slit her throat. We have been waiting for justice but also know that the accused can’t be caught. Officers looked for CCTV footage and other evidence but nothing was found. At that time, there was no ban on the kite string,” said Alok Goyal, the victim’s father.
Police said that though 28 cases have been registered this year against people who procure, sell, stock or use the banned manjha under IPC section 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant) , a large number of people are still not aware of the rules or the implications of using banned manjha.
Living in denial
Sources in the police department said that while there has been a clampdown on synthetic manjha following NGT orders, shopkeepers largely ignore the Delhi government order that states that any kite flying object (including cotton manjhas) made with sharp materials like glass and metal are banned.
So, while traders avoid selling the synthetic Chinese manjha, they continue to sell Bareilly ka manjha in markets across Delhi, ignoring the fact that it is also banned.
Police sources said most of the offenders are booked under IPC section 188, which carries a punishment of up to six months in jail and a fine up to Rs 1,000, rather than Section 5 of the Environment Protection Act, under which one can be punished for even five years and fined up to Rs 1 lakh.
“To make penalties harsher for offenders, we have started registering cases under Section 5 of the EPA Act and IPC section 188. For the first time in our area, two offenders have been booked under both sections. They were caught from Sadar Bazaar and Bara Hindu Rao. We are trying to stop sale and production of this manjha. Police personnel have been taught how to detect glass-coated string,” said Nupur Prasad, DCP (North).
In Central Delhi, too, police deployed teams to catch errant shopkeepers. Mandeep Singh Randhawa, DCP (Central and PRO), said, “Before Independence Day, officers raided the markets and caught offenders selling the banned manjha. More than six cases have been registered and people have been arrested for selling and using the manjha. We have also witnessed fewer accidents and injuries in the area.”
Aware of the repercussions, many shop owners have refused to rent out spaces to seasonal kite sellers this time, he added.
In most cases of injury or death, the accused aren’t caught since it’s difficult to trace where the manjha came from. Arya said, “We investigate these cases by recovering CCTV footage from the area and tracing the kites. But the kites don’t usually come from a nearby building; sometimes these are old kites stuck in a tree or a pole. It becomes difficult to nab the accused when a stray kite comes from a distant place and injures the victim.”
Plus, amid the clampdown in Delhi, many people buy the deadly manjha from other cities like Noida and Meerut, police said.
Nikunj Sharma, associate director of policy at PETA, said that before the NGT order was passed, they requested the Delhi government for a ban on all types of kite string coated with glass or metal. “We tested the cotton manjha and found that it can also cause injuries,” he said, adding that animals are at risk too. “We have seen more than 500 birds injured in Delhi this month. We have also witnessed cases of dogs, cats and squirrels getting injured by glass-coated strings.”
BSES officials said the manjha can be dangerous if it comes in contact with live overhead wires, leading to a blackout or, in extreme cases, electrocution. Plus, the NGT also highlighted that since such strings are non-biodegradable, they clog drains and water systems for a long time.
The fact that Chinese manjha is a thin, clear monofilament makes it extremely hard to spot, especially for bikers. Doctors said many people wonder how it can be fatal, but the string usually impacts the most sensitive part of the body.
Resident Doctors’ Association president of North corporation hospitals, Dr Rahul Choudhary, said three sensitive parts of the neck are especially vulnerable — the windpipe trachea at the front and centre; the carotid artery at the side; and jugular vein, also at the side. “These are sensitive parts that transport blood and oxygen to the brain, so if there’s a deep cut and one does not get immediate medical support, chances of death are high. A cut in other organs does not affect the brain the same way a cut on the neck does,” he said.
A senior official at the North Corporation, which owns five hospitals in the city, said that more than 200 cases of major and minor cuts were reported in its hospitals on August 15.
In Gujarat, motorists have started using U-shaped aluminium frames, which are around a metre tall and fitted on their two-wheelers’ visor, to dodge the deadly string. Some also wear a nylon neck brace with velcro padding. In Surat and Ahmedabad, people are known to wear cervical collars during Uttarayan to avoid accidents. In Kolkata, police had proposed putting up nets on a flyover to save motorists from stray kite string.
But more than radical ideas, the need of the hour, perhaps, is awareness.
Ear, nose and throat specialist at Hindu Rao Hospital, Dr Poonam Locha, said she encountered seven such patients on August 15, most of whom were riding a bike on the Ring Road. “The government must start an awareness campaign or make it part of the study material for children on how cheap manjha can take a person’s life,” she said.
So far this year
3 manjha deaths reported, including of two minors. While cases were registered against unknown persons under IPC section 304(A), no arrest has been made so far.
250 cases of minor and major injuries reported at government hospitals in Delhi
28 offenders booked under IPC section 188 for selling or using banned manjha in the capital
2 kite sellers arrested for selling glass-coated cotton and Chinese manjha in Sadar Bazaar, under Section 5 of Environment Protection Act (Rs 1 lakh fine and jail term up to five years) for the first time