“Diwali is the festival of lights. So let’s celebrate it like a festival of lights — with lights, and without firecrackers.” The message is loud, clear, and what the residents of Dadara, Pachariya and Singimari, three villages in Assam’s Kamrup district, have woken up to every morning for the last ten days.
At the centre of this ‘Green Diwali’ campaign — amplified by loudspeaker announcements, often from a fleet of e-rickshaws seen around the villages— is the Greater Adjutant Stork, or, as it is known in Assamese, the Hargila. “Don’t burst crackers, not just for the sake of the Hargila, but other birds and animals too. Do it for your family, do it for your children,” urges the voice behind the microphone.
Once considered a bad omen and shunned by villagers, the Hargila (which translates to ‘bone-swallower’ in Assamese) is now one of the most successful conservation projects in Assam, and a symbol of pride, synonymous to the contiguous villages of Dadara, Pachariya and Singimari, located about 30km from Guwahati.
“And we want to keep it that way,” says Whitley Award-winning conservationist Purnima Devi Barman, “This [September to April] is the breeding season of the Hargila — when they nest, and lay eggs. I’ve seen with my own eyes how loud noises disturb them, leading them to abandon their nests and fly away. So crackers can be more detrimental than we think — it won’t just scare the birds, but also affect the breeding process.”
That is why Barman and her all-women Hargila conservation army, who have been rallying behind the bird since 2007, say their pre-Diwali campaign is one of their most important. Five ft tall, with an eight-foot wingspan, the Hargila is a wetland bird, but over the years, the loss of their natural habitat has compelled them to adapt to life in other kinds —especially dumpsters in the city, leading people to associate them with garbage and all things rotten. Barman’s intervention in the last decade has done much to change the stork’s fate.
Globally, the species has about 1200 individuals, out of which around 800 are found in Assam itself — with Dadara, Pachariya and Singimari contributing almost one-third of the world’s total population. “The three villages are home to the largest breeding colony in the world,” says Barman, who works with Guwahati-based NGO Aaranyak.
“Since 27 nests in 2010-11, we now have 210 nests.” The team is also working on an artificial breeding project in collaboration with the state zoo.
In the village, neither the Hargila nor the Hargila Army — now ten thousand strong — needs an introduction. “Everyone is supporting our endeavour,” says Bharati Saikia, 34, who is part of the group for the last three years, “Many villagers have pledged to us that they will not burst firecrackers.”
The campaign has the women going to respected elders of the villages, headmasters of schools, and even heads of naamghars (worship halls), asking them to spread the message of a safe, cracker-free Diwali. “We carry the Hargila headgear we have made, sometimes carrying it in our hands, or wearing it on our heads. We also sing naams (worship songs) stressing on the importance of the bird,” says Saikia, adding that even the police have joined them in making these announcements.
“The villagers of Dadara, Pachariya and Singimari are already aware. They know what they need to do. Our appeals and announcements only serve as a reminder,” says Partha Sarathi Mahanta, SP, Kamrup district, who joined the Hargila army last week to make announcements, urging people to celebrate a cracker-free Diwali.
Adds Burman: “There are some shopkeepers who tell us that they will lose a lot of money if they don’t sell crackers. But we tell them that this loss is just one-time, but loss of health, the effect of noise and air pollution is life-long.”
In Assam, even as the state pollution control board issued a notification saying that the sale and use of firecrackers was banned in Guwahati and in other parts of the state, the Health and Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma recently said that the government was not planning on any restrictions in the state with regard to the use of firecrackers in Diwali festivities.
But the Hargila army’s campaign has been running for years now. “In the past few years, the use of crackers in our village has reduced considerably. Of course, there are one or two people who might burst a cracker or two, but despite that, our efforts will continue,” she says.
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