As the state gears up for yet another Bhogi, there is a general mood of anxiety amongst the environmentalists. The balance between cultural sentiments, personal and environmental health needs have to be maintained. Bhogi is the first day of the four-day Pongal festival. This year the festival falls on January 14 and usually corresponds to the last day of the Tamil month Margazhi. It’s celebrated in the south and Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana all observe Bhogi.
Farmers worship the sun and the earth by anointing their ploughs and sickles with sandalwood paste. A special puja is performed on the first day of Pongal before the cutting of paddy. The main concept of
the festival is change or transformation, and this is brought about by people discarding old and derelict items from their homes; usually consisting of clothes or other household items. Community bonfires to burn them are started and neighbours join the fun to ‘embrace the change’ in their lives.
Some district collectors around Tamil Nadu have issued warnings against people burning items on Bhogi. Section 15 of the EPA (Environmental Protection Act 1986) makes it a criminal offence which is punishable by fine or even imprisonment. While we can come up with ways to prevent people from starting such bonfires during the bhogi festival, the real challenge to the government is, how to re-interpret this festival in a way that makes it seem relevant to the current generation and times? How to adapt the idea of transformation and change while being earth and health sensitive?
As a practitioner of holistic sustainability, I can argue for the preservation of local culture and at the same time address concerns about the health of the planet and its inhabitants. If we are to truly search for what the revelry means to people during Bhogi, it would probably be about getting rid of all the old stuff around us; the spirited bonhomie of coming together with the community over a bonfire and having a feast at the end. Whatever it may individually mean, there are healthier ways of celebrating Bhogi.
Some districts around Tamil Nadu have announced collection centres for people to bring in their old items so they can be disposed off responsibly instead of being burnt. The city of Salem for example has organised 25 collection centres in four zones. The “Bhogi Bucket Challenges” set up by Municipal Corporations aims to motivate people do the right thing, and is being marketed as an eco-friendly option.
An idea could be to send these old items to charities after sorting and cleaning to help the less fortunate. There are also many animal shelters that can use other throwaways like old towels and cardboard boxes. The fun element of Bhogi could still be a community bonfire which comprises proper firewood instead of tyres, mattresses and other elements which are complex waste items that release harmful chemicals when burnt.
So this Bhogi, aim to educate those around us to celebrate responsibly. Turn the idea of self-transformation to that of ‘change someone else’s life’. Propagate the idea of giving and donating to a worthy cause instead of burning and adding to the planet’s woes. ‘Pongal-o-Pongal”!
The writer is an architect, urban designer, dancer and chief designer at Shilpa Architects