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India's Holi festivities choked by drought

Water shortages in western India are putting a damper on the two-day celebration of the Hindu spring festival.

A boy sprays coloured foam during Holi celebrations near the Bankey Bihari temple in Vrindavan, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
A boy sprays coloured foam during Holi celebrations near the Bankey Bihari temple in Vrindavan, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

NEW DELHI // No Holi festivities would be complete without the bright-coloured powders and tinted water that Indians use to douse each other to celebrate the Hindu spring festival.

But water shortages in western India are putting a damper on the two-day celebration, which starts today. State and municipal governments in drought-stricken areas of western India are asking the public not to use water at all.

In the state of Maharashtra, where Holi festivities last up to a week, the situation is especially dire.

The monsoon has fallen short of expectation for two consecutive years in Maharashtra, meaning that many villages have been left with little water for drinking and farming. More than 7,000 villages now rely on daily deliveries of drinking water to survive.

After reading reports of the growing water shortage, and the state's worst drought since 1972, Neil Chitnis, a digital copy writer in Mumbai, Maharashtra's capital, has yet to decide whether he will play Holi at all this year, and if he has a change of heart, there will be no water involved.

"Some friends have pointed out that playing without water may be not respecting the tradition of the holiday," Mr Chitnis, 21, said. "Others have said that even if I do choose to play only with dry powder, I will still use a lot of water to have to wash it all off."

These days elaborate celebrations include hiring water tankers, which hold 6,000 litres, to spray tinted water over crowds of revelers; or filling swimming pools with colour.

On Sunday, the mayor of Mumbai, Shraddha Jadhav instructed wards not to supply water tankers during Holi so people do not to waste water. Up to 120 million litres of water are used over Holi every year in Mumbai, according to the city's Municipal Corporation. This year, inspectors will be on hand to curb any misuse of water.

Neighbourhood, school and college bulletin boards are plastered with messages to conserve water during Holi, said Alice Vaz, principal of the Ryan International school in Kharghar, a suburb of Navi Mumbai.

For the past month, Ms Vaz has made sure the message is transmitted loud and clear every day. Once during the daily school assembly, and then again through loudspeakers in the school's corridors.

Ms Vaz said 3,500 pupils have been given the message about conserving water during Holi.

"We have had to explain to them that there is a drought in the state, and most students have carried the message home, saying they will try to save water," Ms Vaz said.

Sandeep Khardekar, president of Creative Foundation, a non-profit environmental group in the city of Pune in Maharashtra, encouraged Bollywood and local Marathi film stars to talk about the state's water shortage problems on college campuses and social networking sites.

On Monday, Mr Khardekar was told that the director Manish Vatsalya had a change of heart on the Pune film set of the Bollywood film Dussehra, where a scene for Holi used only flowers and coloured powder instead of scenes in a water park.

TV has followed suit. On India's ubiquitous soap operas, the festival of Holi plays a major part in the storytelling. Subplots featuring the festival often last for almost a month.

This year, the soap Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai (What Is This Relationship Called) will feature only four episodes celebrating the festival, unlike last year, where 20 episodes featured the actors dousing each other with coloured water and powder. Instead Mr Khardekar said, the show will focus on getting out the message of a "Dry Holi".

"In TV shows especially, there has been a great response. The producers and directors have decided not to show Holi being played in the traditional way," Mr Khanderkar said.

Not everyone is listening.

Last week, Asaram Bapu, a self-professed spiritual guru, celebrated Holi along with 15,000 of his followers in Thane, Maharashtra, where six water tankers, each holding 9,000 litres, were hired to spray the revelers with coloured water, as Bapu, wearing a yellow and gold turban, waved from a platform.

"The drought prone areas of the state are getting rain because of my prayers," he said, according to the Mumbai Mirror newspaper. "What is wrong if I use 5,000 to 7,000 litres of water for my supporters?"

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

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