A two-kilometre walk at the crack of dawn awaits the little boys of Kollukudipatti this Deepavali. They would walk sprightly in groups in their new clothes with firecrackers in tow. Once out of earshot of the inhabitants of their village in Sivagangai, they would set out to do what they waited for all year: burst firecrackers. This is their yearly tradition — that they burst crackers far from their village. They do not want to disturb their bird guests that come to breed there. Several villages in Tamil Nadu have vowed not to burst crackers for Deepavali; some of them hamlets with just a handful of houses, they have been silently doing their bit for the environment for years.
“I’m 47 and all these years, I’ve never seen my people burst crackers inside our village,” says Veeraiya, a forest watcher in Kollukudipatti. “We stay off from crackers even during temple thiruvizhas ,” he adds. S. Jayakumar, a college professor who has studied the birds in the village for his PhD, says that Asian open-billed storks, black-headed ibis, little cormorants and egrets come to the wetlands in the village to breed. “They arrive in October and stay on till February, after which they fly off with their fledglings,” he explains.
The people feel protective of their visitors. “I spoke to a 90-year-old woman who said that she hasn’t seen crackers being burst there as long as she can remember,” says Jayakumar. It has been many years since the inhabitants of Koonthankulam village in Tirunelveli have touched firecrackers. Declared a bird sanctuary, Koonthankulam is being looked after by the people. They are in love with the birds and do their best to ensure they are safe.
S. Balpandi, a resident expert on birds, says that staying off loud crackers is their “sacrifice” for the birds’ well-being. “A loud bang would scare nesting mothers away from the nest. This could leave the hatchlings and eggs in danger,” he says.
An ancient tamarind tree in Kittampalayam, a village in Coimbatore, is protected like a treasure chest by the village-folk. The reason is hundreds of bats that roost amidst the branches. The bats are part of a bigger roost that inhabited a tree in a nearby village. “The people cut down the tree believing bats were inauspicious,” says Joseph Reginald Louis, a PhD student at the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History. He created awareness among villagers on the need to protect the bats through slideshows and pamphlets. As a result, “they abstain from bursting loud firecrackers for Deepavali to an extent,” he says. The bats are “finally in safe hands,” adds Joseph.
But isn’t Deepavali all about firecrackers that go boom from dawn to dusk? “No. Why should it be so?” asks Veeraiya. “Our children do not complain.” Besides, the presence of birds does a lot of good to their village. Jayakumar says that bird-droppings make the waters richer and improve agricultural yield.
“ Kaal oru muzham irukkum — the feet are about one muzham (a Tamil unit of measurement),” says Saraswathi from Sankarapandiapuram. “The head has white and rose colour.” She is probably talking about the painted storks that visit her village every year. “They sit on the neem and flowering trees inside the school,” she says. With about 500 houses on either sides of a main road that separates Kila Sankarapandiapuram and Mela Sankarapandiapuram, the village near Virudhunagar abstains from bursting noisy firecrackers for Deepavali so that the birds there can live in peace. “Our school’s headmaster instructs our children not to disturb the birds,” she says. “He tells them the babies are paavam and that they should protect them.” It is also said that villages around Vellode Birds Sanctuary in Erode have given up crackers for the sake of birds.
There may be many other places in our country that place the welfare of Nature ahead of their celebrations. But why do they do this? “Because we like to,” says Veeraiya. “I can see the birds from my window at home; hear their calls; when it rains, there is a certain smell that emanates when water mixes with their droppings. It’s not pleasant, but we’ve learned to live with it.”