On the eve of India’s 76th Independence Day, 26-year-old Abhishek Kumar, who ran a tent business in Delhi, was heading to his home in Jyoti Colony on a scooter when a stray strand of Chinese manja, a synthetic string coated with powdered glass, slit his throat while crossing the Nathu Colony flyover. “Within seconds, blood started oozing from his neck and he fell off the vehicle. Passers-by rushed him to a hospital, where doctors gave him cardiopulmonary resuscitation, but he died,” said R. Sathiyasundaram, Deputy Commissioner of Police (Shahdara).
The incident in Shahdara’s Mansarovar Park area was the fourth death caused by the deadly string over the past 25 days in the Capital. The manja, which is widely used for kite-flying, has turned into a menace following the substitution of the traditional cotton thread with nylon or single plastic fibre string made of monofilament fishing lines. Though locally manufactured, it is dubbed Chinese manja purportedly because its main ingredient, a synthetic polymer called polypropylene, comes from China, and it is priced at just one-third of the rate of a cotton spool. The pervasive use of the string despite a National Green Tribunal (NGT) order in 2017 imposing a countrywide ban on its manufacture and sale is endangering human and animal lives in the city. The synthetic string is also non-biodegradable, making it an environmental hazard.
According to Delhi Police, in cases of death caused by manja, an FIR is registered under Section 304A (causing death by negligence) of the Indian Penal Code, but identifying the accused is a tough task. “We scan CCTV footage to ascertain where the string came from. In most instances, it is found dangling from a stray kite or a kite stuck on a tree or a pole,” a police officer says.
Doctors say once the synthetic string slits a person’s throat, the chances of survival depend on the amount of blood loss on the way to the hospital. Dr. Amardeep Singh, a surgeon who runs a clinic in Hari Nagar, says, “The carotid artery and jugular vein in the neck carry blood from the heart to the brain. Therefore, it is crucial to rush an injured person to hospital as soon as possible.” Once people with such serious injuries are brought to the emergency ward, Dr. Singh says, medical clamps are used to control the blood flow. However, the window to save the life of such patients is so small that by the time they are brought to the hospital, most of them are declared dead, he says.
According to Farhat Ul Ain, advocacy associate at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India, the organisation’s helplines have been inundated with calls about birds and animals who have sustained injuries after getting entwined in manja. “In Delhi alone, we have received dozens of calls about injured birds this week, leading to the rescue of 14 pigeons, five kites, two crows and one barn owl. Many animals and birds succumb to their injuries too,” Ms. Ain says. Out of the 1,519 calls PETA received from across the country this year, nearly 650 were to report injuries and deaths caused by manja, she says.
The Chinese or nylon manja continues to give the desi or cotton manja a run for its money despite the ban and the deadly risk that it poses because it is the preferred choice of kite-flying enthusiasts in the city. The factory-scale manufacture of the manja, its durability, cheaper prices and the razor-sharp cord’s ability to cut through rival strings and emerge victorious in high-stakes duels make it a firm favourite. While the cotton thread too is coated with powdered granite and ceramic fragments, its sharpness is blunted when smeared with ‘masala’ — a thick paste of crushed rice, flour, kohl, psyllium, herbs and colouring agents. On August 5, the Delhi High Court dismissed a plea that sought a ban on storage, sale and flying of kites in the city but directed Delhi Police to ensure compliance of the NGT order banning the sale of synthetic manja.
Keeping age-old tradition alive
The high quality cotton thread made by skilled artisans is popularly known as Bareilly manja after the city in Uttar Pradesh where it originates from. Tucked away in the narrow bylanes of the city is Hussainbagh, the manufacturing hub of the string, where an army of artisans sweat it out every morning, carrying forward the age-old tradition knowing fully well that they are fighting a losing battle against its nylon rival.
Amid the blaring of a train horn, 14-year-old Ubais is walking swiftly with a spool of cotton thread held firmly in his hand and tying it tightly between two ballis (wooden poles) affixed 900 metres apart. Drenched in sweat, Owais Mansuri, 31, is busy coating the thread with freshly prepared masala, kneaded into a luddi (dough), to give it an authentic finish. The duo is working at a quick pace to deliver on time the orders placed by kite traders in Moradabad. Mr. Mansuri says work begins at the crack of dawn and ends by 2 p.m., with the manja left to dry for a few hours.
“ Jabse aankh khuli hai, tabse hi manja bante hue dekha hai. Patang aur manje ka Bareilly me hi janam hua hai (Since the time of our birth, we have been seeing manja being made. Bareilly is the birthplace of the kite and the string),” says Mr. Mansuri, the owner of one of the 30 manja manufacturing units operating in the area for the past 40 years.
Thirty-five-year-old Shakir Ansari, who runs SRAS Kites, says only the city’s artisans have mastery over the making of the cotton string. “It is painstakingly prepared over several hours. The desi touch makes it perfect for kite-flying competitions,” he says.
The Bareilly manja is mostly sold to traders in Delhi, Rajasthan and Lucknow. While its demand peaks during the kite-flying season ahead of Independence Day and Makar Sankranti in Delhi, sales soar in Rajasthan in January and February. Lucknow sees high demand for the string all-year round.
Though the artisans draw pride from producing the famed cotton string, their faith in the product is depleting with every passing year as the Chinese manja has severely hampered sales, making it difficult to sustain their business. Locals say the synthetic string was considered a Chinese product as it emerged as a cheap and durable alternative that posed a challenge to the Bareilly manja. “Ever since it was introduced in the mid-2000s, we have been suffering. No one wants to buy Bareilly ka manja because it is not as long-lasting and inexpensive,” Mr. Ansari says.
“Since the use of glass or metal in manja has been banned, we use marble or ceramic. Though this provides sharpness to the string, it cannot cause severe injuries. Just the other day, a young boy died here after a Chinese manja left a deep gash in his chest,” he says.
One gitta (yarn) of Bareilly manja, consisting of 18 reels and measuring 900 metres, costs around ₹600, but the same quantity of the nylon string can be purchased at half the price. “Despite the ban, Chinese manja is sold everywhere. It continues to be everyone’s first option,” Mr. Mansuri says.
Chunne Ansari, 53, who owns a two-decade-old unit, says it is difficult to compete with the synthetic string both in terms of quantity and quality. “It is waterproof and doesn’t break easily. Machines can produce the string in bulk, but each unit here can only make four to five spools at a time. The banned string has not only flooded metropolitan cities but also infiltrated Bareilly’s kite markets,” he says.
Livelihoods under threat
Over the past three years, the number of manja manufacturing units in Hussainbagh has dwindled from 60 to 30. The number of labourers per unit has also dipped from 20 to 10. The makers of the cotton string say their earnings have dropped by ₹15 lakh owing to stiff competition from the Chinese manja, forcing around 6,000 artisans to search for alternative sources of livelihood.
“Making manja is no longer sustainable as each worker hardly earns ₹250 to ₹300 a day. The price of raw materials has also increased, yet the competitive pricing of Chinese manja has forced us to sell our product to traders at old rates,” Mr. Chunne Ansari says. Ustad Atik Raza Khan, 50, voices similar concerns. “I started this business on my own and soon had a large team of workers. Now, my employees are leaving for better-paying jobs,” he says.
The artisans are now faced with making a choice between preserving their tradition and providing two square meals a day for their families. Istikhar Hussain, 38, says, “Making manja is strenuous and takes a toll on my body. I have three sons and a daughter. How will I run my household with this income? I don’t have the choice of switching jobs. Growing up in Bareilly, this is all I have seen and learnt. I won’t be able to perform any other work with such passion. When I started out, I was just 10 and it took me more than a year to learn the ropes and several more years to ultimately perfect the art.”
Mr. Khan says his two brothers have left the low-paying job to become vegetable vendors in Delhi. “I don’t want to pass the profession on to my children as the back-breaking work isn’t worth it. I’m struggling to make ends meet and don’t want them to face the same situation. The Chinese manja is threatening to kill our business and it is only a matter of time before our industry shuts down. Our skill will die with us.”
A few metres away from Mr. Hussain’s shop is the house of Mohammad Shaan, who is worried about his bleak future and has taken a break from work. “Who will work for just ₹250 a day? There are 12 members in my household. Is it possible to sustain all of them with this job?” he asks.
Despite devoting 13 years of his life to the trade, Mr. Shaan says he plans to work at a construction site or perform odd jobs that will fetch him a decent monthly income. “The desi manja will go out of business in two years and our traditional industry will collapse. The craze for kite-flying hasn’t reduced, but the Chinese manja has crushed our business. My generation will be the last to engage in making manjas,” he says.
Endless hours spent smearing cotton threads with masala have left 26-year-old Naeem Ansari’s palms with half a dozen lacerations. “It is difficult for me to eat with my hands. You can see such cuts on the palms of every artisan here. It is the price we pay for keeping our art alive for a pittance,” he says.
Every time a Chinese manja claims a life, the police cracks down on the illegal sale of the synthetic string, says Mr. Naeem Ansari. “They always suspect us of storing Chinese manja when in fact we are suffering because of it.”
Out of contention
The dip in demand for Bareilly manja is visible at kite markets in Delhi, one of its largest customer bases. Several seasoned kite traders at Lal Kuan, one of the oldest kite markets in the city, say the Chinese manja has been dominating sales. “There has been a fresh crackdown on shops but Chinese manja is being sold without any regulation. I have reels of Bareilly manja too, but they go largely unsold. I know the Chinese manja is hazardous but what can we do? If there is huge demand for it, why would I not sell it? Even I have to sustain my family,” says a shopkeeper in the city.
Traders say the annual turnover of the kite manufacturing industry in Delhi was around ₹30 crore to ₹40 crore till 2015, but dipped sharply to ₹60 lakh during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. This year, the revenue has dropped to ₹30 lakh, they say.
Sonu, a shopkeeper at the two-decade-old Titu Kite Shop at Sagarpur in south-west Delhi, says sales have dipped by 40% as his shop sells only Bareilly manja. “We fear police action and do not store Chinese manja anymore.”
Earlier, traders used to come from neighbouring States like Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan and set up shops in popular kite markets like Lal Kuan and Gandhi Market. “Now, even they have stopped coming,” Mr. Sonu says.
Jama Masjid resident Jamalludin, 40, who has been participating in kite-flying contests for the past 15 years, says events promoting the sport have reduced in the city. “Earlier, the Delhi Tourism Department used to conduct competitions but after the spike in deaths such events are not being held.”
Mr. Jamalludin says the pandemic forced several kite traders to shut shop and return to their hometowns. “Since the start of the crackdown on Chinese manja, traders are only selling Bareilly manja,” he says. “I use cotton strings for my kites and tell all my team members to abstain from buying Chinese manja because we understand the harmful consequences of using it.”
Still sold in secret
Delhi Police sources say despite the increased crackdown on the sale of Chinese manja, it is still sold discreetly in the city. “Retailers communicate in code language with wholesalers, who open their warehouses at night to supply the banned string,” an officer says.
The police also deploy decoys who finalise deals with retailers and wholesalers. At the time of delivery, the police team arrives on the scene, detains the sellers and conducts raids at their godowns. Chinese manja is often brought to Delhi in trucks from Surat, Meerut and Noida, police sources say.
DCP (North West) Usha Rangnani says, “In one case, the accused had purchased 400 cartons of Monokite Manja (a Bengaluru-based company which is one of the largest producers of synthetic manja in the country) from a supplier in Noida, who had transported it in trucks from Surat to Delhi.”
According to Delhi Police, it has seized 17,535 reels of Chinese manja, and registered 327 cases and arrested 326 people in connection with the sale of the string over the last one year.
However, instances of people being convicted for manufacturing, selling or using the string are rare. A sustained effort is required to end the menace so that the list of casualties does not keep growing in the city.