‘GO KABOOTAR GO’
As the coronavirus pandemic fuels a sense of hygiene, some Mumbai residents use the opportunity to shut down pigeon feeding spots
Like many traffic junctions in Mumbai, the one outside my residence in suburban Vile Parle used to have a “kabootarkhana" next to it. It wasn’t a built-up structure; only a row of paver blocks differentiatedthe pigeon feeding station from the street. About a decade ago, when the Gujarati working-class neighbourhood was undergoing gentrification, some of the older residents started feeding pigeons every morning. Others followed suit. It soon turned into a community effort.
The first murmurs of protest came from the residents of the new high-rises. The kabootarkhana was an eyesore, they said, a health hazard. But its patrons now numbered in the hundreds. Most of them had resettled into tiny apartments on the street, part of the barter offered by builders. To many of these earlier residents, feeding the birds grains, namkeen and leftovers—sometimes a handful, sometimes a sack-load—was in line with their religious ethos of jiv daya, the act of being compassionate to all living creatures.
The stand-off, it seemed, would never end. Till the pandemic began taking hold.
It was Friday, 13 March, recalls Jaskinder Shingwekar, who stays in the same building as I do. “When I was returning from a jog that morning, I saw a swarm of pigeons here, too many for my car to turn (into the parking lot of the building)."
Shingwekar honked. The pigeons didn’t budge. She yelled at them. The pigeon feeders laughed. “That’s when I decided, this won’t continue."
Once she managed to park her car, she started shooing the pigeons. Someone demanded she stop. Shingwekar stood her ground. “He said, how long will you be here? I said, as long as you are. He said, I will be here all day. I said, so will I."
The man went away within a few minutes. So did Shingwekar—within half an hour. But the 56-year-old, who works as a senior executive in an energy company, shared her ordeal on a WhatsApp group of our building’s women residents. A few days later, members of the housing society convened a meeting to discuss their shared predicament. Repeated complaints to the police and the Brihanmumbai municipal corporation (BMC) hadn’t made a difference. Already, at least one of the residents had suffered lung damage, probably because of pigeon droppings.
That day, they decided they had to take matters into their own hands. Stop the feeders and tell them why. They had to be present at the kabootarkhana, taking turns to keep a watch on it.
Similar movements were afoot in other parts of the city, like Lokhandwala, Khar and a popular temple in our neighbourhood in Vile Parle, piggybacking on the heightened sensitivity towards civic hygiene.
In our complex, a new WhatsApp group for all residents was formed: “Go Kabootar Go". A banner came up above the feeding spot, appealing to people not to feed the pigeons, blaming the birds for spreading a host of diseases, including the coronavirus (a strategic if erroneous claim). By now, many residents had started working from home and this allowed them to participate in the vigil in far larger numbers than would have been possible otherwise. When I first encountered this civil resistance, around five members were standing near the feeding spot, masks on, sanitizers handy. Among them was Kiran Shingwekar, Jaskinder’s husband and the housing society’s chairman.
The fault lines were clear, he told me. “It’s science versus sentiment."
The blue rock pigeon is among those urban wildlife species that inspires both love and loathing. Unlike doves, they are not glamorous. Unlike the passenger pigeons, they aren’t useful for ferrying messages either. Given their burgeoning numbers, ecologists say most don’t serve too functional a role in urban ecosystems. But when it comes to resilience and adaptability, few birds are a match for the pigeon.
This was evident in the recently released report State Of India’s Birds, compiled by a clutch of environmental organizations. Aimed at assessing the progress of conservation efforts, the report tracked the numbers of nearly 867 Indian species over 25 years. “Taking the uncertainty of reporting into account, you can safely say that the blue rock pigeons are the only species in the country whose numbers have increased more than 100%," says Ashwin Viswanathan, research associate at Nature Conservation Foundation, one of the organizations that contributed to the report.
There are two main reasons for this, he explains. “First, they are ferocious breeders." A female pigeon can birth up to six broods a year. With one-three eggs each, this can add up to 18 babies a year. “Also," he adds, “unlike other birds they aren’t too dependent on vegetation for survival. They can nest in any building, old or new."
A 2008 study in Venice found that pigeons can produce over 25 pounds in droppings a year. Their ubiquity around places of historic significance, be it the Gateway of India in Mumbai or Trafalgar Square in London, costs thousands of dollars to clean up. Then there are the health risks: Pigeon feathers and droppings can lead to over 60 kinds of respiratory ailments, including hypersensitivity pneumonitis and lung damage.
For all their newfound notoriety, pigeons have a long history of cohabiting with humans, even being patronized by them. In Mumbai, the kabootarkhanas at the GPO date back to the 18th century. Before they were sealed a few years ago, those in Dadar and Khar had been around for nearly 75 years and 40 years, respectively. Efforts to implement a ban on feeding pigeons across the city have run afoul of activists, some of whom forced the Mumbai civic body to take off the warning signs put up in parts of the city last April. In 2018 too, when officials at the Gateway of India stopped pigeon feeding in the run-up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the monument, regulars threatened to protest.“We bred them, domesticated them, and kept them in cities as we developed cities," Colin Jelormack, author of The Global Pigeon, an ethnographic study of the species, told The Washington Post. “So they have always been here, from the beginning."
Vasant Solanki, a local internet provider and Congress party member, greets me with a cheery “Go corona!" He’s a familiar face in my neighbourhood, known for organizing Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations and communal weddings for members of his community. “Local level pe apun strong hai," he says. “Apun ka support nahi hota tha to hota bhi nahi tha ye", indicating that the feeding could not have been stopped without his support.
Solanki is one of the older residents of the neighbourhood, witness to the years when slums were flattened, roads were widened and residential towers with fancy English names built. The old and new residents of the area have always had a fractious relationship, he says. But this time he wasn’t willing to stand up for his community. “Because of coronavirus," he says simply. “It doesn’t see caste or religion.... I called a meeting of those opposing the closure. Jisko jis line se samajh aata hai samjhaya."
Sometimes, the continuation of kabootarkhanas is directly linked to the prosperity of the grain merchants in the neighbourhood. Often, they hire a help to sit near the feeding stations with bags of corn and jowar for pigeon patrons. “The grain-selling business fetched them ₹25,000 a day," claims Anandini Thakoor, a civic activist and resident of Khar, referring to the vendors outside the kabootarkhana in her neighbourhood. “Even if the authorities issued them a ₹5,000 penalty a day, it was a profitable venture for them."
In December, Thakoor’s complaints led to the municipal authorities sealing the Khar kabootarkhana. “But some goons cut the seal open the very next day," she says. “I called up the police and had them arrested." Things have been relatively quiet during the lockdown but some still feed the birds, Thakoor claims. Her battle continues.
Thakoor’s efforts, reported by the city’s newspapers, prompted the residents of Lokhandwala, Andheri, to push for the closure of the kabootarkhanain their locality in February. “Outside my place, a crowd of 5,000 pigeons would take over a length of 120ft of the pavement and one lane of the road," says PP, a director at a B2B firm and a resident of the area who did not want to be named. “Pigeons would feed through the day, nest in the buildings and drink from swimming pools. Many people had stopped going to the pools."
Animal welfare can often be an emotive issue, agrees PP. Days into the nationwide lockdown, Bharatiya Janata Party MP Maneka Gandhi, founder of the NGO People for Animals, tweeted: “Please feed the pigeons and dogs. They cannot give you the virus but they will die if they are not fed." But those living in the vicinity of kabootarkhanas say such appeals ignore the menace caused by the birds. “We are all animal lovers," says PP. “We just want the pigeons to move to greener locations."
The kabootarkhana outside my residence has now been dismantled. On the instructions of Solanki, a car and a trolley-cart are parked there. In the week leading up to the nationwide lockdown, the residents of my building would keep a vigil for 12 hours a day. First, there was resistance from some feeders. “These poor birds don’t know any better," one of the older residents told me one day. “Have a heart."
In the last week of March, a woman tested covid-19 positive in my neighbourhood. A police team has since taken over, warning people against venturing out, scolding the violators with hand-held megaphones. Pigeons continue to flock to the spot, though in much lesser numbers. Their displeasure is evident: Both of Solanki’s vehicles lie caked in white and green droppings.
It’s funny, I remarked during a conversation with the Shingwekars, that while the residents used the coronavirus to push their movement, pigeons are hardly the reason for the pandemic. “True," says Kiran sagely. “But now there’s an increasing push for cleanliness. In India, we often get our priorities wrong. Instead of using our increased wealth on improving our health standards, we use it to buy bigger sacks to feed pigeons.... I think this is a good time for our nation to clean up our mess."
FIRST PUBLISHED03.04.2020 | 03:55 PM IST