Earlier this month, when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) released its so-called ‘deshbhakti budget’, it proposed install 500 tall flagpoles in Delhi, such that one is visible every 2 kilometres.
“All citizens of Delhi, when coming out from their homes even for short distances, will not return without sentiments of patriotism and national pride,” said Manish Sisodia, deputy chief minister of Delhi. He added that ₹45 crore will be set aside for the project.
Whatever you may make of the idea behind the flag towers, it’s useful to take a look at how similar plans have fared in other parts of the country.
At the centre of the city of Kolhapur in Maharashtra, there’s a 303ft flagpole, one of the highest in the country. But for the past seven months, the tricolour it is meant to hoist is missing.
“We’d last put it up on 15 August,” says Sujay Pitre from the Kolhapur Street Beautification Project (KSBP), caretaker body for the flagpole. “But the wind direction changed, and the pulley on top carrying the flag broke.”
This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. When they’d conceptualized the flagpole in 2015, the KSBP members commissioned a study on wind directions and into flag fabrics that could withstand the wind speeds at the height. They even travelled to Pune to study how the municipal body was maintaining a 260ft flagpole in the outskirts of the city (this pole, too, no longer has a flag on top). The Kolhapur flagpole cost nearly ₹1.1cr to build, says Pitre; the six 90x60 ft polyester flags they bought in the first batch were around a lakh each.
The inauguration ceremony, held in May 2017, was a grand affair. Devendra Fadnavis, then chief minister of Maharashtra, and actor Akshay Kumar had flewflown down from Mumbai to attend it. “Such a high flag can be seen from anywhere in the city and will instil a feeling of patriotism amongst people,” the chief minister’s office released a statement afterwards.
But ever since then, the KSBP has found it increasingly difficult to meet the recurring maintenance expenses. Flags kept getting damaged due to high wind, and the ropes and pulley deteriorated from carrying flags up and down. “We can replace the flags, but it’s far more difficult to repair the rest,” says Pitre. After the pulley accident last year, Pitre found that it would cost ₹20 lakh to hire a crane to reach and repair the pulley on top. “I’m talking to a few sponsors but they say, what’s the guarantee it won’t break again?”
Similar stories abound other tall flagpoles across the country. A 351ft flagpole in Pune (separate from the one mentioned) has only hoisted a flag 4-5 times since its inauguration in 2017. The Amritsar district administration, in charge of the 360ft flagpole in the border town of Attari, said it would hoist it only “occasionally” after high winds tore four flags in the six months since its inauguration in 2017. The 361ft tall flagpole in Belgavi, Karnataka, the tallest in India, was forced to reduce its flag size to a half for the same reason in 2020.
Each of these flagpoles cost crores of rupees; the flags up to a lakh. Looking back, says Pitre, “it is easy to make the flagpoles but sustaining the flags is difficult. People don’t realize it.”
The flags in Delhi, Sisodia had said, would be along lines of the 207ft-tall flagpole at Connaught Place (CP). Even at such reduced heights, maintenance problems are likely to persist.
“The flags we use at CP can get damaged every week or go up to three months, depending on the weather conditions,” says major general (retd) Ashim Kohli, president of Flag Foundation of India, the body that looks after the flag in the commercial district of central Delhi. “It requires a lot of care and constant supervision.”
The CP flag, Kohli says, is 60x90 ft and costs around ₹65,000. Apart from accounting for the wear and tear, the costs also include night lighting and security.
To execute a project like the one AAP has proposed would need a dedicated agency, he adds. “Someone has to take a daily report – once in the morning and the evening,” he says. “They have to check if the flag has become dirty, if it has torn... If there’s a storm coming, lower it. Sometimes, it is also taken it off at night because the winds are stronger then.”
AAP’s spokespersons Saurabh Bharadwaj and Sanjay Singh didn’t respond to Mint’s requests for comments. A day after the budget was announced, both BJP and Congress criticized AAP’s decision to raise the flagpoles as a case of misplaced priorities. Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal hit back, saying: “Whenever we see the national flag, we are reminded of the soldier fighting at the borders. I fail to understand why the BJP and the Congress have been opposing the decision.”
Ashwini Kumar, political scientist and professor at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Development Studies (TISS), said the move was less about patriotism and more about politics, “to counter the growing popularity of BJP-RSS monopolizing nationalism.”
The movement to claim the national flag as a predominant symbol of identity began in the 1990s, Kumar adds. Until then, the Flag Code of India, a list of guidelines by the home ministry on the use of the tricolour, had restricted the use of national flag by private citizens – except on select occasions – to prevent its dishonour or any disrespect to it. In 2004, industrialist Naveen Jindal won a case in the Supreme Court, paving way for a more liberal approach for citizens to hoist the Indian flag. In 2013, the Supreme Court also allowed private individuals to hoist the flags at night, as long as the flagpole was at least 100 feet or above and the flag was well lit.
“When the flag code was created in 1951, Jawaharlal Nehru famously referred to the flag as a sign of freedom, not nationalism,” says Kumar. “But, in recent years, there have been attempts to reconstitute the nation through flag as a totem object. This includes blurring the boundaries of patriotism and nationalism.”
Patriotism, says Kumar, allows for pluralism of multiple identities on the basis of language, race and ethnicity. Nationalism prescribes a hierarchy of identity: you’re Indian first, the rest is secondary. “Such hierarchy of identities, in a multilingual, multicultural society like ours, can be problematic.”