The Cherry Blossom Festival concluded on November 27. The 2021 event, which was organised after a year owing to the pandemic, did not make much impact, and would be remembered for the wrong reasons.
The three-day festival started with a political turmoil in the state as the Trinamool Congress, the West Bengal-based party led by Mamata Banerjee, made inroads into Meghalaya with 12 MLAs of the Congress shifting allegiance. On Day 1 of the festival, the chief minister was seen reacting to the political development at one of the festival venues. The green had already taken over the shades of pink and white.
As festive fervour gradually took over political games in the state on Day 2, another ruckus was in the making. With thousands of people turning up at Polo Ground, one of the two venues for the festival, the authorities lost all control. The city, which had hosted numerous festivals and concerts in the past, witnessed violence. The police had to step in to control the crowd and used tear gas to keep them at bay. Instead of condemning the incident or apologising to citizens, the chief minister reacted by saying there would be no festival next year. This reporter did not visit Polo Ground after the fiasco.
Day 3 saw big names in Indian literature and cinema adorning the stage at Ward’s Lake, another festival venue. But the biggest disappointment was the talk show with internationally acclaimed author Amitav Ghosh. The festival brochure did not mention that the conversation with Ghosh, led by author Janice Pariat, will be virtual and several visitors waited earnestly to hear the author speak on stage about his new book, The Nutmeg’s Curse. Pariat too was moderating the show virtually. With no critical discussion on the book and related issues, the talk show could barely pique anyone’s interest.
But the gravest reason for which the festival would be remembered was complete discarding of healthcare protocols.
In its excitement to organise the festival, the state government forgot that the pandemic is not yet over and allowed crowding. There was no check on the number of visitors. A strict guideline mandating visitors to wear masks and carry sanitiser was absent, giving the public the opportunity to go berserk. A majority of the visitors to the festival venues were without masks. None of the food stalls at Ward’s Lake insisted that buyers use sanitiser.
One of the government’s guidelines said anyone below 12 years of age would not be allowed at the festival. However, there was rampant flouting of the rule as parents took the risk of bringing their children to the crowded venues.
Showing the double vaccination certificate at the gate was not mandatory at Ward’s Lake. The checking was there at Polo Ground but a few revellers whom Sunday Monitor spoke to said several visitors used fake certificates to enter the festival venue.
Omicron, a highly transmissible variant of Covid virus has been detected in South Africa even as the world has been alerted about an imminent third wave. While scientists around the globe are watching carefully the nature of the variant, the state government ignored all healthcare protocols and failed to manage crowd at the festival.
The citizens, on the other hand, let down their guard in the momentum of frolicking. When asked about the missing mask, a young visitor looked around her and said, “Nobody is wearing and I do not think there is any restriction on that.”
Where’s the money
The state government earmarked Rs 3 crore for organising two festivals — Megong in Garo Hills and Cherry Blossom in Shillong. It is surprising how it managed to loosen its purse strings at a time when the pandemic has weakened its already wobbly economy.
Thousands of small-time traders, daily wage earners and street vendors suffered irreparable losses in the past one and a half years as the state imposed total lockdown to check spread of Covid-19 infection. Of them, many are yet to receive compensation from the government. In a situation like this, an elaborate festival is akin to obscene show of extravaganza.
As Meghalaya prepares for the golden jubilee celebration of its statehood early next year, one wonders what the government would boast about other than its festivals and exorbitant expenditure. Though it may like to think that the Cherry Blossom Festival is a coveted feather in its cap, the truth is it is only a withered feather.