The people of the state fought to keep their tradition alive when a ban was passed on jallikattu years ago, but it hasn’t prevented animal rights activists from fighting to stop the sport with equal fervour. This year, members of the healthcare fraternity have joined the chorus. Doctors opine that a huge gathering, especially in such closely packed spaces, like the vadivasal (the bull running space) and the adjoining spectator stands, is a recipe for a super-spreader event.
As many as 50 doctors and representatives of PETA had written to Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami and Health Minister C Vijaya Baskar demanding that the events scheduled for Mattu Pongal Day are cancelled keeping in mind public safety. The call has fallen on deaf ears as the state will not only allow jallikattu to be conducted sans any hitches, but it has also decided to award a car to the best player, and the best bull (the owner of).
This week, the small town of Avaniyapuram, Madurai, saw a disregard of rules as hundreds of bull owners thronged a school where tokens were being distributed for participation in the bull-taming events. Social distancing was a far cry as several potential participants were not even wearing masks. Many owners who returned home empty-handed lamented about the shoddy manner in which the distribution was planned.
In the past, anywhere between 750 to 800 bulls, and as many tamers were allowed to be part of the event. This year, owing to COVID, the number has whittled down to half as many bulls and tamers. The District Collector of Madurai, T Anbalagan had said on Monday that the event in Alanganallur was scheduled to be held on January 16. And TN has offered guidelines for the event such as pre-COVID tests for tamers and a 50 pc occupancy cap on spectators at the venue, as well as mandating social distancing. Be reminded — the capacity of the Alanganallur arena is about 70,000 people. Those familiar with the sport were critical about the state capping the number of bull tamers to 300, and the number of caretakers for each bull to two persons — a number they feel will be inadequate in the event of an emergency. They also objected to the use of the mask, an accessory that they believe could hinder vision and endanger lives if animals turned aggressive and charged at tamers.
It is worth recalling that jallikattu has taken a toll on TN. As per data in the public domain, post legalisation in 2017, the bull-taming events have witnessed 57 human fatalities and the deaths of 22 bulls in the state. Over 3,600 people have suffered injuries too. A distant cousin of the jallikattu is the Running of the Bulls, held annually in the Spanish town of Pamplona during the festival of San Fermin. In July, it was reported that the event was cancelled for the first time in 2020 owing to the pandemic.
But closer home, it seems evident that the hazard posed by the sport to human or animal life is the least of the concerns, about the polity, the organisers, and the communities participating in it. The choice to ignore the consequences of any such event during the pandemic is reckless on the part of the government which appears to have decided to keep the masses happy in a crucial election year. One only hopes the state government will not get another rap on the knuckles from the Centre, as it did for allowing 100 pc occupancy in theatres. Though at this stage, a minor embarrassment may be better than another outbreak or cluster at a time when Tamil Nadu is slowly limping back to normalcy.