Come October/November and colleges across the country will be getting ready for a series of college festivals. These are annual cultural events that are hosted by various colleges, where students can go to different colleges and participate in a wide variety of events that range from purely academic to sheer fun.
At one such festival, ‘Saarang’ held at IIT Chennai in January 2005, the focus shifted from the actual goings-on at the festival to what’s rarely talked about these days: the environmental and social cost of cultural festivals. What’s interesting is that the initiative behind this project came from the students of four different colleges in Chennai and Vellore and those at IIT, Chennai.
What were the findings?
The project’s findings were somewhat disturbing:
- Fun is always linked to selling something, whether it’s a gadget, a fashion statement or an attitude. So, youth culture is only visible through the lens of a corporate sponsor.
- Pepsi and Nestle were the two most visible corporate names in the trash that was collected. More than 63,000 cups bearing the above brandnames had been used and thrown away. Organic waste was mixed in with the paper and plastics dumped near the catering area.
- The IIT’s deer and blackbuck population, in particular, are at risk from plastic waste. Thermocol when burnt releases toxic fumes including phosgene.
- Nokia, Hutch and Sunsilk shampoo were visible in terms of the noise pollution because they ran the loudest jukeboxes!
- All the sponsors that use aggressive PR to splash their brandnames are involved in pitched battles with impacted communities that face acute water shortages, are exposed to toxic waste and are denied a means of livelihood.
Are ‘green’ festivals possible?
As this is a question that’s rarely, if ever, asked, the alternatives are seldom explored. The ever-increasing glamour, noise and money power generated by festivals convinces us that no change is possible.
Students vs students
Behind all the glitz and glamour of these festivals lies another hidden reality that’s gradually surfacing, at the cost of pitting students against one another. The time has come to take note of this.
It’s not about students who are ‘in’ the system and those who ‘stay away’ from such events. The problem is a deeper one, of growing alienation. Whilst the former insist they are accused of being hand-in-glove with the corrupt system, the latter believe that their ‘take’ on things is not being considered.
The real enemy here is a ‘corporate culture’ that has dug its claws deep into our lives, and transformed what is essentially a space and event that belongs to the youth into one that showcases corporate might. We go to companies for money and sponsorship; they use our festival to advertise. Can this be called an even playing field?
- The amount of money one gets depends on the institution, the event being organised (an academic talk will get much less than a rock show will), and the department that’s involved (the commerce department will get much more than the English department).
- Sponsors make demands about how they use our space. They can withdraw at any point, on any grounds.
- With each passing year, our dependency increases and so does our budget. And the competition stops being healthy, with colleges doling out larger and larger sums for prize money.
The project to assess the environmental and social costs of festivals found expression in a film that is tellingly named Hangover. Not only does Hangover highlight the problem, the very effort that goes into making such a film is suggestive of an alternative. We need to ask ourselves:
- Can festivals cost less?
- Can we rope in only small, environment-friendly sponsors?
- Can we have events that are high on imagination and need less money?
- Can we restore the sense in students that this is their event, so many more join in rather than stay away?
(Data on the project’s findings was taken from ‘Trash Culture: A Study of Garbage and Youth Culture’, Green Festival Initiatives, August 2005. Thanks also to ‘We feel Responsible -- a Youth Initiative’, Chennai, for sharing their ideas)