India’s latest salvo against China is not to be sniffed at. Ahead of Diwali, the country’s biggest religious festival, a campaign is urging patriotic Indians to swap once popular, cheap Chinese-manufactured festive lights for environmentally friendly oil lamps made from cow dung.
Behind the campaign is the Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog (RKA), a group set up last year to conserve the nation’s population of cows, viewed as sacred by Hindus – India’s majority religion.
The RKA hopes to produce some 330 million oil lamps, known as diyas, each of which will cost between 4 rupees and 20 rupees (S$0.07 to S$0.36).
More than 15 states – including Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh – have agreed to be part of the campaign and 300,000 cow dung diyas are to be lit in Ayodhya, in Uttar Pradesh, and another 100,000 diyas in the holy city of Varanasi.
In recent years, cheap Chinese-made LED lights have flooded the market and on some accounts India imports 10 billion rupees worth of the lights from China and a few other countries every year.
However, growing tensions between India and China – whose troops have been locked in a sometimes deadly stand-off along the countries’ disputed Himalayan border for the past six months – have led New Delhi to rethink its business dealings with Beijing.
Since the beginning of the stand-off it has banned 218 Chinese apps and terminated multiple contracts with Chinese companies, while Indian traders have launched campaigns to boycott Chinese goods.
This is not the first time the RKA, which is part of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government’s Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairy, has proposed cow dung as a novel solution to a problem.
Previously it suggested using chips made from cow dung to reduce radiation from mobile phones.
Part of the appeal of cow dung is its vast availability – India produces almost 2 billion kilograms daily.
Buying goods made from dung also ensures local workers benefit. Making diyas in India has traditionally been a small-scale handicraft industry.
Among the fans of the campaign is Meenal Singh Deo, in Dhenkanal, Odisha. She has bought cow dung diyas from the Kanha Gaushala cow shelter in Jhansi, run by a team of 18 women, who are the sole bread-winners of their families.
“The dung lights are so inexpensive and eco-friendly that this year I have made a conscious attempt not to buy Chinese lights,” says the 52-year-old, who runs a heritage homestay. “I am going to use a mix of earthen lamps from potters and those made of cow dung.”
Diyas are especially popular during Diwali, a Hindu festival which symbolises the victory of light over darkness and good over evil. Nearly eight in 10 of India’s 1.3 billion population are Hindus, though Sikhs and Jains also celebrate Diwali.
Hard habit to break
Despite the campaign, Chinese-made LED lights still hold an appeal for consumers. As Rakesh Kumar, a dealer in lights in Chennai, puts it: “People prefer Chinese products because of their low cost and variety.”
At Delhi’s Bhagirath Palace, the biggest electrical goods market in India, with more than 2,000 wholesalers, traders deal in all kinds of lights but the majority are imported from China.
Satish Gupta, a dealer, says the rope lights he sells are made in China and are still popular. He sells a roll of 25 metres for about US$10 (S$13) and also sells a packet of 15 electric Chinese-made diyas for about US$2.
“We still see a demand for these lights as they are convenient, easy to use and need no oil or maintenance,” he says.
But the dung lights have other things going for them. As Tanya Bansal of the Kanha Gaushala cow shelter explains, her products do not leave any toxic residue and when the user wants to dispose of them they can be used as fertiliser.
“Some diyas even have ingredients like lemongrass, which can keep away mosquitoes while burning,” she says.
The Kanha shelter makes the lamps by drying and powdering the dung, then adding compostable adhesives like tamarind seed paste as well as some wet dung to help it bind. Dried herbs are added for fragrance and preservation.
The malleable paste is then shaped into diya moulds, and dried in the sun before being painted and decorated.
There are other uses for the shelter’s dung – it can insulate floors in rural homes and be burned as fuel. In recent years, even cow dung soaps have been made, mixed with Fuller’s earth or sandalwood.
The RKA chairman Vallabhbhai Kathiria says apart from generating business opportunities for thousands of cow-based entrepreneurs, the use of dung products is good for the environment.
Chennai restaurateur Hemal Pujara is among those buying cow dung diyas this year. She says cows are like gods in Indian culture and their dung is pure.
“Burning these diyas will purify the home,” she says. “This is a good home-grown initiative which I want to support.”
But she won’t be giving up the Chinese LED lights altogether. “They still feel festive and the kids love them,” she says.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.