Phagwah in Ozone Park will be safe: Co-founder

By Alex Davidson

Ramesh Kalicharran, who adapted the India parade in Manhattan to include Guyanese influences in 1990, said residents' fears that parade participants could substitute anthrax or other lethal powdery substances for the official abrack, a pinkish powder, come from a lack of understanding.

“This is all tradition, 5,000 years old,” Kalicharran said. “The themes (of Phagwah) are the triumph of good over evil and a commemoration of spring.”

He added: “It is a festival of colors.”

Participants in the Phagwah Parade spray the liquid and toss the powder in the air along the parade route. It is a tangible symbol of the color celebration.

Betty Braton, chairwoman of Community Board 10, said she and representatives of Community Board 9 have been meeting with parade organizers to ensure both participants and southwest Queens residents are safe during the celebration scheduled for Sunday, March 14. She said the best way to guarantee the safety of the Queens community is to have the Phagwah celebration on private land rather than through the city's public streets.

“There should be an active prevention,” Braton said. She said she was trying to encourage organizers of the Phagwah Parade to hold their celebration in a controlled environment away from a majority of residents.

The parade, which also features large floats, will start at noon at the intersection of 133rd Street and Liberty Avenue. The more than 50,000 expected attendees will then continue along Liberty Avenue and turn onto 97th Avenue, with an eventual grand finale at the end of the route at Smokey Park. There officials and honorees will address parade-goers.

A community affairs officer with the 102nd Precinct worked with the Indo-Caribbean community to expand the parade's route through the borough's streets in both Richmond Hill and Ozone Park. During the past decade, according to Kalicharran, the Phagwah celebration has become an institution in the southwest Queens neighborhoods.

Kalicharran said he and others created Phagwah, based on the Hindu holiday Holi, after they saw the Hindu parade in Manhattan and decided to introduce the festival in Queens but with a more Caribbean feel.

Harpreet Singh Toor, president of the Sikh Cultural Society that has a gurdwara in Richmond Hill, said civic leaders' attempts to regulate the materials used in the event and the parade route for Phagwah were inappropriate. He said his frustration at potential regulations comes from previous hate crime incidents against his fellow Sikhs, who were mistaken for followers of Osama bin Laden in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“We are talking about taking away the liberties of people one day at a time,” Toor said. “This is something that is too much. It is like using those terrorism terms to stop people from celebrating their festivals.”

Toor, who said he usually participates in the Phagwah festivities, questioned why civic leaders are expressing their concerns about the Guyanese-Hindu celebration while remaining silent about other mainstream holiday parades such as those for St. Patrick's Day or spontaneous ticker-tape events held when sports teams win national championships.

“If I was celebrating my festival, would I damage my family?” Toor asked.

Mary Ann Carey, district manager for Community Board 9, said she suggested Phagwah participants throw confetti instead of their traditional powder and liquid to make residents feel safer. She said the sealed packages in which the pink powder is enclosed presents a unique problem for police and other city authorities.

But she said Phagwah was being examined like any other celebration. She cited the monitoring of alcohol consumption at mainstream holiday celebrations as a regulation similar to those sought by civic leaders concerned with the Phagwah parade.

“Any time someone wants to do damage, they can do it at any of these gatherings,” Carey said. “There are problems at any type of gathering. There are people who do dopey things.”

Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

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