How Surrey’s Vaisakhi parade gets organized
The Vaisakhi nagar kirtan is by far the biggest event held yearly in Surrey. Last year, the event, which was first held in 1999, attracted its largest-ever crowd of an estimated 260,000 people. By contrast, the annual Cloverdale Rodeo, probably the second-biggest yearly bash in Surrey, was attended by 86,000 people. What makes it even more remarkable is that the nagar kirtan is a one-day event – in fact, more of a half-day event – while the rodeo runs over a number of days.
Surrey’s Dashmesh Durbar gurdwara, who organize the nagar kirtan, expect the number of attendees to continue growing as the years go by. “The first nagar kirtan in 1999, held to celebrate the 300th year of the Khalsa, attracted about 60,000 people. It has just kept growing since then,” temple spokesman Gian Singh Gill told Desi Today.
So organizing such a huge event is no small matter. When crowds exceeding a quarter million gather in one place, it naturally involves a whole range of considerations – security, health-related issues, safety issues, various official permits and permissions, fire-safety issues, and the not-so-small matter of keeping the crowds well-supplied with nutrition. The huge amount of food distributed free during the nagar kirtan is one attraction for many people.
As temple president Davinder Singh Grewal says, there is no longer any sort of fixed date on which organization of the nagar kirtan begins. “It is now a year-round process. Even as we are approaching the home stretch for this year’s nagar kirtan (to be held on April 18), we are already preparing the various applications for permits for the 2016 parade. We will announce the date for the 2016 parade just as soon as this year’s event is concluded.
“In fact, work on some of the props for next year’s event will begin shortly after this year’s parade is concluded.”
With all that in view, one would think the organizing process is a major operation requiring high-paid professional expertise, and some sort of high-traffic organizational centre of operations. Perhaps one with lots of charts on walls, and banks of telephones manned by people indulging in constant, urgent chatter.
Well, it’s nothing of the sort. Grewal says while there is some formal organizational structure, much of the work is done on a fairly informal basis.
“Most of the people who do the work have been involved right from the beginning. After 15 years of doing it, they all know exactly what needs to be done. There is no need to issue any instructions to most of those involved, and they just go about doing what they have been doing for all these years. The only time when there is a need to issue any new instructions is whenever there’s going to be some kind of major change in the way something is done. That has almost never been the case,” he says.
“Everybody knows their part. For instance, the people who have been doing cleanup operations after the event know exactly what needs to be done, and go ahead and just do it on their own.
“Another good example is the process of building the floats that take part in the parade. There are various processes to putting a float together, and different kinds of expertise is needed. So the first step is the carpentry work to construct the skeletons for the floats. The carpenters know when to come in and do the work, and once they are done, the next group of people – for example, the decorators – will come in and do their part. Each group has its timing down perfect,” adds Gill.
That does not mean there are no new people getting involved as the years go by. “But it is not a situation where there is wholesale change of the personnel involved. It is a gradual process, and the level of knowledge and experience is always maintained at a high level. There are always enough experienced people around not just to ensure smooth organization of the event, but also to train newcomers who eventually will gain their own experience as the years go by,” says Gill.
Even the timing of when work is supposed to begin does not have to be formally set. “It’s pretty much the same cycle every year. Everyone basically knows how long something is going to take to get done, and people have nailed down their schedules based on their individual styles of working,” added Gill.
“We don’t have a separate committee to organize the nagar kirtan. The regular temple committee (which has 15 members) oversees the whole operation. However, we do set up various sub-committees dealing with specific issues. We have a sub-committee that liaises with City Hall, another to coordinate langgar (food) matters, others that deal with security, health, safety, media matters and so on,” says Gill.
The gurdwara committee does not choose who the members of each sub-committee are. “We choose individuals to head each sub-committee – and as we said earlier, they are usually the people who have been dealing with the same matters every year – and they in turn decide who is going to be part of their sub-committees. We don’t specify how many members each sub-committee should have. That is left to the discretion of the sub-committee heads. They do what they are most comfortable with,” says Grewal.
There is also no rigid reporting schedule. “We don’t usually have a sort of meeting calendar set up. Of course as the nagar kirtan gets close, we have one or two major gatherings of all the people involved – this year we held such a meeting on Sunday, March 15 – but other than that, if there is a need for communication among the people involved, it is very much done on an informal basis,” says Gill.
He says as almost all the people involved are regular visitors to the gurdwara, they are all around anyway, usually on weekends. “Almost everyone involved is usually at the gurdwara on Sundays, and discussing nagar kirtan developments are just part of the regular conversations that go on,”.
Even the external institutions who are drawn into the organization of the nagar kirtan have by now become totally familiar with their roles.
“Meetings with City Hall, the police, ambulance and healthcare services, the fire services etc. are held throughout the year, starting from a review of the nagar kirtan just concluded and going on to plan for the next one. We have a process that has been in place for years and works smoothly,” says Grewal.
“City authorities place a lot of importance on the nagar kirtan. It is one of the big events in the city every year and it has grown to an extent where the city as a whole, and not just the Sikh community in particular, benefits greatly from the huge number of people who attend,” adds Gill.
Parade is an economic bonanza
How much of an impact does Surrey’s Vaisakhi nagar kirtan make each year, especially economically?
There is no doubt it makes a major impact on various areas of public life in Surrey and B.C. in general. This year’s event on April 18 will be the 17th consecutive year the parade will be held.
The first parade in 1999 attracted 60,000 people, and the turnout has been growing every year since then, peaking at 260,000 last year – meaning total aggregate attendance over the years has almost surely run into at least a million or more.
It is naturally difficult to get accurate figures on various aspects of the event’s impact, but based on an economic-impact study done last year by a professional firm, as well as various official figures provided by the organizers and other sources, the following facts and estimates emerge:
Attendance in 2014: 260,000 people (Official RCMP estimate)
Estimated overall economic contribution to the B.C. Economy: More than $20 million last year
Policing costs (2014): $80,000
Total spending on 2014 parade by organizers and independent participants: Between $8.5 million – $16 million
Estimated expenditure per stall: Up to $50,000 for the biggest ones
Number of stalls that used gurdwara cooking facilities: 145
Total spending by out-of-town attendees: Between $14.2 million – $29.8 million
Number of full-time jobs supported by parade’s economic contribution: Up to 215
Estimated total tax revenues for various levels of government in 2014: Between $2.3 million – $4.4 million
Number of parade participant groups in 2014: About 2,500
Average length of stay:
Attendees from rest of B.C.: Seven days.
Attendees from rest of Canada: 15 days
Attendees from the U.S.: 15 days
Other international attendees: 30 days.
Gill says even at City Hall and the other government departments which are usually involved in some capacity, the same personnel have been handling nagar kirtan-related duties for many years. “So there is a familiarity not just in terms of what needs to be done, but also personal relationships that have been built over the years,” says Grewal.
The other factor which makes the organization of this event a relatively smooth affair is the enthusiastic contribution of the local Sikh community.
“This event is something that is done almost completely on a volunteer basis. We get thousands of people every year making all kinds of contributions to the effort. We are never in need of labour as hundreds willingly lend a hand. And neither do we need to source any kind of technical or other expertise because there are many within the community who have that kind of expertise and willingly use it in the service of organizing the event,” says Grewal.
He says the remarkable thing is that the majority of the volunteers are young people.
In fact, “freelance” volunteering is a large part of the whole nagar kirtan experience. “Not only are many people from the community directly involved with us in the organizing, a large part of the event itself is independently driven by people acting on their own as individuals, families or organizations,” says Gill.
Dashmesh does the formal organization, but a lot of what makes the event tick is independently organized.
The gurdwara does not put up any food stalls along the route. Those are all put up by community members or organizations. If there are any permits to be obtained or permissions to be sought from private property owners, they do it themselves. They provide their own supplies, they purchase their own groceries, and they cook and serve the food themselves,” says Grewal.
The number of stalls along the route is, like everything else connected with the nagar kirtan, large. “We know that last year, there were 145 stalls along 128 Street who used the facilities provided by the gurdwara to do their cooking. But we have absolutely no idea how many other stalls there were that did not use the gurdwara facilities at all,” Gill says.
And there are many organizations that create a presence at the parade. With such a big crowd in attendance, it is no surprise that major business, political and media organizations all set up stalls, booths and stages.
The one feature that’s on a downward trend is the number of floats allowed. “We had 30 floats at the first parade in 1999, but the number has progressively come down, and this year, we would ideally like the number of floats to be a maximum of 12,” says Gill.
The reason is traffic and crowd-safety concerns. “Floats are large structures, and the parade route is a fixed one. So the floats compete for the same space with the ever-growing crowds. The RCMP regard it as a safety issue and they have requested for the number of floats to be reduced,” adds Grewal.
It’s not going to be an easy task though, as requests to put floats in this year’s parade numbered more than 100. “If we accepted all the requests, there wouldn’t be enough space along the parade route to put them back to back in a stationary situation, let alone move!” says Gill.
Dashmesh itself puts up just one main float. Requests to put up floats come from all sorts of independent organizations hoping to make an impression on the crowd.
The large volunteer and independent element involved in the event also means hard and fast figures on various things are difficult to collect. “It’s not just out on the parade route that people independently do things. The nagar kirtan itself is just the last event of Vaisakhi celebrations that start a week earlier with the nishan sahib ceremony (raising of the Sikh flag at the gurdwara compound).
“Throughout the week, crowds are coming and going virtually non-stop at the gurdwara. And most of them donate all sorts of things in kind, mainly groceries. So while we may be able to collate figures on what the gurdwara itself spends and uses – and frankly, even that is very difficult to do in view of the non-stop operation of the gurdwara kitchen – it is impossible to accurately estimate a total for everything consumed. During that week, people also set up their own tents all around the gurdwara compound, where they cook and serve their own food,” says Grewal.
Gill says on any regular Sunday, the gurdwara serves between 60 and 70 sacks of atta (flour used to make chapatti). “So you can imagine the consumption during Vaisakhi week,” he added.
With all that in mind, it is remarkable that during its 15-year run and the large crowds that have been turning out each year, the nagar kirtan has never experienced any major emergencies or disturbances. “You have to give credit to the community for that. People obviously realize it’s a spiritual event, and conduct themselves in a responsible way, in a spirit of goodwill and celebration” says Grewal.
He added that this was not particularly unique to the Surrey event. “It mirrors how Vaisakhi is celebrated in Punjab. In Anandpur Sahib, the annual Vaisakhi celebrations attract millions, yet it is always a peaceful and joyful celebration.”
There is also a charitable aspect to the nagar kirtan.
“Because of the large amount of food made available, we get the Food Bank to set up collection areas so that people can donate appropriate non-perishable food items, such as cans of pop and water.
“Last year, the Food Bank set up collection trucks at three locations along the route. We usually request people who set up stalls to donate non-perishable items that are leftover to the Food Bank, and they usually do that,” says Gill.
Nevertheless, the organizers are also keenly aware that should something go wrong, the finger will point at them even if it is something that was completely beyond their control.
The parade in its early history was enmeshed in the conflict between the so-called “moderate” and “fundamentalist” factions for control of various B.C. gurdwaras. For a number of years, there were competing parades organized respectively by Dashmesh on one hand and the Surrey Gurdwara on Scott Road on the other. Eventually, Surrey Gurdwara stopped organizing their version of the nagar kirtan.
There’s also been some thunder generated by the politics of the moderate-fundamentalist divide, with heated and accusatory political speeches made at the parade aimed at people supporting one side or the other. Some of that political rhetoric gets played up by the local mainstream media.
A couple of years ago, someone involved in organizing the nagar kirtan publicly warned certain politicians to stay away from the event, and warned that if they attended, dire consequences could follow.
“We cannot stop individuals from saying things. In that particular case, the official organizers quickly made it clear that the individual who made the threats did not represent the views of the organizers as a team. The RCMP tackled the issue on their own,” says Gill.
“Our stand is clear. Irrespective of political differences and opinions, everyone is welcome to the nagar kirtan. It is a public event and not something that anyone owns, including the organizers.”
Gill also said the rising incidents of terrorism around the world had not led to any more stringent security requests from the police and City Hall. “We have lots of conversations with the relevant authorities, but where the attending public is concerned, they will not notice anything different.”
Another area where the organizers try to be proactive is in the area of health safety. With so many people setting up food stalls on their own, there’s always the risk that some unhygienic practices may be involved. Some years back, for instance, it came to the attention of the organizers that some stall owners had bought 2-by-4 pieces of lumber to use for steering curries cooking in big pots.
“When we found out about it, we made it a point to tell them not to do that as the 2-by-4s are processed timber and contain various chemicals,” says Grewal.
Aside from such minor incidents, however, there has never been a food-related problem. “We issue guidelines on the best practices, and people who set up stalls and serve food have adhered to them. You must remember it is also in their own interests to not end up with bad consequences from their actions,” says Grewal.
The organizers also work hand in hand with the Fraser Health Authority (FHA) to ensure food safety. “The guidelines we give out are based on FHA advice. And on the day of the event, FHA inspectors go around making inspections to make sure things are done properly,” says Gill. “We are proud that year after year, FHA post-mortems have always given a clean bill of health to how things were done.”
During last year’s municipal elections, the question of who should pay for various public services utilised for the parade, particularly security services provided by the RCMP, became an issue. The gurdwara has been asking City Hall to foot the bill for these services since the nagar kirtan makes a whopping contribution to the city’s economy (see accompanying story), and one candidate for mayor said that if elected, he would make sure the city foots the police bill for the day.
However, that candidate did not win. But Gill said there appeared to be some good news coming down soon. “We understand that there is a proposal for the city to foot up to $35,000 of the costs involved in organizing any of the big events in Surrey. However, we must emphasize that this is still in the works and has not been confirmed. If it does come about, we’ll welcome it. Any little bit to help us defray the costs will be good,” says Grewal.
So about the only thing that the organizers worry about every year is that it might rain on the parade!
– BACHAN RAI