Photo credits: Niharika Singh Chauhan. New Delhi, 2016.
Nearly two weeks ago, the Supreme Court of India ruled that only low-polluting green firecrackers may be sold for Diwali, and used only during stipulated time windows: 8 PM to 10 PM on Diwali. Provisions have also been made for Christmas and New Year’s.
With all due respect to the court, I question the refusal to impose a blanket ban on the sale and burning of firecrackers altogether. The air quality in cities is not going to be helped by anything less.
To begin with, the definition of ‘green firecrackers’ is unclear. As an average consumer, I don’t know what the pollution level of each type of firework is. So in this case, I would depend on the manufacturers, trusting them to obey the court order and sell me the less polluting version, right?
Right, just not this Diwali, an official from the Delhi Pollution Control Committee admitted.
Also, green crackers as Union Minister Harsh Vardhan describes them aren’t non-polluting—just less polluting. Because as long as you’re not emitting known carcinogens like potassium nitrate, or heart disease agents like barium, or aluminium fumes, the smoke and particulate matter and carbon emissions aren’t important! After all, magnesium is less toxic, so we shouldn’t breathing that, amirite?
Normally, I’d advocate baby steps. Rome wasn’t built in a day, millions of drops make the mighty ocean, every little is a gain, and all that. Except that Rome was gutted by one day’s fire, and like Nero, we seem content to fiddle while our cities burn.
I lived in Delhi from 2013 to 2017. The city would be routinely turned into a gas chamber for two days after Diwali. Your throat and chest would actually burn as you inhaled, wind-pipe and lungs and all. Your eyes would sting. All this, and then you’d have to contend with the exhaust from cars and buses on the road.
How do you look at a situation like that and say no blanket ban on firecrackers?
Ganukkachi in Assam has been making ‘less polluting’ crackers for 130 years now. The toobris produced are low on noise, no chemicals, no flames. To encourage manufacture, the state government has provided some infrastructure near the village. It’s slow going, but the hope is that this will boost indigenous products in the state.
We need to define standards for green crackers and to institute manufacturing units (or repurpose existing ones) for them all over the country. Livelihoods shouldn’t be disrupted, and the firecracker industry employs over 8 lakh people. However, a good chunk of these are children below the age of 14, who continue to be exploited in the sweatshops of Sivakasi despite the 1986 Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act. Moreover, most of the people working in the factories are members of Schedules Castes, because they’re ‘cheap labour’. How utterly unsurprising.
How ethical can it be to encourage an industry that routinely flouts child labour laws, workplace safety regulations, exploits the inhumane caste setup, and chokes the planet?
Spoiler: not very.
We need to ask ourselves what Diwali means to us. Is it just about firecrackers? I remember a time in my life when it was, but one year my family just didn’t buy any. No reason, except that we were all too old for it. You know what happened?
Nothing. There were just no crackers. Boohoo.
We’re not saints; we’re a bunch of kids who grew up and thought about what really matters. Diwali is a time for faith and family, and crackers have nothing to do with it. Sorry, Chetan Bhagat.
Religion is always a touchy subject in India, and never more than now. But we’re not asking for a decision on the Ayodhya Ram temple or a mosque; we’re asking for a decision that’ll allow us to breathe, to improve our quality of life. It’s disappointing that the Supreme Court hasn’t made the hard decision; taking the easy way out now will only make all our lives more difficult in the future.
Spoiler: we won’t be able to breathe. Good luck, folks.