Strict, partial ban on firecrackers sparks row ahead of Diwali festival in India

Mahesh Trivedi
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The partial but no-nonsense ban slapped on toxic firecrackers by India’s highest court to check fast-rising air pollution levels just a few days of ahead of the popular festival of Diwali has been welcomed by doctors and tree-huggers but has left the fuddy-duddy traditionalists breathing fire and brimstone.

The Supreme Court’s October 23 order restricting bursting of booming bangers only for two hours from 8 pm onwards, allowing sale of just ‘green’ crackers and by only licensed traders at that, and banning the online marketing of the noisy polluters has exploded the internet and angered politicians of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) controlling the right-leaning government of Narendra Modi.

Scores of stick-in-the-mud Hindu netizens instantly took to Twitter to howl that the two-hour rule was an attack on their religious sentiments and even threw down a gauntlet before the apex court to put violators behind bars.

An enflamed BJP lawmaker went on to trumpet that he would defy the ban by blowing up the incendiary devices even after the stipulated time, pointing out that such curbs did not exist even in the Mughal times.


Rs 80-billion industry

With the fate of the Rs 80-billion firecracker industry hanging by a thread over the burning issue, angry manufacturers in the country’s production hub in Tamil Nadu state’s Sivakasi have also decided to file a review petition challenging not only the time restrictions but also the strict norms on using only certain chemicals for making crackers.

Wholesaler Rasraj Koshti (right) says many despondent cracker traders may switch to another business. (Supplied)
Wholesaler Rasraj Koshti (right) says many despondent cracker traders may switch to another business. (Supplied)

Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers Association general secretary K Mariyappan argued that India was a federal country with different regions, different dates, time and religious significance for the festival, and claimed that it would be difficult to implement one particular time throughout the length and breadth of the country.

Rasraj Koshti, an Ahmedabad-based seasoned wholesaler, told English Al Arabiya that the ban was a double whammy for traders, having come at a time when they had been twiddling their thumbs as sales had nosedived by 50 per cent even in the current festival season with many of them who have burnt fingers thinking of switching to a new business.

Fundamental right

The firecracker dealers, however, heaved a sigh of relief that the Supreme Court, after hearing arguments from solicitous petitioners, worried manufacturers and the federal government, did not impose a nationwide blanket ban as was being demanded by environmentalists but struck a balance between the fundamental right to health for India’s 1.3 billion citizens and that of the fireworks manufacturers to carry on their trade for livelihood.

Since 2005, the apex court has been ordering either burning of crackers only during particular hours of the day or allowing their sale during specific periods, and, had, in October last ahead of Diwali, even ordered a stern ban on sparklers, cherry bombs and other explosive devices to curb the alarming air pollution levels in and around national capital Delhi.

Environmentalists claim traditional firecrackers contain significant amounts of toxic heavy metals. (Supplied)
Environmentalists claim traditional firecrackers contain significant amounts of toxic heavy metals. (Supplied)

The top court has accepted the petitioners’ argument that the particulate matter in the air stays in the lungs, leading to serious health implications, and also that air pollution poses a major threat to infants what with almost 25 per cent children being down with respiratory diseases.

Sound and smoke

Since Diwali had been turning into a festival of sound and smoke in the recent past, the court had often observed in no uncertain words that “firecrackers are not necessary to bring people together as this can be done even by distributing and sharing sweets.”

On its part, the federal government had told the judges that it did not favor a total all-India ban on sale and production of high-decibel squibs, petards and other explosive devices, and assured them that it would collaborate with pollution control boards and scientific organizations to create low sound-and-light-emitting firecrackers with inbuilt dust suppressants and lower levels of harmful chemicals.

The federal government plans to create low sound-and-light-emitting firecrackers with inbuilt dust suppressants. (Supplied)
The federal government plans to create low sound-and-light-emitting firecrackers with inbuilt dust suppressants. (Supplied)

As alternative measures to curb pollution during Diwali, the government had also suggested the production of green or eco-friendly crackers, community cracker bursting in major cities and a freeze on the production of series crackers, adding that the noisemakers could even be burst by pleasure-seekers in areas pre-designated by the state governments.

Rising pollution

But the manufacturers had been arguing that firecrackers alone were not the sole reason for rising pollution levels during Diwali, as pollution could also be blamed on clunky, gas-guzzling vehicles, construction dust and stubble burning by farmers.

“The question is whether an entire industry can be shut down citing air pollution while other industries are allowed to continue,” contended counsel for cracker factories, about 800 of which have downed shutters in Sivakasi, rendering some 800,000 people jobless.

While calling for a scientific study on the issue, counsel for the manufacturers also held out a warning that a blanket ban on fireworks would get in the way of rights granted under Article 19 (1) (g) (freedom to practice any trade, business, or profession) and Article 25 (1) (freedom to practice religion) of the Constitution.

The Sivakasi cracker producers had also insisted that an outright ban on fireworks will “disproportionately affect the right to trade, occupation, business, and religion of individuals and, therefore, a more nuanced approach should be adopted for the purposes of ensuring clean air.”

Environmentalists like Sweta Narayan said that air pollution was a huge challenge and the Central Pollution Control Board data does show a significant difference in air pollution levels before and after Diwali as devil-may-care revelers burst countless crackers to paint the town red for marking merriment.

Firecrackers traders are twiddling their thumbs with few takers. (Supplied)
Firecrackers traders are twiddling their thumbs with few takers. (Supplied)

Toxic metals

According to her, there has to be some regulation in place as traditional firecrackers contain significant amounts of toxic heavy metals in them, including lead, barium and scandium in high concentrations, all of which cause cancer and lower intelligence quotient.

Medical experts were also impressed by the idea of green crackers which cause 30-35 percent lower emission of particulate matter and 35-40 percent lower emission of Sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide, with low content of aluminum and sans barium salt as defined by the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organization.

All told, it will be difficult to enforce new rules, but with India earning the dubious distinction of having the world’s 10 most polluted cities, citizens themselves will have to execute self-discipline and self-commitment not only during the upcoming Diwali festivities but also later at other joyous occasions like weddings when the revelers go ballistic bursting ear-splitting, smoke-emitting bangers.

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