The severe air pollution in the national capital region during the Diwali festivities could be lower this year as the authorities are acting to restrain the indiscriminate bursting of firecrackers

Children carry out an awareness campaign against the bursting of firecrackers during Diwali (Photo by Right to Breathe campaign)

Children carry out an awareness campaign against the bursting of firecrackers during Diwali (Photo by My Right to Breathe campaign)

Diwali, the festival of lights that is celebrated across India, has become synonymous with severe air pollution in Delhi and the national capital region, but that could change for the better from this year.

The air quality index (AQI) in Delhi has been above 350 for the most part to the week leading to Diwali, when the pollution worsens due the burning of firecrackers. A reading of up to 50 is considered good. The levels of particulate matter less that 2.5 microns (PM2.5) have risen above 240 micrograms per cubic metre, plunging Delhi’s air quality to the “very poor” category.

It is expected that the air quality will worsen after the festival due to changes in weather conditions. Given this and on the growing demand from citizens to clean up the air of the capital, which is now counted among the world’s most polluted, the Supreme Court on October 23 restricted the use of firecrackers on Diwali across the country.

Every year, people celebrate Diwali by bursting firecrackers. These fireworks are made from copper, strontium, sulphur, aluminium, barium and similar substances, all of which emit bright and attractive colours, but also toxic smoke that adversely impacts lungs and hearts.

Despite years of anti-cracker campaigns and a petition seeking a ban on the use of firecrackers, the apex court allowed burning of crackers, but it came up with a series of conditions and restrictions to minimise the formation of smog that occurs right after Diwali.

Restricted use

The court allowed the use of crackers only between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. on the night of the festival and gave a half hour window for the New Year and Christmas celebrations. It has banned the online sale of firecrackers. Even in markets, only registered shops are now allowed to sell them.

But there is a catch this time. Only those “green” firecrackers that emit less lithium and barium (20-40% less) and follow the noise limit prescribed by the court earlier will be allowed. This order has come so close to Diwali that the court has mentioned that currently no firecracker available in the market is green, which also means technically lighting any firecracker is illegal. The court has also asked state agencies to identify spots for community celebrations.

But are these restrictions good enough to curb air pollution from crackers? Firstly, the order has come close to Diwali, giving a small margin for implementation. Last year also there was a temporary ban on the sale of firecrackers just ahead of Diwali, which was not followed effectively. Deadlines on the use of firecrackers on Diwali night have been imposed earlier as well but Delhi has always lagged behind in implementation.

Also, the apex court kept modifying its order in the next week. Sale of only green crackers is now applicable only for Delhi and its neighbouring areas, and so is the 8-10 p.m. deadline. For the rest of the country, it is business as usual.

Schoolchildren stage a march to sensitise the public about the harmful effects of firecrackers (Photo by Right to Breathe campaign)

Schoolchildren stage a march to sensitise the public about the harmful effects of firecrackers (Photo by My Right to Breathe campaign)

“The judgement has come too late for implementation. You don’t have a task force to stop illegal sale of crackers. They have made all the SHOs (police station house officers) responsible for the implementation of the order, but do they have enough power? Had this come earlier, it could have been planned better by the police,” said Rahul Choudhury, environment lawyer at Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment.

He added that the order says that “only sale of green crackers is allowed, but it doesn’t say that the sale of non-green crackers is not allowed.” He also said experts need to conduct tests to check the emission levels of green crackers.

Failure clause

Padmavati Dwivedi, Delhi-based environment activist, said that bringing in green crackers makes little sense. “When you put such parameters like the new emission levels of these crackers, it is a sure-shot failure clause. Who decides what is a green cracker and who will check?” she asked. “Diwali is a festival of light and firecrackers are not part of the tradition. Delhi’s citizens cannot afford any more poisoning of air in the name of misdirected traditions and commerce.”

When asked if the 8-10 p.m. deadline is a welcome move, Shashi Chaudhary, a resident of Delhi, who suffers from severe bronchitis around Diwali every year, disapproved of it. “In a way, you are telling everyone to burn all the crackers in one go between eight and ten p.m. It will mean that those two hours will cause intense air pollution. I don’t see how it will be good for the health of the people. At least earlier, smoke would be spread out throughout the night.”

In the meantime, municipal agencies have gone ahead and marked thousands of spots across Delhi where community burning of crackers can take place as per the court’s orders. Nidhi Srivastava, deputy commissioner, South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC), welcomed the court’s move and said that SDMC had already finalised some 1,200 spots. “It is for the benefit of people,” she said. “We will keep updating the list of spots.”

Moving towards a green Diwali

While implementation of the court’s order is challenging, there are individuals who are making a difference in their locality. In Defence Colony, located in south Delhi, SHO Arvind Sharma is going all out to sensitise people and is working with citizen volunteers to curb air pollution on Diwali night.

“We have taken volunteers from citizens and our team is going to patrol with them. These volunteers have been given T-shirts and will check those who will be burning crackers. We have intensified patrolling. We are going to each house and sensitising people. I am also sharing this initiative with SHOs of other areas. We don’t want to take punitive action under 188 IPC (Indian Penal code) at the first go so we are encouraging people to organise cultural events and exchange sweets instead of crackers,” said an enthusiastic Sharma. He has also planned a vehicle with loudspeaker that will go around disseminating anti-cracker messages.

This collaboration has been welcomed by citizen volunteer Bhavreen, resident of Defence Colony, who reached out to the police to lend support for effective implementation of the court’s order.

“Often, orders come and they are not executed. So we have formed teams of 4-5 volunteers each for every block and we will keep a check on crackers jointly with the police. We are very enthused by the support of the SHO and now this is being taken forward in other areas of Delhi as well,” said Bhavreen, who is also a strong supporter of the My Right to Breathe campaign. “As per the court’s order, it is illegal to light any cracker as only green crackers are allowed, which are not even available in the market.”

A recent WHO report has stated that 93% children in India are breathing toxic air every day. While many have scoffed at the weak order of the Supreme Court and raised concerns about poor track record of execution of such orders in the past, it will be a tightrope walk between conventional celebrations and safeguarding health and environment, the success of which will depend on the mindset of individuals.

 

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