By: Neeta Lal
A decision by some of India’s most populous states to prohibit the manufacture and sale of firecrackers in the runup to the Nov. 4 start of Diwali, the country’s biggest Hindu festival, is setting off a different kind of fireworks as a populace beleaguered by Covid-19 and other tribulations rebels against the ban.
Last week, the western Indian desert state of Rajasthan outlawed the sale and lighting of firecrackers from October 1 to January 31, 2022. Violators can be fined or jailed for the offense. This came soon after the Delhi Pollution Control Committee imposed a similar restriction in the national capital city of Delhi till January 1, 2022.
“The bursting of firecrackers under the prevalent pandemic crisis is not favorable for the cause of larger community health given the significant relationship between air pollution and respiratory infections,” the committee said in a statement.
Though a ban on Diwali firecrackers lasting through the New Year holiday season has become routine in India in recent years given spiraling pollution levels across the country, the issue has acquired an explosive dimension in these coronavirus times. Rampant unemployment, a floundering economy and closure of thousands of factories and manufacturing units which keep the wheels of the economy turning are alarming policymakers and public alike.
The flip side is that people are killed and hundreds are injured annually from fireworks during Diwali, which celebrates the triumphal return of the god Rama to his home after defeating the evil spirit Ravana. Houses and shops are often gutted and hundreds of patients with burns, eye injuries, and breathing problems are admitted to hospitals throughout the country
And be that as it may, pollution is a real concern. India is host to 22 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities, with Delhi ranked as the most polluted capital city globally, a report by Swiss organization, IQAir, said in its “World Air Quality Report, 2020.”
However, critics point out that the firecracker ban is not the solution to the problem. The Indian firecracker industry, estimated to be worth US$800 million, provides livelihood to over a million people. Manufacturers say that the pandemic has wrought large-scale devastation in the industry, and it was banking on Diwali sales to revive its fortunes. With the government ban, these hopes have been dashed.
“Due to the corona pandemic our factories were closed for months,” said N. Ulanova, general secretary of the Federation of Tamil Nadu Fireworks Traders. “We were looking forward to making good sales but now we’re feeling hopeless. Fifty percent of our sale is dependent on the states which have called for a ban on firecrackers. The ban is authoritarian and unfair.”
Sivakasi, a town in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, is the epicenter of firecracker manufacturing. In the absence of any other industries, thousands of poor families living below the poverty line – earning less than $2 a day – depend on the economic lifeline extended by firecracker manufacturers.
Daily wage-earners say the ban spells doom for them. “My parents and grandparents have all worked in the cracker manufacturing industry. Even though the chemicals pose a high risk on to our health and lives, it helps us put food on our tables. We will starve otherwise,” said Malathi, a third-generation firecracker maker. The 53-year-old added that her husband and four daughters have survived on the earnings from this industry for decades.
Srilatha, 40, another daily wage earner, said: “If you ban crackers in Delhi, Rajasthan, and other places what will happen to the workers dependent on this industry? If the government is adamant about banning crackers, how about also ensuring jobs for us? Is the environment more important than our lives?”
Manufacturers point out that any decision that has bearing on thousands of workers and other stakeholders ought to be based on scientific data. In this case, it isn’t. A 2018 report submitted by a Supreme Court-appointed committee to study the impact on the health of citizens stated that though air quality does worsen during Diwali and people report higher instances of increased coughing and more hospital visits, “it wasn’t significant statistically. A long-term study would be required to assess the long-term impacts of firecracker bursting.”
By saying that the relationship between Diwali pollution and its impact on health was “not significant statistically,” the committee implied that there was no causal relationship between cracker burning and an adverse impact on people’s health, said health activist Nitin Chaturvedi.
“The government is grabbing low-hanging fruit by trying to link pollution only with Diwali firecrackers. What action does it take the rest of the year to tackle air pollution or even other types of pollution impacting people’s health?” he asked. “They’re just making the problem worse by pretending to tackle the issue while messing up the economy.”
Others point out how year-round vehicular pollution in cities, and farmers burning residual crop waste in their fields in the northern states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana are the root of the evil.
“The government should focus on these administrative lapses and governing deficits rather than dampening the festive spirit at a time covid 19 seems to be abating. Why should we pay a price for problems the government can’t handle?” asked Prateek Choudhry, a Delhi resident.
However, the Supreme Court has supported the ban, saying it can’t infringe the right to life of other citizens "under the guise of employment of a few" in its consideration of the fireworks ban. The high court also lashed out at firecracker manufacturers for violating its 2018 judgment banning toxic ingredients like the use of barium nitrate, a noxious heavy metal, in the manufacture of fireworks. It said that the prime focus of the court is the "right to life of innocent people."
However, what is causing ambiguity is that in the past, the Supreme Court said that while deciding on a ban on firecrackers, “it is imperative to also take into account the fundamental right of livelihood of firecracker manufacturers and the right to health of over 1.3 billion people of the country”.
Caught between a confused judiciary and a buck-passing government, pandemic-weary Indian citizens have little to look forward to this Diwali.