By Saoumya Vashisht:
In the 19th century, two brothers, Ayya Nadar and Shanmuga Nadar came to Kolkata in search of their fortunes and worked in a match factory. The brothers could visualize the abundance of opportunities that the industry would bring with itself. Taking that vision, they returned to Sivakasi and opened a match factory there. In the year 1940, the Explosives Act was amended, making the manufacture of a certain class of fireworks legal. The Nadars got a foot in the door and created the first firework factory in Sivakasi. They worked hard and promoted the association of fireworks with Diwali, their promotion was in sync to how Diwali is incomplete without bursting crackers. The trend took off and by 1980, there were 189 factories in Sivakasi supplying fireworks all over the country. Started as a business venture, firecrackers then became a ritual and an indispensable part of Diwali celebrations in India.
The glory of these pyrotechnical mixtures has only increased over the years due to the augmenting population and economic prosperity of the Indian middle class, especially in the last three decades and with ready supply coming in from the flourishing domestic industry. While the fireworks industry made hay as the sun shone, the air we breathe kept on deteriorating. Studies based on recorded data have shown that the pollutant concentrations in air increase manifold during the Diwali season with average increases of 6 to 7 times in suspended particulate matter and twice in sulphate plus nitrate levels, as compared to a typical winter day value. These concentrations shoot up to 12 and 5 times respectively on the night of Diwali whereas the metal concentrations increase by 50-60 times.
This issue of un-breathable air served as the bone of contention in the 2015 petition of Arjun Gopal and Ors. Vs. Union of India & Ors., which brought soaring levels of air pollution in the public eye, making it a national concern. Several remedial actions were taken to tackle the problem over the next two years, including a ban on the sale of crackers in 2016. The ban imposed by the apex court brought some relief to the air as the union environment ministry said, that the AQI which was 426 and 425 on Diwali and post-Diwali day, respectively, in 2016, reduced to 326 and 367 in 2017. The year 2017 saw positive changes with respect to air pollution in Delhi due to a number of steps taken by Union Government, State Governments and Government of Delhi. One of the main steps taken by Delhi Government is the banning of inflow and sale of Chinese crackers, this issue has been said to be approached with a political agenda, fuelled by Beijing’s continued support of Pakistan and its blocking of India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group. However on the forefront, the concern was expressed to be the virulent air of the capital. Special teams were put together by the government to not only enforce the ban on Chinese crackers but to also resolutely follow the ban on potassium chlorate (a heavily polluting agent used in Chinese firecrackers) which was imposed in 1992, as well as to help the Indian manufacturers thrive.
Indian manufacturers refer to themselves as primary stakeholders to this discussion stating that their monetary interests cannot be sidelined. Their main submission pertains to firecrackers not being the cause for the current state of apathy, they contend that the months of October and November bring with themselves a grim situation in Delhi as a result stubble burnings in the states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh; low wind speeds; and a drop in temperature raising pollution levels, making it common for the city to reach a count of 400-800s ug/m3 in few areas during Diwali season. In summation, they view crackers as a single day activity to express joy, with not much impact or addition to the already existing levels of pollution. This fascination with crackers stems from the joy of watching colours shoot up in the sky. However it is necessary to recognise that, all these colours come with a cost. This price is paid by the consumers as well as the environment to these manufacturers in kind, through constant degradation. The wellbeing of users is jeopardized due to the composition of these crackers which consists of Lithium Compounds that produce the blazing reds, Barium Nitrates that produce the glittering greens and Aluminum produces sparkly whites, making all of us believe that all that glitters is actually strontium. These chemicals expose us to a risk of various health hazards, namely, cancer, dermatitis, bio-accumulation. In addition to that, acid rain and contamination of groundwater are the result of their usage.
A bearing of anti-cracker campaigns has brought about social and behavioural transformation among people, making it susceptible for a gradual change to take place, however immediate measures taken by the lawmakers are seen to be all words no action. The need of the hour requires us to look beyond quick gratification and churn out the consequences of bursting crackers, there is no shine down that road. It is not only a cost unworthy of being paid economically but is also a hazard for the ecosystem. It is for the people to realize that they are at the moment playing dice with death by not acting upon it.
The author is pursuing her BA (LLB) from Amity Law School, IP University. She is currently interning with Chintan’s Voice for Waste team.