Over the last few years, in the weeks leading up to the festival of Diwali, it has become an annual custom for the Supreme Court to pass orders regulating the manufacture and sale of firecrackers. Simultaneously, however, the court also points out that its directions are not being properly enforced.

Scroll spoke to experts about why the Supreme Court’s directions are not implemented on the ground. The problem: while judicial regulation of firecrackers is a good start, it is not sufficient to solve the air pollution crisis being experienced by the National Capital Region. Most of these experts were clear that nothing short of a complete ban on the use of firecrackers is required.

Slew of directions since 2015

Since 2015, well over a hundred orders have been passed by the Supreme Court as part of a public interest litigation filed on behalf of three infants living in Delhi. Their petition demanded, among other things, a complete ban on the use of fireworks.

In September 2017, about five weeks before Diwali that year, the court had issued a slew of directions regulating firecrackers in Delhi. It said that compounds of antimony, lithium, mercury, arsenic and lead cannot be used in the manufacture of fireworks and that the number of licences for the sale of fireworks as well as the quantity of fireworks sold in Delhi be halved in 2018 compared to the previous year. It also directed the executive authorities to designate silent zones in which firecrackers could not be burst.

In October 2018, about two weeks before Diwali, the court made note of the concept of less polluting crackers that it described as “green crackers”. It ordered that after that, only green crackers would be allowed to be manufactured and sold through licensed vendors.

It banned the sale of fireworks online, prohibited the manufacture of any crackers containing barium as well as joined fireworks (series crackers or laris) and designated specific hours at night when firecrackers could be burst on festivals. Some of these directions were made applicable beyond Delhi to the whole of India.

In October 2021, about a week before Diwali, the court reiterated its directions from October 2018, especially regarding the ban on barium-based firecrackers across the country and the use of green crackers.

In September this year, the court reiterated that the ban on barium-based and joined firecrackers still stands.

In several of its orders over the years, the court has asked statutory bodies of the Union government such as the Central Pollution Control Board, the Fireworks Development Research Centre and the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation to conduct studies on the safety limits of various metals and constituents used in fireworks.

It has also specified that if its orders were violated, accountability would would be fixed across the chain of command: the Chief Secretary and Home Secretary of the state and the Commissioner of Police of the area to the District Superintendent of Police of the area and the Police Officer in charge of the police station.

However, no such studies have been published so far. Despite taking note of violations on several occasions, the court has not made any executive authorities personally liable for violations of its directions.

Most glaringly, the court and the government are yet to settle on the exact chemical formulation of so-called green crackers, making the order regarding the manufacture only of green crackers a hollow directive.

Supreme Court of India

Why are the court’s orders not followed?

Experts told Scroll that the court’s intervention, while much needed, lacks teeth due to the absence of accountability for their enforcement.

Pooja Dhar, an advocate-on-record who has been involved in the firecracker litigation from the petitioners’ side at the Supreme Court, pointed out that only the manufacture and sale of firecrackers has been regulated by the court. Those using firecrackers must also be punished, she said. “End consumers must be made responsible,” she said.

Lawyer Rohan Thawani, who has also been represented the petitioners in the firecracker litigation, acknowledged that the “court is doing what the executive should have done a long time ago”. However, the lax enforcement of the court’s directions had rendered them “paper orders”, he said.

“Strict action is required,” Thawani said. “Contempt proceedings may be initiated by the court against executive authorities for not enforcing its directions.”

Unscientific directions

In addition, the court’s orders regarding timings for firecracker usage and green crackers may not be scientifically sound, according to experts.

R Subramanian, Sector Head, Air Quality at Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy, a Bengaluru-based think tank, said that the the bursting of firecrackers at night, rather than celebrations being spread out through the day, actually increases pollution. “People will burst the same number of firecrackers in greater concentration during the designated hours at night,” he explained. “The emissions won’t go anywhere.”

Regarding the use of green crackers, writer and journalist Jyoti Pande Lavakare, who is the author of Breathing Here Is Injurious to Your Health, said that “green” firecrackers do not actually exist. “All firecrackers are polluting,” she said. “They produce not just smoke, which is PM2.5, but also generate toxic chemicals that shouldn’t be inhaled by humans or even animals.”

Particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns (or about a ten-thousandth of an inch) is particularly dangerous to human health.

The situation, especially in Delhi, is already so dire that bursting low-pollution fireworks is not effective enough to reduce emissions, Pande Lavakare said. “No one should even be considering it as an option,” she advised. “Use drones or laser shows instead!”

Subramanian agreed. “Why try for 30% less emission when you can have zero emission?” he asked. “It is best to avoid firecrackers altogether.”

File photo of vendors selling firecrackers. | Sanjay Kanojia/ AFP

Complete firecracker ban needed

Both Dhar and Pande Lavakare said that an absolute ban on manufacturing and using firecrackers is the only effective solution to pollution.

Some have contended that a ban would put put tens of thousands in the firecracker sector out of work. But Dhar pointed out that the firecracker industry is known for rampant child labour and that several workers lose lives each year in cracker factory mishaps.

“The right to life of every person who is affected by air pollution must take precedence over the right to livelihood of those employed by the fireworks industry,” she said.

Pande Lavakare suggested that if it is not possible to completely ban crackers, then their usage must be linked with an area’s air quality index. “Set a threshold of, say, a maximum AQI [Air Quality Index] of 80-100 so that crackers are allowed to be used in an area only when the AQI is below 100 there,” she said. AQI values at or below 100 are considered to be satisfactory.

Dhar emphasised that unlike the burning of coal or petrol, which have are necessary for the economy, the burning of firecrackers is not vital to the public interest. “If we have to reduce emissions that cause pollution, this should be the first target,” she said.

Pande Lavakare agreed: “Firecrackers are completely unproductive”.

She said that the government must set up a comprehensive and pervasive public messaging campaign to make people understand the rationale for banning firecrackers. According to her, the Covid public awareness campaign is a perfect blueprint.

“During the pandemic, whenever we would make a phone call, we would listen to Amitabh Bachchan telling us about Covid and how to save oneself from it,” she said. “The government should do something similar to tell people about why they should not use firecrackers”.

She added: “People must understand that bad air affects not just the lungs and the heart, but all their organs.”