Four days before Diwali, while other kids were waiting excitedly for the festival, 9-year-old Jyotsana was dreading the day.

This year thankfully, she said, fewer firecrackers had been burnt in her south Delhi neighbourhood. Both she and her mother Avantika were hoping that the trend stayed the same or else, they said, it will get “very tough”. Once Jyotsana’s asthma worsens, it becomes extremely hard to control.

The Springdales School student was six when she was first diagnosed with “childhood asthma”. Avantika recalled the lead-up of prolonged cough and cold. “I gave her some antibiotics thinking it is common flu. Diwali was round the corner and she was playing with her friends in the evening when she ran back home. She just could not breathe on her own. By 8 pm, we rushed her to Fortis Vasant Kunj... We got to know it was childhood asthma.”

Jyotsana was admitted in the Intensive Care Unit for a few days where she was put on steroids and a few emergency medicines. She spent another four days in the ward recuperating.

Though there is succour for the family in the knowledge that all those suffering from childhood asthma grow out of it after the age of 11-12, it does not help dealing with the present.

“We have to be careful that she does not have too much of cold water or ice creams or cold drinks,” Avantika said. “Even minor colds and coughs cannot be ignored. Antibiotics and nebulisers are always at hand. In winters, if she laughs a lot or eats a lot, she begins wheezing. If the asthma attack is not controlled on the very first day, it can get completely out of hand.”

Diwali time is particularly problematic. Each time smoke levels in the air go up, Jyotsana begins complaining of chest constriction. “We live in Safdarjung Development Area and the situation is a little better here. But pollution outside our locality is pretty bad.”

The result: Jyotsana does not go out anymore. In the days before Diwali, she was a “bag of mixed emotions”. Some of her friends began bursting firecrackers since morning. “The crackers look pretty from a distance but I cannot go near. I just watch them from the window. If the smoke is less, I step out in the balcony. My friends keep calling me downstairs but how do I tell them that the smoke causes me trouble?”

Respiratory problems

According to Fortis (Vasant Kunj) Pulmonologist Dr Vivek Nangia, the annual practice of burning paddy stubble in Punjab has recently caused a surge in the number of asthmatic patients complaining of cough, cold, chest congestion and other respiratory problems. As this shows, the breathing issues relate to pollution and smog, more than firecrackers. Diwali worsens the situation, he said.

The worst affected are children below 15 years of age or the elderly. “However, we see an increased number of youth now complaining of respiratory problems,” Dr Nangia explained. “Most office-goers get stuck in traffic for long hours and get affected. Asthma starts with common cold and cough. If a person, regardless of age, is facing this every 4-5 days regularly, then a check-up is immediately required.”

In children, the symptoms are breathlessness, fatigue and difficulty in gaining weight. Smog, Diwali smoke, vehicular pollution are all reportedly contributors to the disease.

Firecracker sales

About 10 km away from where Jyotsana and Avantika live, Harsh Kumar of HK Fireworks in Jama Masjid had concerns of his own. As per him, fewer people are burning crackers nowadays as compared to the old times. Harsh Kumar called it “media conspiracy”.

Yeh sab media ki meharbaani hai (This is the media's doing). Sales are zero this year,” Kumar said a week before Diwali. Last year, he said, the cracker wholesalers had managed at least borderline sales. “This year, however, they are not even on borderline. We will suffer heavy losses if the sales don’t pick up in the coming week.”

Partly, this can be attributed to awareness campaigns in schools.

Fourteen-year-old Swasti from Delhi Public School, Vasant Kunj, has stopped burning crackers completely for the last two years. Till about four years ago, Swasti suffered from an increasingly fragile respiratory system. Her mother Seema Mehtani explained that cough was common for her during Diwali or when the weather became too cold. “We still need to protect her a lot,” Mehtani said. “We keep a nebuliser too, though thankfully, we have never needed to use it.”

In Swasti's school a special assembly before each Diwali elaborates on the ill-effects of crackers. There are regular campaigns and posters all over the school made by students. However, what has impacted her the most is the lessons she is taught as part of her course.

“I have realised that one of the main reasons for pollution in India is these things,” the 14-year-old said wisely. She now watches other kids burn crackers but does not participate in the activity.

Police intervention

Another reason for low sales this year is that Delhi Police has not issued as many licenses to sellers as the previous years.

“The smaller vendors who would buy stock from us are not coming at all,” said Mahesh, the owner of Fancy Fire Products in Kotla Mubarakpur. “Last year too, the position was low. But this time, even our popular stock like anaar, chakri, fuljhadi is lying unused.”

Joint Commissioner of Police (Licensing) S Das, when contacted, confirmed that the Delhi Police has made a “conscious effort” to minimise pollution. “The Supreme Court has cracked down heavily on the cracker sellers. Our own safety and security norms have been made much stricter.”

As a result, a large number of cracker sellers have not been able to meet the requisite safety and security norms.

Deputy Commissioner of Police (Central) Parmaditya said the department has received fewer applications this year. “Those little we received were all granted licenses. The quantity of crackers to be stocked has been restricted to 1,600 kg. The warehouse where crackers would be stored needs to have particular dimensions; mandatory fire extinguishers, safety exits and other security criteria. Chinese and certain hazardous crackers cannot be sold. Most sellers are not able to fulfil these criteria. So, they have not applied this year.”

Vehicular pollution

Despite cracker sales plummeting this year, the pollution levels continue to soar.

At 6.40 pm on November 6, five days before Diwali, the Central Pollution Control Board showed particulate matter levels – both PM 2.5 and PM 10 – at almost five-six times above permissible limits in Delhi.

The executive director of the Centre for Science and Environment, Anumita Roychowdhary, also pointed towards the increasing sulfur dioxide levels, which rise during Diwali due to the bursting of sulfur-based crackers. “This is also one of the major causes of respiratory problems,” she said.

Again, at 6.40 pm on November 6, sulfur dioxide levels increased though remained within the permissible limit of 80 µg/m³.

Roychowdhary explained that vehicular pollution in the city is already much higher than the permissible limits. “So, even if the cracker sales go down, the pollution levels remain high. The vehicular intensity due to the festival has gone up. There is too much traffic. We have 8.5 million vehicles in Delhi and we are adding 1,400 vehicles daily. So, the Diwali pollution is just an addition to the existing pollution in the city. It is very difficult to quantify cracker sales but it has still not reached  the desired levels.”

Jyotsana, however, is keeping her fingers crossed. Scores of vulnerable people like her, she said, will be “able to manage” if fellow people burn crackers “just a little less”.