air pollution

The Daily Fix: Supreme Court's ban on firecrackers in Delhi reflects failure of pollution board

Everything you need to know for the day (and a little more).

The Supreme Court on Monday extended the suspension on all licences that permit sale of firecrackers in Delhi and surrounding areas to November 1, implicitly effecting a ban on their sale for the upcoming Diwali festival on October 19. Bursting crackers has become an integral part of the celebrations, a reason why the order received sharp responses from the likes of writer Chetan Bhagat, who questioned the court’s impartiality.

Bhagat’s claims were partly sensational and were in the manner of communalising a primarily health and environment issue. After all, bursting firecrackers for Diwali is a fairly recent phenomenon and has very little support in ancient Hindu scriptures. But given the campaign by Hindutva groups in recent years against any attempt to take firecrackers out of Diwali, even Union Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan was not spared on Monday when he tweeted welcoming the court order. He later took the tweet down following angry responses.

Screen grab: Dr. Harsh Vardhan/Twitter
Screen grab: Dr. Harsh Vardhan/Twitter

However, the Monday order did showcase the court’s inconsistency. It was only in September that the Supreme Court relaxed the ban it originally effected in November 2016. Last month, while lifting the total ban on licences for sale of crackers, the court said:

“Unfortunately, neither is it possible to give an accurate or relative assessment of the contribution of the other identified factors nor the contribution of bursting fireworks to the poor air quality in Delhi and in the NCR. Consequently, a complete ban on the sale of fireworks would be an extreme step that might not be fully warranted by the facts available to us.” 

On Monday, the Supreme Court entertained interlocutory applications from petitioners (three infants) opposing firecrackers, and said having a ban in place between Diwalis and not during the festival may not help test the efficacy of such a move. The court wanted to have one cracker-less Diwali and see what effect it has on the pollution levels.

While under most circumstances a court-ordered ban is never considered the best way of bringing a systemic change, the Supreme Court’s hands were forced in this matter by the utter apathy shown by the Central Pollution Control Board and other governmental agencies in handling this environment and health crisis. While crackers are not the only contributors to the pollution menace in the Capital, it is an indisputable fact that ambient air quality deteriorated by over three times the average levels the morning after Diwali in 2016. And Delhi’s average air quality levels are higher than prescribed limits on most days of the year. This was one of the primary reasons for the suspension of sale licences the Supreme Court brought into force in November last year.

For many years, standards in manufacturing and sale of crackers have been violated with disdain. The court noted in September that fireworks contain many elements which the pollution board has neither studied nor has established any standards for. In fact, in a stunning commentary on the pollution board’s inefficiency, the court showed no trust in its claim that it will set the standards by September 15 and then extended the deadline voluntarily to September 30. It is not clear if the pollution board at least kept to this extended deadline. The court also asked the board to study the effect of firecrackers on health, something it is expected to complete by December 31. On the other hand, those who hold temporary licences for sale of crackers had consistently violated the provisions of the new Explosives Rules which came into effect in 2008. Stunningly, they appeared before the court asking for one more year to adhere to the rules, showing how a law, which contains crucial regulations to avoid major fire accidents, had largely remained only on paper.

While courts have been criticised for assuming the role of the executive and making policies by using special powers given under the Constitution, in matters such as the firecrackers case, the government clearly has itself to blame as it has ceded ground through its inaction. Instances such as these erode the executive’s credibility and make it difficult for the government to resist real judicial overreach.

The Big Scroll

  • The air over North India during 2016 Diwali was the worst in the world – and worse than 2015 too. 
  • How Delhi residentsstarted petitions and protests in an attempt to breathe following last year’s Diwali. 

Punditry

  1. Manish Sabharwal in Indian Express says the relationship between entrepreneurs, banks, bankruptcy is being reworked to end culture of impunity.
  2.   Responsive social and care systems for mental health issues must be pursued relentlessly, writes Vandana Gopikumar in The Hindu. 
  3. Actor Deepika Padukone on why it is important to accept depression than feeling ashamed about it. 

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