It is the same story each year. Come October, as the air in North India turns cooler after months of dry, crackling heat followed by sodden muggy warmth, it starts. The air, freshly cleaned by the monsoon rain, gradually turns poisonous, becoming heavy with insidious particles of particulate matter, especially PM 2.5 (particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less in diameter). Usually, the first culprit is the billowing smoke from the burning of crop residue in neighbouring farms in Punjab and Haryana and to a lesser extent, Uttar Pradesh. But the second acute – and more avoidable – trigger is Diwali fireworks, which release not just PM 2.5 and gases but also heavy metals like barium, strontium, aluminium and others, which enter our nose, mouth and lungs before settling in forever in some inner organ, setting off diseases that we may have had a chance to avoid.
Air pollution scientists and doctors have emphasised that high episodic air pollution events (like one night of Diwali) set off higher all-cause mortality. They also trigger those with pre-existing respiratory and cardiac ailments, the elderly and young, especially as the effects of the firecrackers remain in the air for up to one month after Diwali.
It is in this context that the Supreme Court’s judgement on Tuesday banning all high-emission fireworks such as sparklers, Catherine wheels, rockets, flower pots, and especially joined fireworks called ladis is very welcome. By stopping short of a blanket ban and permitting qualified “low-emission” or “green” firecrackers (of which there are none in the market at present, making this tantamount to a complete ban), the court has, in effect, upheld democratic principles while balancing them with the well-being and collective health of its citizens.
Covering a lot of ground
The first thing that is significant in this judgement is that it bans not just the sale (both retail and online) but also the manufacture of such items. This immediately gets to the root of the problem and has a more far-reaching impact than the court’s decision last year to ban only the distribution of fireworks, not their manufacture, in Delhi and the National Capital Region. Additionally, by explicitly bringing e-commerce sites into its judgement, the court has plugged another loophole exploited by some last year.
The second point of significance is that this is a national ban, which means the court implicitly recognises that air pollution is a national problem affecting the entire population of the country, not just a problem in North India, as some assume or would like to have others believe.
Equally importantly, the court has included all firecracker-worthy festivals even-handedly, taking away the religion card that some lobbies use as a red herring to divert attention, and thus neatly sidestepping the politicisation of what is a national health emergency
So, by making this year’s judgement more inclusive – bringing manufacturing as well as consumption into its ambit and making it about the entire nation and all festive events rather than any one region or religion – the Supreme Court has strengthened its own hand.
Next, by making a government agency such as the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation responsible for cracker emission certification, the court has managed to give back the job of ensuring the safety of citizens to the government – or at least remind it of its responsibilities. Additionally, by making the same organisation responsible for the disposal of all leftover stocks, the court has closed yet another loop – that of responsible disposal. Last year, some elements intent on politicising a serious health hazard had distributed firecrackers from leftover stock in low socio-economic communities, brazenly flouting the intention of that year’s order.
Another important thing the Supreme Court has done is recognise that enforcement is key. By specifically naming the police station house officer as the one responsible for any violations in his area, it has put some power back in the hands of vulnerable citizens. This means that any inaction on reports of the sale of prohibited fireworks, their use or bursting in non-designated areas or times will make the police complicit and the station house officer can be hauled up for contempt of court, a jailable offence. Also, by talking about designated areas, the court has paved the way for community celebrations rather than random individual shows of wealth, which may cumulatively, over time, reduce the collective negative health impact.
Over to government, citizens
This “restricted” ban may be just one small step towards cleaning our toxic air, but it is an important one and a great place to begin. Some activists have labelled it “limited”, and seem unhappy with its light touch. However, if enforced strictly, this ruling not only has the potential for a greater and more far-reaching impact than last year’s complete ban on cracker sales, but also the ability to quietly consolidate all gains made from that.
So how has the court managed to do that? One, as stated already, is by making this year’s judgement more inclusive.
But the real reason why this judgement does not come across as uni-dimensional is because clearly, the court has tried to understand the intent behind the petition, which is about the collective negative health impact of such an unproductive activity whose only use is entertainment, a luxury that a developing country with dirty air like India just cannot afford in its singleminded pursuit of growth. In fact, it is often overlooked that the plaintiffs have not just petitioned against firecrackers but against all issues concerning pollution, including crop stubble burning and vehicular emissions. It is the court that has chosen to rule on the subject of firecrackers, probably finding that to be low-hanging fruit and relatively easier to enforce and control compared to other pollution sources.
In any event, this judgement will have many positive effects. Primary among these will be bringing awareness to all socio-economic classes at once, including the very demographic protesting the ban, which is good, because everyone with lungs and organs suffers the ill-effects of the post-Diwali chemical soup. Air is the ultimate democratiser that cuts across all lines, be they socio-economic, caste, gender, religion or race. The judgement will also highlight the willingness and intention (or lack of it) of governments and their enforcement agencies to take such an important matter seriously and give it the attention it deserves. And if enforced strictly, it will take away at one stroke the single biggest contributing factor that kicks off the season of poor air in Delhi.
For now, this is the best the Supreme Court can do. It has shown the way, and it is now up to the government, enforcement agencies, political parties, corporations and, most importantly, aware and vigilant citizens to take this forward.
Jyoti Pande Lavakare is a Delhi-based journalist and co-founder of Care for Air (careforair.org), an awareness and advocacy non-profit whose mission is the pursuit of clean air.