On Sunday evening, a policeman sat at the entrance of a cracker shop, its shutters down, in the Model Basti area of West Delhi. He kept a close watch on every potential customer who stopped and asked around about the shop being shut – much like other shops in markets across the Capital. “He is watching us to make sure we don’t sell anything,” said Satish Manocha, the shop owner, who has been selling crackers for more than 40 years now.
Manocha said he closed his shop on October 26, three days after the Supreme Court imposed restrictions on the use and sale of crackers in a bid to bring down galloping air pollution across India and particularly in Delhi and the National Capital Region. The restrictions included a two-hour window for bursting crackers on Diwali, cracker sales only through licence holders and a ban on online sales. The court also said only crackers that are low on emissions and noise will be allowed in the National Capital Region – though Union Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan admitted there might not be any “green crackers” this Diwali. Additionally, the court made the police station house office responsible for violations in his neighbourhood.
Despite the restrictions, Manocha plans to open his shop on Diwali, which falls on Wednesday. “I will let people take the firecrackers for free,” he said. “Let me see what the police does. They cannot stop us.”
Many other traders in the Capital plan to take their business across the border to the neighbouring states to get past the court restrictions.
The Delhi Police, for their part, had not issued a single licence for sale of firecrackers till Sunday evening – compared to an average of 500 licences a year being issued between 2015 and 2017 – police records showed. They have also had to deal with some unprecedented cases, such as a first information report registered against a resident for bursting firecrackers outside his neighbour’s door and encouraging his children to do the same on Friday.
All in all, there appeared to be some confusion in the Delhi Police on how they would go about enforcing the court’s order.
‘I will sell in Haryana’
While many traders Scroll.in spoke with said they had not received temporary licences to sell crackers, those with permanent licences also complained that the police had put a stop to all sales as they did not have the court-specified green crackers.
In Delhi’s Sadar Bazar, a major wholesale hub for crackers, shop owner HS Chhabra said he was tired of telling buyers that he was not allowed to sell firecrackers. His annoyance with the Supreme Court order was evident in the basket of green vegetables he had placed outside his shop with a poster that read, “According to the judge, these are the green crackers.”
Chhabra, who is also president of the Sadar Bazar Welfare Association, said the police had told traders that in order to receive a temporary licence, they would have to provide affidavits stating that they would only sell “green crackers” on October 25. The police also told them that they would release a list of green crackers that could be sold, he added. “We keep reminding the police but they have not shared the list with us yet,” he said.
Chhabra now plans to sell his stock of crackers in Palwal, Haryana. “That stock is worth more than Rs 2 lakh,” he said. “I will sell it in Haryana and other states.”
Other traders also complained that since no green crackers have arrived in the market as yet, the court’s condition is impossible to meet.
“I still have stock left from 2016 and 2017,” rued Manocha. “What should I do with it? The police are not allowing me to sell this because they are not green crackers. But where are the green crackers?”
Ajay Mehndiratta, another trader in Sadar Bazaar, said he had stocked up around 400 kg of fireworks in Rohtak, Haryana, and that he would try and sell his products there itself. “Since notebandi [demonetisation], they [the government] have just been banning everything,” said Mehndiratta. “This is a big injustice to us.”
Questioning the court’s stated aim to curb pollution in the National Capital Region, he asked, “If others are bursting firecrackers in neighbouring states, will the pollution from that not come to Delhi?”
First FIR after court order?
Meanwhile, in probably the first instance of police action based on the Supreme Court’s order, a resident of East Delhi’s Mayur Vihar Phase 3 was booked for bursting firecrackers outside his neighbour’s door on Friday.
The first information report against 32-year-old Damandeep showed he had been booked under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, under which a person who disobeys an order promulgated by a public servant can be imprisoned for up to a month. Some police officials, who did not want to be identified, admitted there was confusion over what sections should be invoked in the case, and that the investigating officer had taken the final decision after consulting his seniors.
Damandeep told the police he burst crackers from old stock he had at home, said Deputy Commissioner of Police (East Delhi) Pankaj Singh. “But that does not make any difference in light of the Supreme Court order,” Singh added. “It is believed to be the first such case in the country. The accused has signed a bond saying he will appear before the investigating officer and the court as and when asked.”
The police now have to prove the crackers recovered from Damandeep’s possession are not green crackers. “For this, we are about to send the recovered firecrackers to the forensic science laboratory in Delhi,” Singh said.
In his complaint to the police, the neighbour said Damandeep’s two sons had burst crackers outside his door. When he asked them not to do so, the children ran to their father. Within minutes, they returned with their father, with more crackers. The neighbour said he protested to Damandeep, who proceeded to set off a cracker outside his door, yelling, “Patakhe toh yahi phodenge.” We will burst the crackers right here. At this, the neighbour said he called up the police control room and reported the matter.
There have been other cases that have kept the police on their toes this festival season. For instance, senior officials said they have had to deal with the “bootlegging” of crackers – traders who closed their shops but still managed to sell their products by calling selected individuals to their stock hideouts. An official said they had arrested one such trader from Sadar Bazar in the past week and recovered 23 kg of firecrackers, mostly of a variety that does not make much noise. The official said a night patrol team had caught the trader selling his crackers in the dead of night and that the trader had later led the police to where he kept his stock.
The police also said they had made fewer seizures of firecrackers being traded without licences this year. Three seizures in North Delhi had led to the recovery of 600 kg of firecrackers, the police records showed.