In what has now become a recurring annual story, last-minute announcements about restrictions on firecrackers during Deepavali last weekend created needless confusion among manufacturers, retailers and the general public.

If the government was truly concerned about firecrackers and their impact on air pollution, especially during the pandemic, it should have introduced a policy well in advance rather than a blanket ban introduced late in the day.

Reducing emissions from firecrackers cannot be achieved overnight. It requires a stable multi-year policy that balances public health concerns, the economic interests of the industry and workers, and the cultural sensitivities of the common people.

Moreover, the air pollution crisis in India calls for a comprehensive multi-source, round-the-year, nationwide approach. Addressing the air pollution crisis needs both a scientific lens for mitigating emissions from the major sources, as well as a social justice lens on who is made to bear the costs.

Two gaps

Despite the well-understood contribution of sources like industries, vehicles, waste burning, and road and construction dust, air pollution gets portrayed as a seasonal issue with firecrackers and stubble burning as the main culprits. This reveals two major gaps in the air quality debate in the country.

First, instead of looking for permanent, long term solutions to the crisis, government effort stops at knee-jerk, piecemeal actions on episodic sources. Second, while the farmers and firecracker manufacturers are made scapegoats, influential sectors like power, real estate or automobile manage to avoid the proportionate scrutiny.

As a result, policies to restrict emissions from coal industries, for example, never come to pass while the government easily flexes its muscles on the firecrackers industry knowing that there will not be any serious pushback.

Vehicles ply amid low visibility due to smog during Diwali celebrations in New Delhi on Saturday. Credit: PTI

Demonetisation, the shift towards green crackers and the flawed implementation of Goods and Services Tax had already wrecked the firecracker business. The lockdown further hit the communities engaged in the firecracker industry hard. A ban on firecracker sales will further push them into poverty: the industry may be looking at losses of over Rs 800 crore this year alone, threatening the livelihoods of eight lakh workers.

In 2017, the Supreme Court limited the manufacturing and sale of conventional firecrackers and allowed only the crackers with reduced emissions (improved or “green” crackers). In response, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research developed a whole range of fireworks in which the major pollutant sulphur dioxide had been avoided. As a consequence, the emission of all other gases was also within the limits prescribed.

The formulations developed result in 30% less particulate matter emissions. The council then signed 230 MoUs and 165 non-disclosure agreements with firecracker manufacturers, as part of a facilitating effort between government and industry. Most manufacturers have adopted these methods, and are increasingly producing green crackers.

However, this process of transitioning away from traditional crackers and towards lesser polluting substitutes will take time and needs the government, manufacturers and the public to play important roles in striking the right balance.

Training and testing

The government needs to take manufacturers along in finding ways to stop, or greatly minimise, the use of harmful chemicals in the firecrackers. This will require providing extensive training and testing, and possibly financial support. Government restrictions on firecracker sales and use should also be communicated well in advance so that all the stakeholders can suitably adapt and not be subjected to last-minute shocks.

As the National Green Tribunal has recently directed, cities suffering from especially poor air quality may need additional restrictions. These too need to be anticipated and communicated months in advance.

On their part, the public needs to learn to value clean air, make responsible choices, and be willing to occasionally pay higher prices or change behaviour to reduce pollution. Unless this happens, bans and other such restrictions themselves will yield few gains, while causing suffering to those that depend on this industry for their livelihood.

Awareness campaigns

Government-led awareness and sensitisaton campaigns on the health impacts and sources of air pollution, the need to moderate firecracker use and adopt green crackers, and more generally minimise polluting activities at the individual level need to happen round-the-year.

The lopsided focus on episodic sources and the absence of a comprehensive national strategy is especially glaring for a city like Chennai, whose Chennai South constituency I represent. Chennai does not even find mention among the non-attainment cities in the National Clean Air Programme.

North Chennai, especially, is home to increasingly toxic industrialization: more than 12 lakh people live in the five assembly constituencies hosting three large ports handling oil, gas, coal and other cargo, 3,300 MW of coal-fired power plants, 10.5 million tonnes/year petroleum refinery, coal and container stacking yards, a mega petrochemical industrial estate with fertiliser and plastics factories, and the city’s largest garbage dump.

In May 2020, a major leak of ammonia from Madras Fertilisers Ltd in this area sent residents into a panic. Despite police complaints, no corrective action seems to have been taken. Developing a policy framework to effectively mitigate emissions from these kinds of large sources need to urgently be placed at the heart of our air pollution control efforts.

Thamizhachi Thangapandian is a Lok Sabha MP representing Chennai South. Views expressed are personal.