The approaching festival of lights was beginning to bring people out shopping to CP, Sarojini Nagar, Lajpat Nagar and every other market. But alarm bells started ringing when the daily COVID figures crossed the 6000 mark on November 3rd and stayed that way for the next few days. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal suspected it could be a third wave of the deadly virus.
The timing was particularly worrisome. It was a double whammy, dampening the festival spirit and raising fears of poor air quality accelerating the spread of COVID-19 spread and its effects.
The number of cases in the capital has surged again. Hospitals are filling up with COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 cases. On Nov 8th, Delhi broke the record of the highest number of new cases in any city so far, with 7745 new cases, and 77 deaths, taking the total number of deaths on account of COVID-19 to 6989.
Though 3,89,683 people recovered, the total number of cases in the capital had climbed to 4,38.529. The mortality number indicated that Delhi was behind only Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
The pollution caused by crackers would only have further played havoc with the asthmatic and those with fragile lungs.A rattled Delhi government, on November 5th, banned the sale, purchase and use of firecrackers in the city from November 7 to 30. The next day, the Delhi Environment Minister Gopal Rai told the media that any violation of the ban order could result in a fine of upto Rs 1 lakh under the Air Act 1981. The Delhi Police suspended all licences issued for the sale of fire crackers, and warned that more action would be taken as they implement the ban order.
The ban includes “green crackers”, which the National Green Tribunal (NGT) said should also be banned as they would lead to poor visibility, hazy conditions and asphyxia. Green crackers were developed by scientists at CSIR and the National Environment Engineering Research Institute and do not contain banned chemicals like lead, lithium, arsenic and barium.
The Delhi Disaster Management Authority had already extended till November 30th the restrictions on marriage related gatherings to 50% of the hall capacity with a cap of 200, along with mandatory masks, social distancing, temperature scanning and hand sanitising.
A day before the ban, Kejriwal, in an online press briefing, appealed to people’s emotions and sentiments, and warned that those who burn crackers are playing with the lives of their children and family.
“This year, on Nov 14th, 7.39 pm onward, the two crore people of Delhi will celebrate together by having a Lakshmi pooja,” said Kejriwal, unveiling his plans for celebrating Diwali in Delhi. “My cabinet and I will participate in one place; some TV channels will broadcast it live. I appeal to the people of Delhi to switch on the TV and join the prayers. If the two crore people of Delhi prayed together, there would be good vibes and positivity in the entire city, and everyone would benefit.”
Luckily for Kejriwal, Delhiites, by and large, choking in the gas chamber they are in, have welcomed the idea of a cracker-free Diwali. “For small children, it will be fun forgone, but their health is most important,” says 43-year old Priyanka Aggarwal, a resident of Kaushambi in Ghaziabad. Her mother has been asking her to buy “just a few sparklers” in order to keep alive the traditional way of celebrating Diwali, but no one in the family is listening to her.
The RWAs too are not just falling in line with the ban on bursting crackers, but also mobilising support for it. Says “We are supporting the drive against bursting crackers very, very strongly,” says Vinay Kumar Mittal, president of The Kaushambi Residents’ Welfare Association (KARWA). “Our slogan is ‘Serve God, save children, senior citizens and asthma patients from the menace of pollution.” KARWA comprises 18 high rise towers with 84 apartments each.
Predictably, people like Ram Lal (name changed), an autorickshaw driver who had planned to sell crackers in East Delhi’s Shahdra are disappointed and frustrated. “I bought small quantities to sell in my neighbourhood and make a bit of money,, he said. In fact, there were a lot of sellers like Ram Lal, selling crackers on pavements in front of shops. But now, scared of the consequences, Ram Lal returned the crackers to the licensed trader without a refund.
When the ban was imposed, many traders who set up stalls and sell firecrackers every Diwali season had already got licences and their consignment of a range of “patakas”. The government had received 260 licence applications and had issued 138 to those who fulfilled the requirements under the Petroleum and Explosives Safety rules, Suvashish Choudhary, Joint Commissioner of Police told the media. These shop owners are now stuck with stocks they cannot sell or return.
The Delhi Police apart, district magistrates and the Delhi Pollution Control Committee have been directed to ensure that the ban order is strictly implemented. “There are enforcement squads of police and other officials moving around to identify and seize firecrackers wherever they are displayed for sale,” said a traffic police inspector who was checking vehicles entering the crowded Connaught Place on Nov 7th. “We can also raid premises that are being used to store them.. The police have booked a few people who were caught violating the ban.
This is not the first time that firecrackers have been banned in the capital. In 2018, the Supreme Court had banned them. The reason then had again been the bad air quality attributed to paddy stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana, which is the case at present as well.
What has worsened the present situation, situation, though is COVID-19.
“Banning fire crackers during Diwali alone is not enough,” says Usha Rai, senior journalist who has been covering environment for over five decades. “Children have to realise the damage they are doing to themselves and to our environment. Like Swedish environmental child activist Greta Thunberg, our own child activists have to push government as well as shopkeepers and parents to make Diwali more meaningful than a few hours of sparkle that leave the nation gasping for breath!”
Health experts too are warning of the adverse effects of bursting crackers. “In the current pandemic, particularly, we should stop using crackers voluntarily at least for this year as they could affect our lungs, and that can lead to worsening of COVID-19,” said Dr Randeep Guleria, Director of AIIMS and a renowned pulmonologist.
According to Dr Guleria, the correlation between levels of air pollution and rise in SAARS and COVID-19 cases has been established by numerous studies. Air pollution reduces immunity which is just what the virus needs to propagate. We are seeing more cases than ever before. We need to prevent crowds that will become superspreading events.
Dr Guleria’s prescription for Diwali this year:
- Avoid indoor events, parties, card parties etc as the infection can quickly spread to friends and family in closed, crowded areas
- If you must, have outdoor events with a good degree of physical distancing: outdoor events decrease the chance of the infection spreading
- Be very careful when you have a drink or eat something, because that is when you pull your mask down. And it is very important that we maintain physical distance when we do that.
His final word of advice: “This year we need to be very, very careful. Because if we have a spurt of cases in our family or among our friends, we don’t want anyone to feel guilty that an event he or she organised became the cause for a large number of cases.”