We are nearing the end of a year that none of us ever imagined we’d have to live through. So much of what we practiced, what we believed to be ‘normal’, has proved to be as vulnerable as a reed in a storm. Our lives have changed radically and so have our festivals, with restrictions galore on traditional customs, rituals and celebrations. But surely, we do not need COVID to tell us that we ought to move away from celebrations with firecrackers?
Yes, the coronavirus has indeed made that move much more pressing, creating as it does a lethal mix with the pollution caused by firecrackers. But don’t we know enough about the hazards crackers pose even otherwise?
Ask Sangeeta Chauhan who has to leave her Delhi home every Diwali and retreat into the mountains to ensure that her 12-year-old son Shiv does not suffer another debilitating attack. Shiv, a promising soccer player who has played for local clubs and at international tournaments, hates leaving home and friends during the festival, but he doesn’t have a choice.
There are countless others across cities with similar tales. S Gomathi, a facilitator at an international school in Chennai, dreads the festival she had loved as a child as it invariably brings on serious episodes of wheezing and respiratory illness. A senior journalist from Kolkata, Syeda Ambia Zahan, develops strong palpitation during Diwali every year, due to the sound and smoke. As a pet parent, she also fears for her dog who is traumatized by the sound.
It’s not just about them, though!
But wait. You may not feel anything except the thrill of lighting a cracker while your lungs rot inside. Not till it’s too late.
There are ample technical studies and findings to show what crackers really do to us. Just to cite one, a joint study in 2016 by the Chest Research Foundation, Pune and the Interdisciplinary School of Health Sciences of the University of Pune revealed that every time your child burns a ‘chakri’, he is inhaling the same amount of particulate matter as he would by smoking 68 cigarettes.
In ‘Hari Phuljhari’, a recently premiered documentary co-produced by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, thoracic surgeon Dr Arvind Kumar, Director of the Institute of Robotic Surgery at Sir Gangaram Hospital, New Delhi, says that while the sources of air pollution are many, Deepawali is a major seasonal polluter, releasing huge amounts of “heavily toxic material” into the environment. And even if that release is only for a few days a year, the levels are so high that the amount inhaled is enough to cause long lasting damage to the lungs.
That is easily relatable. In 2018, the national capital registered an AQI of 642 post Diwali, in the ‘severe plus emergency’ category. Any AQI in that category implies that even healthy people may experience respiratory problems, while for asthmatic or cardiac patients, it could prove debilitating, or even fatal. In 2019, the AQI improved to 368 — still ‘very poor’ and the seasonal worst.
It was not just Delhi, people in many other cities from Kolkata to Chandigarh struggled to breathe following Diwali celebrations.
We have all heard those voices that say air pollution is anyway a constant in our cities and targeting fireworks during fleeting celebrations is unfair. But they must hear Sangeeta, who sounds distraught as she recalls her Diwali experience of last year.
Given the SC order for green crackers only, the family had moved to the outskirts and returned the day after Diwali. No sooner than they entered Delhi, did her son start coughing and feeling feverish. Things got progressively worse and they moved out, this time to Rishikesh, which meant two weeks of missed school and soccer for Shiv.
Can we trust green crackers?
On November 7th, Mumbai-based NGO Awaaz Foundation procured green crackers in Mumbai including sparklers, chakris and anars, which are allowed for limited use.
In a letter addressed to the Prime Minister and Environment Minister, the Foundation shared its test results that found all tested crackers – including those bearing the NEERI stamp for green crackers – to contain banned chemicals, including barium nitrate, potassium nitrate and Sulphur.
The letter underlined the fact that all these crackers, except one, were manufactured in Sivakasi and hence was expected to be available anywhere in the country.
A recent article in Livemint too points to the dubious safety of so-called green crackers in the market. The article quotes P. Ganesan, president of the Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers Association, who admitted that barium nitrate, banned by the SC, had to be used to ensure quality and commercial viability. According to him, only 20% of fireworks manufactured this year did not have barium in it.
Focus on yourself
Courts and policy makers have done their bit.
In October 2018, the Supreme Court issued an order for Delhi and the NCR, banning all crackers but ‘green’ ones, containing specific permitted chemicals and with reduced emissions. This year, too, the recent order from the National Green Tribunal allows for green crackers ONLY in those cities and towns, where the air quality in November (2019) hovered in the ‘moderate’ to ‘satisfactory’ categories. Certain states have come up with their own bans and restrictions.
But any legislation is only as strong as its enforcement, any policy as effective as its implementation. The documentary Hari Phuljhari, which tracks public reaction to the 2018 Supreme Court ban on crackers, makes it evident that what is really missing is awareness among the masses on what crackers do to them. They conflate it with religion, culture, politics, economics – pretty much everything other than health.
So this Diwali, let us forget the bans and restrictions, or the debates over the selectivity of such bans, or even public messaging against firecrackers through mass media (read Tanishq ad). Let’s just concentrate, even if in a selfish way, on what is good for us.
What do we want for ourselves as individuals, for our families, for our friends and community?
The choice is between cleaner air (read, good health) and blind nostalgia-driven adherence to ways of the past, never mind what it means for tomorrow, or for our wellness. Mind you, there are alternatives – both personal and for those who depend on the fireworks economy.
Do we want to make our happiness, our pleasure contingent on our ability to set fire to explosive stuff, or should we focus on togetherness, sharing and holistic health?
This year, when we have seen how little it takes for our carefully constructed worlds to collapse and impose painful distances between loved ones, the answer should be clear to us, once and for all.
Coming back to the pandemic, increasingly, across the world, unanimity seems to be emerging on one fact — lockdowns, penalties, vaccines-in-the-making aside, our greatest weapon against the virus is still going to be our response, our behaviour as individual citizens and community. I strongly feel that the battle against firecrackers is also going to be decided by just that – how responsible we can be towards ourselves.
You see, in the end, it’s not about religion or law or any lofty ideal — it all just boils down to us.