The Supreme Court’s order, setting a two-hour window for bursting crackers, was observed more in breach than in practice during the Diwali revelry across the country. As a result, there has been a quantum jump in pollution levels in various cities the day after the festival of lights, virtually turning them into gas chambers. This utter disregard for the directive from the highest court of the land reflects a sorry state of affairs in a country that has already earned the dubious distinction of being among the world’s worst polluted regions. Administrative laxity, coupled with public defiance in the name of upholding traditions and traders’ ingenious ways of ensuring access to toxic firecrackers, has made a mockery of the apex court’s directive meant to check air pollution and protect public health. The national capital, rated as the second worst polluted city in the world after Beijing, was engulfed in a haze the day after Diwali as the level of PM2.5 — the ultra-fine and harmful particulates — shot up to the emergency levels, about 6.3 times above the safe standards. There was a similar spike in air pollution levels in other major cities. In the Delhi-NCR region alone, close to five million kg of five crackers were burnt on Diwali night – equal to 1.50 lakh kilos of PM2.5 being added to the air. This proves that judicial outreach alone is not enough to achieve the desired results. There is a need for cultural and behavioural change in society.
In its October 25 order, the apex court sought to strike a fine balance between the urgent imperatives of public health and the rights of the manufacturers of the Rs 20,000-crore firecracker industry. It allowed burning of firecrackers with certain conditions; only green crackers with low emissions and decibel levels were permitted during a two-hour window period on Diwali and for 45 minutes on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Though the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and eight other government laboratories had developed ‘green firecrackers’, which are 25-30% less polluting and noisy, they were not made available in the market in time. Air pollution is one of the major killers in India and a risk factor for heart and pulmonary diseases. Though several laws are in place to check pollution and courts have been repeatedly intervening in the matter, the situation on the ground remains alarming. Firecracker ban is a much-needed first step to increase public awareness about health hazards associated with crackers. The toxic effects of firecrackers remain in the air for up to one month after Diwali.