Linking public health issues to religious sentiments can set a dangerous precedent and create hurdles on the path of progress. To view the Supreme Court order banning the sale of firecrackers in Delhi during Diwali as anti-Hindu is to trivialise the problem on hand. Since extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, the ban order was needed to check the alarming pollution levels in the national capital. It is a small but decisive move to address what the court has called a health emergency. The 11th most polluted city in the world, Delhi becomes a virtual gas chamber with the onset of winter with the Diwali crackers adding to the toxic load. The city has seen an alarming rise in the incidence of respiratory diseases such as asthma, lung cancer and bronchitis due to worsening air quality and, more worryingly, children are particularly vulnerable to pollution-related health hazards. The situation in Delhi was particularly ominous last year when the average PM 2.5 level (particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns that lodges easily into the lungs) reached a mark that is 29 times above the World Health Organisation (WHO) standards. According to a pollution assessment monitored by the Central Pollution Control Board, the city has a National Air Quality index of 361, the highest in the country. Crop-stubble burning in neighbouring Haryana and Punjab, burning of garbage, vehicular and industrial emissions and the dust by the roadside are the other major contributors to the pollution.
While there is a strong case for curbing the other sources of pollution as well, banning firecrackers could be a low-hanging fruit to make a good beginning to improve the air quality. The effects of firecrackers remain in the air for up to one month after Diwali. And, scientific studies have established the toxic impact of air pollution on liver, kidneys and brain. The critics of the ban order must resist the temptation of positioning their narrative in the faith-based rigid binary and questioning why similar restrictions are not imposed on other religious practices. The question here pertains to public health and measures to check the damage to the environment. The judicial outreach alone cannot solve the problem. There is a need for greater public awareness about the dangers of pollution since voluntary efforts can have a lasting impact. For instance, Hyderabad showed significant improvement in air quality post-Diwali last year, compared with the previous years, because a large number of people had voluntarily stayed away from bursting crackers. Such efforts must be encouraged so that the festival of lights can be celebrated in true spirit without causing damage to the environment.