No smoke without fire

Vinaya Patil & Amrita Prasad
Monday, 16 October 2017

With the Supreme Court banning sale of firecrackers in New Delhi, environmentalists across other metropolises express their opinions about the verdict and the need to do more

Come Diwali and we think light, we think sweets and a lot of firecrackers too. Until a few years ago, for children, firecrackers would be the most exciting thing about Diwali. With awareness about worsening environmental conditions, and the exposure that kids today receive, many have started refraining from bursting them, especially the ones amounting to high levels of noise pollution. But what about the ones polluting our air?

New Delhi, which generally sees heavy pollution, thanks to its automobiles, the burning of stubble in the farms in neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana before the onset of winters, and the festive season that sees these firecrackers, has been at the centre of the pollution debate for years. Last year, November 2016, however, saw things going beyond normal pollution levels, with toxic pollutants covering the city and the winter fog making it worse.

Fearing a repeat of last year, the Supreme Court of India last week announced a ban on the sale of firecrackers in the capital city this time around. While the decision was welcomed by environmentalists and commoners, how much is it going to help the rather broad problem, and what about all the other cities and towns across the country that see high pollution and need to control the rising levels of pollutants in the air?

A complete ban
“It is a very good move indeed by the apex court,” says Sumeira Abdulali, convenor of Awaaz Foundation in Mumbai, a city that is not far behind in terms of air pollution. “But the verdict is not fool-proof, the ban needs to be on bursting of crackers and not just on sale, and it needs to be implemented in other cities too. Just focusing on Delhi is hardly going to address the issue,” she says.

Another aspect to the problem is the lack of will among the administration. “Why did we need the Supreme Court to tell us this? What then are our civic bodies and pollution control boards doing?” questions Nityanand Jayaraman, Chennai-based environmental and social activist. The court’s decision, he says, will help marginally.
Sourabh Guho from Kolkata too looks at it as a positive step towards saving the environment but “I feel the move would have been stronger if the ban was implemented across India, because not just Delhi but many other cities including Kolkata are polluted to the extent that it is causing a threat to public health,” the environmentalist believes.

“Sadly, faith and religion have a precedence over logic in our country, so the move has caused some agitation, but if you look at the bigger picture, it is only going to be beneficial for both mankind and the environment. Although not as worse as Delhi, in the last few years, the level of air pollution here (Kolkata) has risen very fast and it is alarming. Scientific and Environmental Research Institute and Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) have also stated that Kolkata is one of the most polluted metropolitan cities in the country. There is a sharp increase in the cases of lung cancer and respiratory disorder as a result of excessively polluted air,” Guho explains.

Public responsiblity
Speaking of public health, a city like Mumbai is at much risk considering the density of population here. “But it is up to people too to take an initiative instead of waiting for the government or the court to tell us what to do,” Abdulali says. Cars, and the burning of garbage, which was responsible for a massive bout of toxic gases in Mumbai’s eastern suburbs a couple of years ago, has to be addressed too, she believes. “We need more studies and basic quantification of pollution to address the problem logically. We will then know our priorities and can work towards them accordingly,” says she.

Excessive population, plastic waste, industrial waste, water pollution are some of the other big issues that Kolkata too is facing. “So you can imagine the amount of threat Diwali firecrackers will add to the existing problem. It is time we understood the severity of the condition and thought practically. The government needs to take strong measures that will help reduce pollution and banning crackers is a small yet significant move because pollution in general is a huge and complicated problem,” Guho seconds Abdulali.

There are more aspects to it
While the entire population is at risk with the spike in pollution, it affects the marginal communities the most., Jayaraman opines. “The vulnerable community is almost always at the receiving end, with their proximity to dumping yards etc. Although firecrackers are only a part of the problem, we need to understand the obvious corelation between festivals and the rise in cases of respiratory disorders,” he says. But the situation and the court’s verdict, according to him, is cynical because “our cities are already past the tipping point.”

Diwali, he says, is not the only issue. “Who speaks about cars? The Supreme Court’s stand is often pro-elite. And no city is an exception to pollution. So the implementation needs to be more geographically neutral,” he concludes.


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