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Ruling out the anticipated blanket ban on firecrackers, the Supreme Court of India has instead fixed certain time slots to burst firecrackers during festivities this year. It was put forth as the outcome of a verdict led by a bench of Justices A. K. Sikri and Ashok Bhushan. The apex court was reviewing a slew of applications seeking a complete nationwide ban on firecrackers, the latest being a petition filed by three toddlers  -- all between six to 14 months, pleading for their right to life -- through their fathers in 2015.

Why ban firecrackers?

The top court has allowed the manufacture and sale of only “green” and reduced-emission or “improved” crackers while banning those that are loud and nocuous to man, animal, and the environment. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), India is home to 14 of 15 of the world’s most polluted cities. If we take the example of New Delhi, the city’s air quality has recently dipped to the “very poor” category (The PM2.5 was recorded at 236, the highest of this season; the PM2.5 and the PM10 level stood at 394, according to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB)) and it is predicted to remain so in the next few days. The dip in air quality is due to localized factors like construction dust, vehicular pollution as well as regional factors like pollution due to stubble burning from Punjab and Haryana. Other cities that fall into this category are Ahmedabad and Lucknow. Apart from that, the other major cities such as Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Pune, and Vishakhapatnam have “Moderate’ air quality with neither of the cities in the “Good’ category.  In the midst of this formidable rise in air pollution, a nationwide curb on firecrackers is only but one of the few measures taken to improve air quality conditions.

 Health impacts

Although there is yet to conduct an isolated research on the impact of firecrackers on human health in India, a couple of studies in Europe, Canada, and China have found an association of alterations in air quality with increasing concentration of fireworks. These observations have focused on festivals such as the Guy Fawkes Night in the UK, Montreal International Fireworks competition, Yanshui Festival in Taiwan, Lantern Festival in Beijing, et al. Another study, ‘Potential Impact of Fireworks on Respiratory Health’, in Lung India, projected that high levels of exposure to ambient air pollution have led to an increased prevalence of breathlessness, chronic cough, and phlegm. This, in turn, is a primary risk factor of developing respiratory symptoms, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, lower respiratory tract infections, allergic rhinitis, and lung cancers.

On the other hand, firecrackers aggravate noise pollution which shoots sky high during Diwali and Dussehra in India. Experts suggest that, depending on the length of exposure, hearing loss can occur at just 85 decibels. Human conversations generally take place at 55 to 65 decibels. Bursting of firecrackers, however, exceeds as high as 150 decibels, sometimes to a whopping 175 decibels. The Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH), published in the European Heart Journal, reveals that noise pollution aggravates the risk of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes -- both of which has been witnessing a fearsome growth in India in the recent past. The system of Air Quality an Weather Forecasting (SAFAR) has urged people with heart or lung disease, older adults and children to avoid prolonged or heavy exertion, keep windows closed and wear masks while stepping out. 

Tradition first

A smatter of Indians since last year’s ban has been arguing that this is a gross neglect of the age-old tradition of bursting crackers in Diwali. Chetan Bhagat, a prominent Indian author, took to Twitter even expressing his strong disapproval of the Supreme Court’s judgment. While there was a couple of Twitterati agreeing to this opinion, it obviously caused a firestorm amongst some. Speaking of tradition, it is given that Diwali is a Festival of Lights indicating the triumph of light over darkness. Mythology evinces a slew of legends regarding Diwali celebrations - be it the Sanskrit play Nagananda, where gifts were exchanged and lights lit in memory of Lord Vishnu and Goddess Lakshmi’s marriage, or celebration of Rama and Sita’s return from the 14-year-long exile portrayed in Ramayana. The beginning of Diwali is associated with the end of the cropping season. Essentially, this season heralds happiness and prosperity, which is often accompanied by wealth and happiness. 

A brief history of fireworks in India

A close attention to the historical records of the festival reveals that the mode of celebration has most commonly been associated with exchanging gifts and lighting lamps. Firecrackers have somewhat been a neophyte to the festival. While this is how it is celebrated today across the nation and abroad, the reason behind its association with fireworks is questionable. Fireworks were invented originally in medieval China in the 9th century to scare away evil spirits. It debuted as a natural application of gunpowder, one of the Four Great Inventions of ancient China. And only after it started its exports to Europe did it get redesigned into the colourful, smokey confetti that we see and use today.

Fireworks entered India about a century later since its origination. One conjecture reveals that gunpowder technology, along with the first pyrotechnical mixtures for entertainment, was brought to India and Europe from China by the Arabs. It gradually started getting incorporated into Indian culture in the medieval period. The earliest records could be dated back to the 13th century by Abdur Razzaq, the ambassador of the Timurid Sultan Shahrukh describing the events of the Mahanavami festival, in 1443. A similar observation was made by the Italian traveller Ludovico di Varthema describing the city of Vijayanagar who visited India in this period. The sparing descriptions of firecrackers in the written history is a reflection of its grandiose nature.

 Fast forward to the modern times, it has now become a household commodity during festivities and almost impossible to imagine a celebration without it. But given the harmful repercussions it has on the man, animal, and the environment, is it justified to continue with this tradition? Over the years, India has overcome its regressive traditions which impede her growth. Practices like sati have been far done away with. Prevalence of child marriage, widow ostracization, although present, have been downsized to a spectacular extent. This is progress. Although these are social practices and the matter of celebrating a festival finds no direct association with this, it must be noted that the progress of a nation has to come from all dimensions.

Bursting of firecrackers might seem like a speck of dust in curbing pollution, but it is primarily due to this perception that this menace is on the rise. Everything appears insignificant in this planet until we see its ripples when it’s too late.

References:

Choudhary, S. (2018, October 24). How SC order on firecrackers will affect Diwali, other festivities. Livemint. Retrieved from https://www.livemint.com/Politics/MoCngV8801AH4P8Eg23nUJ/How-SC-order-on-firecrackers-will-affect-festivities.html

Regulate, don't ban: Chetan Bhagat on SC order on firecrackers. (2017, October 9). The Economic Times. Retrieved from https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/regulate-dont-banchetan-bhagat-on-sc-order-on-fire-crackers/articleshow/61010003.cms 

WHO Global Ambient Air Quality Database (update 2018). (2018). Retrieved from  http://www.who.int/airpollution/data/cities/en/ 

Gouder, C., Montefort, S. (2004). Potential impact of fireworks on respiratory health. (2004). Lung India. Retrieved from http://www.lungindia.com/article.asp?issn=0970-2113;year=2014;volume=31;issue=4;spage=375;epage=379;aulast=Gouder

Air Pollution and Noise Increase Risk for Heart Attacks. (2018). myScience. Retrieved from https://www.myscience.ch/news/2018/air_pollution_and_noise_increase_risk_for_heart_attacks-2018-swisstph

The Ancient Origins of Diwali, India’s Biggest Holiday. (2017, October 19). History.com. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/the-ancient-origins-of-indias-biggest-holiday 

Pollution hits a high in Delhi. (2018, October 29) The Hindu

 

Image Credit: newscentral

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Written By Bipasha Sonowal

I write and I know things.

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