Crack the Whip / by Tara Kaushal

November 2013: It’s about time India bans firecrackers. Here’s why, and what you can do.

The last time I touched a firecracker was when I was 11, and that’s almost 20 Diwalis ago. When I was 15 or 16, for a children’s drawing competition my mother’s office was hosting for Diwali, I submitted one of a menacing, whip-wielding firecracker factory owner forcing child labourers to make them. (Much in contrast to the saccharine 'Shubh Diwali’ happy-happy joy-joy ones the other angst-free kids had submitted; needless to say, I didn’t win.)

I subscribe to neither religion nor festivals, but I do understand the appeal they hold for certain people. Whatever; there are all sorts. Liberal, educated, rational middle class ‘people like us’ are constantly made to accept the masses' will on these fronts... we grin and bear religious processions blocking traffic, accept the illogical immersions that kill our fishes and pollute our seas, pander to the mobs of men on their celebratory rampages. All the while being persecuted for our 'foreign' culture, clothes, music, choices.

But I don't mean to turn this into a class debate. One realises that the lives of the majority of the people who make up our country are indescribably hard, so let them have some fun. Plus, noise level markers show that the most upmarket neighbourhoods in Mumbai and Delhi are the noisiest during Diwali, indicating that it’s the wealthy and, presumably, the educated that burst all the crackers they can afford. The one thing this does bring into focus is that there are many Indias, and reaching and teaching all of them are not easy.

Crackers are not a mere inconvenience, to be ignored under the live-and-let-live rule for greater good/religious tolerance. Where once they were burst only on Diwali, they are now used to celebrate everything—from other festivals to marriages and cricket victories. In their making, they endanger scores of workers, often children, who inhale the toxic chemicals, or perish in fires at firecracker factories. (I don't even entertain any suggestions of safety gear here and in China, the sources of our fireworks.) They similarly endanger everyone who handles them along the supply chain. But if people choose to manufacture, distribute and burst (or let their children burst) firecrackers, and fall ill, go deaf or burn because of them, well, that's their cross to bear—though I am not certain what ‘professional choice’ or knowledge the poorest of poor workers have.

A firecracker vendor told me: “How are you saying they’re dangerous? They’re killing all your dengue-causing mosquitoes, aren’t they?” This mass fumigation exercise is doing a lot more than just that. The idea that one moment of pleasure for some generates enough noise and air pollution to be terror causing and even life threatening for so many more is just not a fair equation. Mumbai is the noisiest city in the world, and I'm sure India as a whole is one of the noisiest countries. Noise pollution kills. So does air pollution, and not just asthmatics like me. Firecracker debris and litter ends up in water bodies, polluting it and killing the ecosystem. Plus there's what crackers do to animals. Pets are terrified, of course; dogs, cats, cows and other animals on urban streets die of the stress, panic, wounds and displacement—the little puppy we were fostering for an animal NGO got so startled when a loud firecracker went off that she woke up, ran in to a wall and bolted in to the living room; which would have been funny were she not bleeding all over the place from a wound in the mouth. Wildlife, including small mammals, birds and butterflies, is deafened, disoriented and distressed, often leading to death.

I would rather be a killjoy than a killer. I think the government should issue a blanket ban on firecrackers for the public, with regulated State-controlled displays on festivals.

“You’re talking from an ideological point of view,” laughs Sumaira Abdulali when I tell her this. Abdulali is the Convenor of the Awaaz Foundation, an NGO that works to protect the environment and prevent environmental pollution, and has been petitioning against firecrackers for years. “You can’t ban things suddenly, if people aren’t ready, the government isn’t ready to take such a step. One has to gather support.” She expects to take a longer route, though she was one of the first to ask for a blanket ban of firecrackers during a TV interview last year.

“We don’t even need new laws to reduce the impact of firecrackers, we just need to have the current laws enforced,” she says, rattling off the list of pre-existing laws that will keep the worst of the firecrackers off the streets. The Supreme Court issued an order in 2005 stating that all ingredients be stated clearly on firecracker boxes. Awaaz’s tests on firecrackers this year revealed that many contain Schedule 1 chemicals of the Hazardous Chemicals Rules. “These chemicals are so dangerous that the government has clear rules about their manufacture, storage and transportation,” she says, “yet, through firecrackers, they are handled and ingested by children and the general population. We keep talking about ‘air pollution’, but we need to talk about the dangerous chemicals that comprise that air pollution owing to crackers.”

The chemicals in firecrackers can be used in homemade bombs: “What’s to stop someone from transporting a bomb as firecrackers? The Explosives Substances Act defines firecrackers, but many in the market today can be classified as explosive devices outside this definition,” Abdulali asserts. This is why it is mandatory for all distributers of firecrackers to be registered with the police. “Firecrackers are not allowed on the street, not allowed in housing societies, not allowed in silence zones; crackers louder than 50 dB aren’t allowed in residential zones. Noisy ones aren’t allowed between 10 PM and 6 AM.”

These laws are not enforced. I believe it might be easier to enforce a blanket ban than have the police deal in technicalities, and qualitative aspects like noise levels, chemical composition and location. It just doesn’t have the bandwidth to do so.

Every year, Awaaz pens a report on the decibel levels through Diwali. This year, it notes that “the noise levels, which have been reducing for the past three years, were further reduced and this was the quietest Diwali in a decade.” More and more children are refraining from bursting crackers through teachings in schools; in Mumbai’s Lokhandwala, residents came together to celebrate a noise-free Diwali with sky lanterns. Over the Diwali holiday this year many people, celebrities included, have taken to social media to appeal for quiet celebrations and to reclaim the beautiful festival from the obscene showiness of crackers; and heaps of anti-cracker memes, comics and one-liners have been doing the rounds. A popular news channel ran a show exploring whether firecrackers can be banned altogether. Mumbai’s Arrshie Singh has petitioned the Environment Minister on to enforce this ban.

There is enough support, and there will be even more each passing year. The problem with environmental concerns is that educating the many Indias is not easy, and this will never be a populist measure. But it can be done, slowly. Say the government sets a date for this ban to take effect in three-four years. In the meantime, public and private agencies try to educate the masses about the ban, with a focus on why it is taking place. The government starts its pyrotechnic displays (à la the world-famous artistic Sydney fireworks that go off at various points in the city at 9 and 12 on New Year’s Eve) and their logistics and marketing, in all state capitals, perhaps. ‘Dear citizens, when we’re spending to give you pleasure, why watch your own money go up in smoke, why risk fires and injury’ it could say (forget the part about sensitivity to others, environment and animals). The eventual transition needn’t be an absolute law-and-order and vote-bank disaster, though there could be mass arrests and protests for a few years.

There is the peripheral question of employment; of rendering so many people involved in the industry jobless. To this I say: if the Mumbai government saw it okay to ban bar dancers, whose profession impacted no one but ‘culture’, I'm sure there are ways to get people out of a profession that’s killing them and so many others.

I believe the time is ripe to bring about a ban and for the Environment Ministry to take the higher hand, and for us to support it. As they say, no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.

An edited version of this column appeared in Governance Now in November 2013.