American astronaut Scott Kelly spent a year watching the earth from the space. The clouds of pollution over India and China shocked him.
For a single day last summer, Kelly could see the eastern part of China, its 200 cities, clearly. “The next day I heard that the Chinese government had turned off a lot of the coal-producing power plants, stopped the cars from running in that part of the country for this national holiday, and the sky had completely cleared,” Kelly told PTI in Washington last week.
“It’s interesting to see just how quickly we can have a positive impact on (environment) if we decide,” said Kelly, who returned to earth in March 2016. He did not mention if he ever had a clear view of India from up there. He probably did not get any.
If China could clear its skies, albeit for just one day, India manages the opposite in a matter of hours every Diwali evening when cracker-bursting and fireworks turn towns and cities into mass gas chambers. Every year, our courts, administrations and citizens promise to be kinder to the environment the next time. But each Diwali turns out to be worse than the last.
Delhi is rated as one of the most polluted capitals of the world. Air pollution is making us vulnerable to lung infections, heart attacks and cancer. A 2008 study by Central Pollution Control Board found that more than two-fifths of Delhi’s schoolchildren had reduced lung function and the damage was likely to be irreversible. The Centre for Science and Environment found that air pollution-related diseases cause more than 3,000 premature deaths every year.
Fireworks that light up Diwali skies contain the worst possible toxins. It is the gunpowder that fuels them up. It is the metallic compounds that colour their explosions. The dazzles of whites are created by burning up aluminium that affects brain and lungs. The blazing red is released from lithium and strontium compounds that can hamper bone growth in children. Fireworks often contain carcinogenic or hormone-disrupting substances that can seep into soil and water, not to mention the lung-clogging smoke they release and plastic debris they scatter.
Inexplicably, no amount of persuasion seems to be enough to stop Delhi from poisoning the already foul air. Every Diwali, the national capital appears to be on a death wish.
Globally, religious rituals collide with environmentalism. For his book, When God isn’t Green, Boston University professor Jay Wexler travelled around the world to find “Hindus in Mumbai carrying 25-foot plaster idols of Ganesh into the sea, Taoists in Hong Kong creating poisonous fumes by burning bushels of ‘ghost money’, and American Palm Sunday celebrants contributing to the deforestation of Central American palm forests”.
As argued in this column earlier, no religious excuse can justify environmentally disastrous rituals. There is anyway nothing religious about converting a festival of light into a cracker-bursting competition. Last year, the Delhi high court noted that “Diwali has religious context only in illuminating the buildings traditionally with diyas. There was nothing to suggest that bursting of firecrackers is related to any religious tenet.”
Even when it comes to fireworks, China restricted the age-old tradition in 700 cities last year. This Chinese New Year, Shanghai banned all fireworks in the inner-city areas surrounding its outer ring road. The police recruited more than 300,000 volunteers to enforce the rules and imposed fines up to $75.
Post-festival, the air quality didn’t improve because the outskirts and rural neighbourhoods had no such restriction. But those living along the ring road reported a quieter New Year and sanitation workers’ cleaned up 80% less firework waste in Shanghai this year.
Shanghaiist, a popular website on city affairs, quoted a poll by China News saying 52% of the 7,000 respondents were not “hot on the use of crackers”, and only 41% insisted on “the necessity of fireworks for celebration”.
While China makes the right noises, we remain resigned to suicidal traditions. Even the Supreme Court last year refused to ban bursting of crackers during Diwali or direct authorities to earmark designated places for, saying it was not possible to issue orders that cannot be implemented.
And just like that, we gave up without even trying.
(The author is Metro Editor, Hindustan Times. She tweets at @shivaniwrites)
Take a look at our real-time air quality map to see the latest pollution levels in different parts of the country.