Delhi’s toxic Diwali: City set to celebrate, choke itself

  • Shivani Singh, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Nov 09, 2015 15:32 IST
Children burst crackers to mark the arrival of Diwali, the festival of lights but marred by pollution. (Mujeeb Fauqui/ HT Photo)

It is that week of the year. Public advisories have been issued. The city government has asked the legislators to persuade their electorate to not burst crackers. The message is loud and clear: Don’t turn Delhi into a mass gas chamber on the festival of lights.

Every year, authorities make a similar pitch. Every year, it falls on deaf ears. Scanning the Diwali night pollution data for the last five years, Hindustan Times last month wrote that the festival was becoming increasingly polluted. Delhi environment department chief lamented how public appeals made all these years had absolutely no impact. “The awareness is there but it has not translated into action,” he told HT.

Why do we need so much coaxing and urging to stop doing something we know is bad for us? Delhi’s skies are already soot grey. Almost every other child today requires medical help for breathing problems. Many suffering from the seasonal flu - traditionally blamed on the change in weather--are taking longer to recover. Patients have suffered relapses. Doctors say rising levels of air pollution in Delhi are suppressing our immunity, making us vulnerable to lung infections and cancer. Studies collated by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) show that air pollution-related diseases caused more than 3,000 premature deaths every year.

The toxic smoke from Delhi’s massive fleet of vehicles, round-the-clock emissions from coal-fired power plants, and dust from the city’s numerous construction sites are already filling up our lungs. We have to be suicidal to willingly make it worse.

Crackers go up in the air in a colony in east Delhi, choking the city’s air. (Sushil Kumar/ HT File Photo)

In case you didn’t know, the fireworks you light up on Diwali are the worst possible cocktail of toxins. It is the gunpowder that fuels them up. Harmful metals add colour to the explosions. The dazzles of whites in the fireworks are created by burning up aluminium that affects the brain and lungs. The blazing red is released from lithium and strontium. High exposure to this can hamper bone growth among infants. Fireworks often contain carcinogenic or hormone-disrupting substances that can get absorbed by soil and water.

The onset of winter is anyway a bad time for lungs in Delhi. Just ahead of Diwali, farmers across north India start burning stubble to clear land for cultivation. If it is not windy enough, the fumes from farm fires, coupled with Delhi’s vehicular pollution, lace the air with deadly particles fine enough to sit deep in lungs and blood tissues.

Many discount Diwali as a temporary one-day phenomenon. But can Delhi, rated one of the world’s most polluted capitals, afford the indulgence? No religious excuse can justify environmentally disastrous rituals like clogging and polluting water bodies with idols, or turning the air foul with sulphur and gunpowder smoke.

Recently, the Delhi high court has also asked people for restrain. “Diwali, though called a festival of lights, has religious context only in illuminating the buildings traditionally with diyas (earthen lamps). There is nothing to suggest that bursting of firecrackers is related to any religious tenet,” the court noted.

A binding legal order, however, is unlikely in India. Last month, the Supreme Court refused to ban bursting of crackers during Diwali or direct authorities to earmark designated places for it, saying it was not possible to issue orders that cannot be implemented.

For inspiration though, we would not have to look far. Shanghai cut the city’s number of authorised firework sellers by 400. Hangzhou, a historic Chinese city near Shanghai, cancelled its annual New Year fireworks display, the Guardian reported last January. The same year, Beijing introduced a regulation requiring people who buy five or more boxes of fireworks to register with an official ID. The city decided it would halt fireworks sales altogether if the pollution rose to dangerous levels, the news report stated.

But back home, we are resigned to traditions. In the run-up to Diwali, we were already holding our breath - as much for the Bihar verdict as in anticipation of the fireworks that would inevitably follow. Be it for a cricket match win or an election triumph or Diwali, it is time we refused to end up chokers.

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