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The Supreme Court verdict on firecrackers needs to be lauded not criticised

In the sound and fury around the ban, what has been missed is that the petitioners have not just sought interim relief against the use of fireworks but also wide ranging relief through “prevention of harmful crop burning, dumping of malba and further steps towards environmental purity”

analysis Updated: Oct 13, 2017 21:12 IST
Supreme Court,Delhi,Air Pollution
A file picture of people celebrating Diwali in Gurgaon. The latest judgement reimposing the ban — although currently just a temporary one until November 1— is a genuine attempt to cut through all the distractions and delays to try and find out what exactly is at stake(Parveen Kumar/Hindustan Times)

What are residents and citizens of a democratic country to do when an unrecognised national medical emergency creeps up on them in stealth mode and their elected legislators fail them, their local and central governments fail them and everyone, from makers to enforcers of the law looks the other way?

As a law-abiding citizen, the only thing to do is to approach the courts – and perhaps, the fourth (and fifth) estates. So why is there so much criticism of the latest Supreme Court judgement banning licences to sell fireworks in the Delhi in NCR region? Its not as if this was done suo moto.

The Court has responded to the appeal of some of the youngest and most vulnerable citizens of the country and instead of being criticised, needs to be applauded for standing firm in the face of jostling lobbies from every direction. The appeal was first filed in 2015, and the honourable court ruled to ban the licence to sell crackers in November 2016, and that too, only post-Diwali. Those children are now around three years old, their little lungs already blackened by the continued pollution that already exists in Delhi’s air plus the and additional PM2.5 and other pollutant spikes of two Diwalis.

Traders, manufacturers, distributors — anyone with intelligence should have seen the writing on the wall, even as they began filing appeals against the petition after the November 2016 judgement was delivered, hoping to get a stay. They chose not to – everyone assumes that courts will take decades to deliver judgements, and the firecracker lobby probably thought the same. But no matter. For most, its seasonal business, and they will recover.

The only criticism of the Supreme Court that would be fair to make at this point would be one which points out inconsistency in its own benches on the same petition. One bench imposed a ban on the licence to sell firecrackers in November 2016. A different bench lifted it in Sept 2017 and a third one pushed the date out to November 1, 2017. It is this flip-flop is what has caused needless losses to some traders who rushed to buy stocks during the brief lifting of the ban, and now may be unable to offload those easily, as well as stoked controversy right before Diwali. Like in the medical profession where one doctor will hesitate to pronounce a second opinion on diagnosis made by another in his fraternity or denounce a colleague, even if justified, no two judges will like to disagree publicly with each other’s judgements. However, these are nuances that shouldn’t be important when looking at the bigger picture – the overall health of a collective people.

What is more important is that the latest judgement reimposing the ban — although currently just a temporary one until November 1— is a genuine attempt to cut through all the distractions and delays to try and find out what exactly is at stake. Thus, it is the bounden duty of others impleaded in the judgement, especially the Central Pollution Control Board, which has let too much slide on its watch, to help the courts take this experiment to its natural conclusion. One of the first things it needs to do is to prepare itself — ensure all its monitors are working, are calibrated and ready to take on the burst of PM2.5 that a post-Diwali atmosphere is bound to have.

Additionally, although only the sale of crackers is banned, not its bursting, it is the moral duty of all of us Delhi and NCR residents to refrain from bursting even one cracker during this Diwali. It is important for the court to get a clear and accurate picture of the air quality post-Diwali this year and measure it against earlier numbers in order to put at rest once and for all the view of some that crackers do not contribute to PM2.5.

If the grouse of the BJP and the Hindutva demographic is why Diwali is being singled out, the answer to that is because it is a festival celebrated by the largest majority in the country and maximum numbers of crackers are burst on one single evening. Once it is established to the Supreme Court’s satisfaction that there is indeed a huge spike post-Diwali, it is possible that most high courts could even follow suit and ban firecrackers — not just for one festival or in one state, but across the country and across all festivals, including not just Christmas, Eid, Guru Poorab and others, but also cricket matches, weddings and other celebratory events. This will ensure no community feels discriminated against. We need to refocus on the fact that this is a medical issue, not a communal one.

We are an innovative people — surely we can find alternatives like laser shows — equally marvellous and so much more green and less noisy to celebrate with. No citizen or resident should have a problem with that — in any case, the right to life precedes our right to religion. We have to be alive first, to choose which religion to practice!

Some people are hijacking a purely medical issue and converting it into a political debate. Others are using it polarise an already divided civil society along communal, regional and religious lines. This isn’t about north, south, east, west, Hindu, Muslim or Sikh. Actually, this isn’t even about firecrackers. That is just one small part of it.

In the sound and fury around the ban, what has been missed is that the infant petitioners have not just sought interim relief against the use of fireworks but also wide ranging relief through “prevention of harmful crop burning, dumping of malba and further steps towards environmental purity,” according to the petition. Banning sales of fireworks is just the interim relief that the honourable court has granted while it mulls the other, bigger issues.

The real battle is still to come – when the court focuses on diesel engine cars, which the automakers lobby will oppose (and is already opposing) crop-stubble burning, which farmers are already opposing and trash burning, which the Delhi government is itself unable to follow — the city produces much more garbage than its landfills are able to process. There is no official record of where the rest goes — though the CPCB itself has estimated that garbage burning in the open air contributes 5% to 11% of all direct particulate matter in Indian cities’ air.

These are just a few examples – and underlying all of them is the issue of enforcement. Even if the government cracked down on strictly enforcing existing laws — building and construction norms, trash and crop-stubble burning, our city’s air pollution wouldn’t be at these emergency levels.

But none of these measures will work unless all stakeholders, private and public sectors, decisionmakers and civil society contribute. The corporates, especially the more polluting industries and the construction sector need to be more responsible and follow building and pollution norms, the agricultural sector needs to stop burning crop waste, local municipal governments need to stop breaking their own laws (eg by burning trash) and residents need to restrain themselves from bursting crackers. It is only together that we can make a significant dent in this critical and overwhelming national health emergency.

Jyoti Pande Lavakare is a Delhi-based writer and columnist. She is the co-founder and president of Care for Air, (careforair.org) a citizen advocacy and awareness platform whose mission is the pursuit of clean air.”

First Published: Oct 13, 2017 11:28 IST