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Friday, Aug 23, 2019

Metro Matters: Beyond tradition or commerce, public health is non-negotiable

After each Diwali, the agencies release pollution data telling us how it is worse than the last. Yet, many criticised the Supreme Court order banning sale of firecrackers in Delhi for being anti-business, anti-religion and anti-tradition

columns Updated: Oct 17, 2017 11:28 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
The metallic compounds that colour the explosions in firecrackers can damage the brain, lungs and hamper bone growth among children.
The metallic compounds that colour the explosions in firecrackers can damage the brain, lungs and hamper bone growth among children.(Bhushan Koyande/HT Photo)

Besides its terrible traffic and spiralling crime, the pathetic air quality remains one of Delhi’s biggest worries. So many were relieved when the Supreme Court banned the sale of firecrackers during this Diwali.

The extent of air pollution caused by fireworks is not clear in the absence of empirical data. But no one who spent a Diwali in the national capital needs any statistics to tell how fireworks choke the city.

Born and raised in Delhi, I have seen my house fill up with smoke from fireworks every Diwali. Shutting doors and windows would not help. The all-engulfing pollution was often thick enough to beat the world’s worst pea-souper.

After each Diwali, the agencies would release pollution data telling us how it was worse than the last. Yet, many criticised the Supreme Court order for being anti-business, anti-religion and anti-tradition.

Manufacturing and sale of fireworks is a multi-crore business in India and also provides livelihood to thousands of labourers and small-time shopkeepers. It will indeed be a “black Diwali” for many wholesalers and retailers who will make losses on inventories.

But they will not be the first ones in Delhi to make such sacrifices. Following public interest litigations against hazardous industries and vehicles, the judiciary in the early 2000s ordered the closure of polluting factories and directed all public and commercial vehicle owners to switch from diesel to Compressed Natural Gas.

Delhi went without commercial transport for weeks when owners took their vehicles off the road in protest. Riots broke out as the city government shut down illegal industries.

But the strong court mandate made the government enforce cleaner factory norms and shift the polluting units to industrial zones.

Both private transporters and government took a financial hit, but by 2002, the Capital’s CNG-run public transport became the largest such green fleet in the world. It is only in the last decade that the manic growth in the number of private vehicles reversed the benefits of the CNG switchover.

Many argue that the sources of air pollution lie elsewhere and that Diwali is anyway a one-day phenomenon. Indeed, a study by IIT-Kanpur listed vehicular emissions, construction and road dust, fumes from coal-fired power plants, smoke from farm stubble burning, and urban garbage and leaf burning the main contributors to Delhi’s air pollution.

Ideally, Delhi should simultaneously address these factors. But that would take an administrative miracle. And every time there is an attempt to tackle one of these issues, critics point to the rest. The city folks cite stubble burning as the real problem to question the odd-and-even road space rationing. The farmers point at vehicular pollution to make light of polluting farming practices.

Whataboutery does not help. Firecracker burning should stop precisely because the air is already so bad due to so many factors. Otherwise, for the suffering and susceptible, it will add insult to injury. The counter-argument is akin to telling someone who is being slow-poisoned by residual pesticides and chemicals in food round-the-year that a one-off dose of cyanide would make no difference.

Fuelled by gunpowder, fireworks are the worst possible cocktail of toxins one could inhale. The metallic compounds that colour their explosions can damage the brain, lungs and hamper bone growth among children. They 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.

One has to be suicidal to ignore the damage.

The religious arguments do not cut much ice. Gunpowder was unknown to mankind for several hundreds of years after the city of Ayodhya was lit up to celebrate the homecoming of Lord Ram. Fireworks were invented in China. Like many borrowed practices, we probably adopted and made it an Indian tradition. But even China, the proud inventor, is limiting its use.

According to Xinhua news agency, at least 444 cities, including 10 provincial capitals, have banned fireworks or restricted the time and place to set them off. Both Beijing and Shanghai have imposed stricter regulations on their use. As a result, their sales have tanked over the years, HT reported last week.

In Delhi, the highest court had to intervene because the administration and the civil society failed in their duties. Public health is non-negotiable. We do not need a gas chamber to celebrate the festival of light.

First Published: Oct 16, 2017 13:10 IST

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