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Tuesday, Nov 12, 2019

Diwali: Another test for Delhi’s right to breathe

The drop in temperature and slow wind-speed traps the toxic air, turning Delhi and National Capital Region into what is often described as a “gas chamber”.

opinion Updated: Oct 21, 2019 14:15 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times
The air is already thick with emissions and dust generated locally and smoke from the crop residue burning in the neighbouring states makes it worse.
The air is already thick with emissions and dust generated locally and smoke from the crop residue burning in the neighbouring states makes it worse.(AP Photo/representative image )
         

Come festival season, residents of Delhi and its suburban towns look forward to a nip in the air and festivities. But this is also that time of the year when they stare at a boding evil – a heavy dose of air pollution.

The air is already thick with emissions and dust generated locally and smoke from the crop residue burning in the neighbouring states makes it worse. The drop in temperature and slow wind-speed traps the toxic air, turning Delhi and National Capital Region into what is often described as a “gas chamber”.

Then, thanks to unabated burning of firecrackers on the Diwali night, the city’s air quality plunges to dangerous lows, choking the city for days, if not weeks, to follow. This year, though, the residents can make a real difference if they show some resolve.

Following the ban imposed by the Supreme Court last year on the sale and use of conventional fireworks, which are the worst possible cocktail of toxins, the government is now offering green crackers with at least 30% reduction in emissions. These crackers, developed in government labs led by scientists from the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research’s National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (CSIR-NEERI), are still scant in supply.

This is good news if Delhi restricts the fireworks to the legally available limited stock. Green crackers also pollute and there is every sense in limiting their use. And there is no enterprise in compensating for the short supply of green crackers by illegally procuring the banned firecrackers unless one is on a suicide mission.

Last Diwali, the ban imposed by the Supreme Court on burning conventional firecrackers was openly flouted, draping the city with unrelenting smog. Living in a polluted city, the fascination for firecrackers is an indulgence Delhi residents simply cannot afford.

The argument that bursting firecrackers on the Diwali night is a tradition we must continue with does not hold water. In fact, Diwali has traditionally been the festival of light. Fireworks, in any case, are a borrowed craze. Gunpowder was invented in China more than a thousand years ago. The Chinese believe that the loud sound from firecrackers drives away evil spirits and burning them during the Lunar New Year is an ancient Chinese tradition. But that did not come in the way of the proud inventor restricting the use of firecrackers to fight air pollution. Today, over 400 Chinese cities have banned fireworks or restricted the time and place to set them off.

But we need not necessarily learn from China how to break away from this “tradition” for the sake of a cleaner environment. We have already shown that it is possible in Delhi. This year, the ban on idol immersions into the Yamuna during Ganesh Chaturthi and Durga Puja was successfully enforced after organisers broke from the past and culminated the festivals by conducting visarjan (immersion) in artificial tanks instead.

For years, these idols — mostly made of plaster of Paris that takes years to fully dissolve in water, and coloured in paints containing heavy metals – had been poisoning the already toxic waters of the Yamuna.

A study conducted by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee showed that because of the ban on idol immersion in the river this Ganesh Chaturthi, the Yamuna’s water was less polluted as compared to the post-immersion phase last year. The report for Durga Puja is awaited, but the authorities are hoping to get encouraging results.

On October 9, Delhi saw the cleanest post-Dusshera day in five years. While some organisers did limit the use of firecrackers with digital visualisation for effigy burning, what really helped were favourable meteorological conditions such as the prolonged monsoon and high wind speeds, said experts.

If some efforts were indeed made to reduce air pollution on Dusshera evening, we need to scale them up for Diwali night because Delhi cannot bet its air quality on good fortune alone or expect to get second time lucky.

Ultimately, ensuring a healthier Diwali cannot become a compliance issue. Unless the residents of Delhi themselves commit to cleaner air, no court or government can make it breathable. While the debate to single out emission, construction or stubble burning for air pollution will continue, let’s resolve to keep at least our celebrations out of that blame game.