SC ban on firecrackers is a small but important step in the fight against pollution
The Supreme Court has come to the rescue of Delhi-NCR residents yet again by ruling to ban the sale of fireworks until November 1, 2017. Unless one of the other parameters that contributes to the rise of particulate matter in the air (such as crop-stubble burning in neighbouring states or burning of garbage at existing landfills) changes significantly and suddenly over the next 10 days, it will soon become clear to everyone how greatly the combustion of firecrackers over one single evening contributes to Delhi’s pollution.
The court has been circumspect in limiting its order to November 1. What will be key for all stakeholders and advocates of clean air is to ensure that when the court revisits the issue after that date, it is presented with accurate, unambiguous and error-free data from multiple unbiased monitoring sources, which include but aren’t limited to government sources such as the Central Pollution Control Board. Because, in reality, this isn’t about Diwali or festivities at all. Its about the collective health of Delhi residents, rich and poor alike - and that includes manufacturers, workers as well as end-users of fireworks, the very demographic protesting the ban.
Air is the ultimate democratiser. It knows no geographic, socio-economic, class or race boundaries. In fact, poor air is harmful for even animals and plants – any living being that respires - although there isn’t enough research available currently to scientifically validate that.
The first red herring being used by interested lobbies in court to divert attention from the issue is whether PM2.5 is indeed so terrible for human health. That breathing polluted air (specifically PM2.5, particulates smaller than 2.5 microns) is harmful for human health is now beyond debate. By now most people are aware that of the five pollutants that populate our Air Quality Index, Sox Nox, CO, Ozone and PM2.5, it is that last solid particulate matter that causes the worst irreversible harm to our organs – and that harm isn’t just limited to our lungs. Enough studies have measured the toxic impact of air pollution on our liver, kidneys, reproductive organs and brain, causing not just cardiopulmonary and respiratory damage but also cancer and strokes.
However, leaving all that aside for now, if we just take the evidence previously accepted by governments, courts and people globally, that smoking cigarettes is injurious to our health, then there can be no doubt that PM2.5 is also equally, if not more injurious, given that inhaling air isn’t even a choice and we breathe PM2.5 in involuntarily not once, but 25,000 times in a day. If there was still any doubt, a recent Lung Care Foundation WhatsApp video doing the rounds has an actual surgeon telling us PM2.5 is harmful, complete with gruesome cross-sectional images of healthy pink versus PM-tainted black lungs.
Additionally, air pollution scientists and doctors have emphasised that the contribution of high episodic air pollution events cause increased all-cause mortality, not to mention triggering impact on those with pre-existing respiratory and cardiac ailments, the elderly and young children, especially as the effects of firecrackers remain in the air for up to one month after Diwali.
The fact that PM levels multiply sharply after Diwali has been well studied and the petitioners are banking on that. What isn’t as well known is that they themselves have highlighted the Delhi PM2.5 numbers before and after Diwali to the Supreme Court and attached these to the court documents last year itself, even before the November 11, 2016 order was passed. All that remains to be done is for monitoring stations and air pollution scientists to take accurate measurements after Diwali this year– the first (though hopefully not the only) one after the ban on sale of firecrackers is enforced and compare it to previous years. Which is where our air pollution scientists, pollution control boards and myriad monitoring stations come in. The ball is now in their court to provide accurate numbers to convince the honourable court, if we want to see the ban extended beyond November 1, 2017.
Banning sale of fireworks is just one tiny step towards cleaning Delhi’s toxic air. But it is a very important one and a great place to begin. Not just because it is a low-hanging fruit and relatively easier to enforce and control than some of the other pollution sources. Not even because if enforced strictly, it will take away at one stroke the single highest contributing factor that kicks off the season of poor air in Delhi. But because this ban will raise awareness across all socio-economic groups about the extreme and irreversible damage that PM2.5 causes to the human body; and if enforced strictly by the local government, will demonstrate its willingness and intention to take such an important issue seriously and give it the attention it deserves.
There are at least five other sources that contribute heavily to PM2.5, and all of them need to be controlled. However, some of them, such as burning of crop stubble, garbage and biomass, have been even tougher to enforce. Others, like industrial combustion in power and cement sectors, have norms that need stricter enforcement. That leaves vehicular emissions – for which stakeholders are already demanding a faster switch to cleaner fuels like Bharat 5 and 6, CNG and electric vehicles.
Unfortunately, industrialised and urbanised cities need fuel for energy, power and transportation for almost every purpose. So it comes down mainly to this: the key difference is that PM2.5 is usually the by-product of economically productive activities – transportation, preparing for the next season’s crops, providing heat for cooking or warming. The bursting firecrackers for entertainment has the least productive value attached to it and is a luxury that developing nations with dirty air just can’t afford. Which makes this ban the least disruptive for the economy as a whole, allowing the Central government to join local governments to support it without losing more steam on economic growth.
(Jyoti Pande Lavakare is a Delhi-based columnist and co-founder of Care for Air (careforair.org), an awareness and advocacy platform whose mission is the pursuit of clean air. The views expressed are personal)