It is that time of the year when there is an intense debate around the directions by courts regarding bursting firecrackers. We take a look at the Supreme Court order of 2018 & the recent NGT order that laid down guidelines for bursting firecrackers during any celebration.
Every year, in October- November, the NCR of Delhi is in the headlines for its poor air quality. During the winter months, because of the low temperature and higher wind speed and humidity, particulate matter remains suspended in the air for a longer time than during other seasons. Thus, the emissions from automobiles, diesel generators, dust from construction sites, industrial pollutants and other fossil fuel emissions linger in the air for longer durations. Fumes from the millions of tons of crop stubble burned in the neighbouring agricultural states of Punjab and Haryana is also carried to the national capital which further deteriorates the air quality. At one point of time, breathing Delhi’s air was equivalent to smoking 50 cigarettes a day and flights had to be stopped due to the poor visibility. It is during this season that the festival of Diwali is celebrated. The issue of bursting firecrackers is again in the limelight, thanks to an NGT order and a string of court orders.
Bursting of firecrackers releases toxic chemicals
Numerous studies have highlighted the deterioration of air quality arising out of bursting firecrackers, mainly during celebrations with examples from India, USA, and China. Bursting firecrackers generate dense clouds which contain copious amount of harmful and toxic chemicals such as oxides of Sulphur and Nitrogen, in addition to the black carbon particles.
Bursting firecrackers has been under scrutiny since long
Time and again, the Supreme Court has provided directions with respect to bursting firecrackers, based on the petitions being requesting a ban on them in the light of noise and air pollution. Back in 2001, the Supreme Court (SC) stated that firecrackers could be burst only between 6pm and 10pm. Later in 2005, the Court directed the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organization (PESO) to evaluate and take necessary measures to classify firecrackers into two- those which emit sound and those which emit colour/light. Since the stress was on curbing noise pollution back then, a complete ban on bursting of sound emitting crackers between 10pm and 6am was imposed. However, no restrictions were in place for colour/light emitting firecrackers.
Writ petition filed in 2015 urging government to take measures to curb pollution in Delhi
A writ petition was filed in 2015 on behalf of three infants- two were six months old and the third was fourteen months old. The petition was filed by their fathers out of concern for their children’s health because of the poor air quality in Delhi. In the petition, it was emphasized that the air quality hits its nadir during Diwali given the indiscriminate use of firecrackers which brings ‘the situation of ‘emergency’.’ The petition urged the court to take possible measures to keep the pollution level at check by considering the different contributors of pollutants. The petitioners further asked for a ban on any form of firecrackers during festivals and otherwise.
SC imposed restrictions in bursting firecrackers instead of a blanket ban
Following this petition, the SC directed the Central Pollution Control Board to conduct a research study to evaluate firecrackers on the basis of noise levels as well as chemical composition. Taking into consideration an Indian’s freedom of religion, freedom to carry on any occupation and business, and right to life, SC’s judgement in 2018 stated the following-
- Only firecrackers with reduced emission (improved) and green crackers (safe water and air sprinklers that emit less sound and light) were permitted to be manufactured and sold. Manufacture, sale, and use of joined firecrackers or series firecrackers was banned.
- Only licensed traders were permitted to sell firecrackers, and it was to be ensured that they sold only the stipulated type of firecrackers. Sale through e-commerce websites such as Amazon and Flipkart were also banned.
- Barium salts in firecrackers was banned. PESO was asked to test and check for presence of chemicals like Lithium, Arsenic, Mercury, and Lead that are banned.
- Public awareness campaigns by governments and schools were to be taken up to spread awareness on the harmful effects of firecrackers.
- For festivals, bursting of firecrackers was permitted for two hours from 8 pm to 10 pm. On Christmas and New Year Eve, fireworks were permitted from 11.55 pm to 12.30 am only.
- Concerned authority were to permit community fire cracking at pre-designated areas only i.e., in groups and at community level instead of household level.
NGT has called for complete ban on sale and use of firecrackers in areas with poor to severe air quality
Further to this judgement, the National Green Tribunal has recently imposed a ban on sale and use of firecrackers between 09 to 30 November 2020 in those areas where the air quality is poor, very poor, and severe. In other areas, unless there are restrictions imposed by authorities, the directions stated in the 2018 SC Judgement are applicable. Only the sale and use of green firecrackers is to be permitted between 09 to 30 November. Thus, there is a complete ban in Delhi NCR region.
The NGT’s order follows the initiatives taken by states like Rajasthan, Odisha, Sikkim, Delhi, and Chandigarh prohibiting sale and use of firecrackers to protect those infected with COVID-19 and other vulnerable groups. The NGT added that ‘air pollution aggravates COVID-19, not only crackers are to be banned/restricted depending upon air quality, all States/UTs, PCBs/PCCs must take special initiative to contain air pollution by regulating all other sources to pollution, particularly during COVID-19. No doubt pollution for crackers being seasonal source, particular focus is required thereon’.
It is also reported that the SC on 11 November 2020 affirmed the Calcutta High Court order banning the sale and bursting of firecrackers during Diwali, Chatt Puja, Kali Puja etc.in the entire state of West Bengal. In the brief hearing, the SC observed that preservation of life was more important during the COVID-19 pandemic than the celebration of festivals.
No compensation for firecrackers manufacturers
A counter argument that has always been raised when it comes to banning firecrackers is the loss of revenue and loss of employment despite being a licensed industry. The NGT acknowledged the same and added that health of citizens and environment is affected and that such restrictions are necessary to effectuate sustainable development and precautionary principle. There has been no mention on compensation to support those manufacturers and others who will be affected by the ban.
Previously, arrests were made for violating directions
In spite of there being bans and regulations in place, earlier reports indicate that there have been numerous instances of violation of these directions. About 210 persons were arrested and 371 cases were registered in Delhi alone on the Diwali night in 2019. On the other side, in Bangalore, no FIRs were reportedly filed in 2018 when firecrackers were burst beyond the stipulated time.
Air quality must be given importance irrespective of pandemic
Meanwhile, India’s tally of COVID-19 cases is the second highest in the world. Amidst the ongoing festive celebrations vitiating the social distancing norms and winter season setting in, it is being anticipated that the COVID-19 cases might increase and warnings have been issued to stay safe and take necessary precautions.
As it is, Delhi is among the worst hit states in the country because of the pandemic in addition to its poor air quality. Studies have identified that air pollution further aggravates COVID-19 fatality. The Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM)in National Capital Region reviewed the situation in Delhi NCR and have put forth 10 immediate measures, as per a press release by the Government of India.
The issue of air quality & pollution should not just be discussed in the context of firecrackers & their regulation but given its due importance. Governments must take stringent measures to improve air quality across the country. The National Clean Air Programme was launched by the Central government in 2019 to tackle air pollution with a target to achieve 20% to 30% reduction in Particulate Matter Concentrations by 2024. Whether India can achieve these targets remains to be seen.
Featured Image: National Clean Air Programme