Indians will celebrate a green Diwali this year after the country's top court upheld a ban on setting off toxic firecrackers in an attempt to reduce air pollution, which is blamed for millions of deaths.
Diwali – the festival of lights – is a major Hindu religious festival celebrated by hundreds of millions of people, but every year media headlines focus on the haze of pollution that follows fireworks displays across the country.
India’s Supreme Court in 2018 imposed a nationwide ban on the use of crackers that contain toxic substances, such as barium and lead, after several petitioners demanded a blanket ban over pollution concerns.
On Monday, the highest federal court reiterated its ban on the sale, purchase and manufacturing of the highly polluting crackers, but allowed the use of “green crackers” to mark the festival.
The court overturned an order by the West Bengal state court imposing a blanket ban on all firecrackers.
"There cannot be a complete ban on firecrackers. Strengthen the mechanism to stop misuse,” the court order said, while noting that celebrations cannot take precedence over the right to health.
Where bans have been issued, implementation has been swift. On Tuesday, Delhi police said they had already seized 4,000 kilograms of firecrackers and arrested 26 people. In eastern Kolkata city, 77.5 kilograms of firecrackers were seized and four people were arrested.
Many states, including the capital New Delhi, have imposed a complete ban on fireworks. Many Hindus say the ban hurts the religious sentiment of the majority community.
Other states have allowed a two-hour window on the evening of Diwali for people to set off crackers.
The court-approved “green crackers” are low-emission fireworks that have a small shell size compared with normal crackers and produce 30 per cent less particulate matter – microscopic particles that can enter the lungs and the bloodstream.
They do not contain harmful chemicals such as lithium, arsenic, barium or lead and instead release water vapour.
Hindus for centuries have celebrated Diwali by lightening earthen lamps and candles to mark the return of Lord Ram to Ayodhya, his place of birth, after completing 14 years in exile.
But the use of firecrackers on Diwali was introduced in the 18th century when Maratha rulers organised firework displays for the general public – 400 years after they were first introduced to the country by Mongols from China in the 14th century.
In the past few years, India has developed the world’s second largest firecracker industry after China, estimated to be worth 50 billion rupees ($668.8 million).
It provides employment to one million people, 300,000 of them in Sivakasi in southern Tamil Nadu state, where 90 per cent of the country’s fireworks are made. Almost every household in the city is engaged in the industry.
The fireworks industry also indirectly provides employment to eight million people each year by giving temporary licenses to sell firecrackers during the festival season.
But in recent years, intervention by the government and courts after demands for a ban on firecrackers by health and social activists have plunged the once profitable industry into a financial crisis.
The South Asian nation is one of the most polluted countries in the world.
In 2020, a report by Swiss organisation IQAir named 22 Indian cities in the world’s 30 most polluted cities. It ranked Delhi as the most polluted capital city in the world.
A report by British medical journal The Lancet in 2020 said India lost 1.67 million people to toxic air in 2019.
Delhi has suffered the worst of the pollution crisis in recent winters, particularly during Diwali when immense pollution caused by firecrackers combined with stubble burning turned the city into a “gas chamber”.
In 2019, the city’s Air Quality Index went beyond 999 – categorised as severe – in many locations. The World Health Organisation’s recommended safe level is 25.
On Monday, air quality levels in the capital were hovering between moderate and poor.
Health and environmental experts say the firecrackers aggravate the air pollution in big cities like Delhi where toxic air has become a public health crisis.
“Air quality hits 20 times worse than the permissible limit, entire city chokes, hospitals run out of beds,” Vimlendu Jha, Environmentalist and founder of Swechha charity, told The National.
“In that situation, the least we can do is not burst firecrackers and further aggravate an already choked city. Firecrackers are episodic but that doesn't mean we act stupid for celebration at the cost of public health,” he said.