With the country in the throes of a mission to clean up public spaces and the general environment, it would be in the fitness of things to spare a thought about the air we breathe. And the air quality becomes far worse in the aftermath of Diwali, with fireworks burnt up across the length and breadth of this vast land releasing toxic gases and heavy metals. As it is, the air in India is already its fifth big killer, as per a Global Burden of Disease report. The country has the world’s highest mortality rate from respiratory diseases at 159 deaths per 1 lakh of population, twice that of Chi. As many as 10 Indian cities figure among the top 20 in the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s list of polluted cities. Delhi is among them, with hospital reports in the capital consistently showing children to be most affected in terms of lung infections. So the Supreme Court’s tough stand on ensuring clean air (and less noise pollution) comes as no surprise — it recently ordered a ban on the sale of firecrackers in Delhi-NCR region during the festive season till October 31. Following Delhi’s cue, cities across the country have been witnessing administrations carrying out awareness drives, schools staging street plays, NGOs gifting saplings, eco clubs organising green runs, residents welfare associations taking pledges to celebrate a pollution-free Diwali. Social media is pitching in, with celebrities joining the #MyRightToBreathe movement. There is more mischief done to the Festival of Lights by making it an eardrum shattering nuisance of noise — social activist groups are pointing out the use of cheap plastic and other non-biodegradable materials for decorations, synthetic colour to make sweets look mouth-watering, and the widespread wastage of food. Appeals are being made that in a power deficient country where the larger share of power is generated by burning coal (which pollutes the air), it behoves people to celebrate the spirit of Diwali by lighting earthen lamps, thereby also doing their bit to help the cause of local artisans.
The administration of Assam’s capital city has been making the right noises about people needing to celebrate a Green Diwali, but keeps coming up short in implementation. The sale of fireworks remains largely unregulated in Guwahati. Many outlets are selling fireworks without license in the city’s commercial heart Fancy Bazaar despite official warnings that their wares will be seized. In a market that has witnessed major fires in recent years, unscrupulous traders hell bent on making a fast buck are flouting fireworks storage norms at will. So-called wholesalers with their cartons of fireworks spilling onto the pavements — turn the entire market into a veritable powder keg at this time of the year. What the city administration’s joint inspection teams are enforcing here is anybody’s guess; but unless things are not straightened out in Fancy Bazaar first, there is little point in talking about open fields for selling fireworks. It also remains to be seen how far the city administration succeeds in enforcing the ban on high-decibel Chinese firecrackers as per Supreme Court’s directive. Some groups are also asking people to boycott Chinese ormental lights and various decorative wares. What we need to appreciate is that unless the Chinese are not dumping their goods illegally in Indian markets, there is little authorities here can do. Like Chi, India too as a WTO member has opened its markets under its neo-liberal economic policy. Boycott calls against Chinese goods therefore serve little purpose. Considering how traders here are ready to bribe their way to continue selling Chinese goods, it would be instructive to find out the actual margin of profit they rake in (reportedly they make a killing!). Our entrepreneurs would do well to draw lessons from the products Chinese manufacturers make and the tactics they employ to push these in our markets here. Even desi firecracker makers from Sivakasi and other places are learnt to be using the ‘Assam’ word on their labels to attract buyers, thereby rubbing salt into the wounds of Barpeta fireworks makers. Having long failed to give economic support to these local artisans, the Assam government can think about how best to help position their wares as a heritage product. And it is upon users to be careful with fireworks; studies have shown the kolgos (flower pot) to be the deadliest in terms of burn injuries caused, particularly to children, but the likes of firecrackers and sparklers too cause significant grief. While injuries are attributed to the user’s carelessness, there is little scope to hold firework makers liable for defective products. In the larger context, everyone needs to act not just responsibly, but as agents of change. We need to ensure that while celebrating our festivals, we no longer take the environment for granted.