Of Sparks and Sounds


Kamal Baruah
(The writer can be reached at kamal.baruah@yahoo.com)

India celebrates Diwali by lighting clay lamps outside homes to symbolize the inner light that protects one from spiritual darkness. The festival of lights is today celebrated in many parts of the world. Making due recognition of the immense contributions made by the Indian-American community, the White House has also taken to celebration of the festival of lights since quite a few years. It is the time for diyas, candles, lights, sweets, firecrackers and be with the family. Diwali is known for fireworks; it is not complete without bursting crackers and people want Diwali celebration to be marked by bursting of crackers.

However, over the years it has now been accepted as a reality that Diwali celebration leads to air pollution. Fireworks emit toxic fumes and can cause respiratory problems, while causing pets and wildlife to be stricken by fear. Can we take the decision to make this Diwali noise free by refraining from fireworks?

The significance of the festival of light in Northern India is the celebration of home-coming of Lord Ram after his victory over Ravana. In south India the festival is celebrated to mark Lord Krishna’s victory over demon Narakasura. At the end of the day, in all interpretations, the festival marks the victory of good over evil. But, unfortunately enough, the real meaning and essence of Diwali has seemingly been lost nowadays under the piles of fire-crackers. Fireworks and bursting of crackers obviously leads to noise pollution, while disturbing the fragile balance in the atmosphere.

However, eco-friendly crackers may not adversely affect the environment and festive mood may not be dampened.
On the other hand, there is no blanket ban on sale of firecrackers. The Apex Court verdict says that only ‘green firecrackers’ (which are less polluting) will be allowed to be marketed and sold. Sikkim has already put a ban on production, sale and bursting of all firecrackers since 2014. Delhi has prohibited the sale and bursting of old stock of conventional firecrackers. It may be pertinent to state at this juncture that the air quality in the capital during winter worsens to an alarming level, turning the city into a virtual gas chamber.  The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) had found the presence of high levels of toxic elements like barium and aluminium in Delhi’s air a day after Diwali in the last two years.

The question arises as to why a complete prohibition on sound cannot be brought about laced with light illuminating firecrackers as in some other states? Supreme Court has put a ban on selling and burning of old stock and also has laid down permissible limits for production of new crackers. The apex court has also fixed the 8-10 pm slot for bursting of crackers during Diwali.

Menawhile, despite directive from the Ministry of Commerce, Chinese fireworks continue to be smuggled into the country through sea port. Chinese fireworks do not adhere to any noise standard. Although there is existing law against generating noise more than 125 decibel, strict implementation by civic authorities is a far cry. Ganak Kuchi village of Barpeta district is known for traditional firecrackers where eco-friendly crackers are made from recycled paper. These crackers do not contain as much chemicals as the conventional firecrackers. These crackers emit less smoke and produce less noise. Unlike the normal cracker, the eco-friendly crackers are based on vacuum combustion method. These crackers produce colourful sparks with considerable sound and less smoke. Despite the ban on conventional firecrackers by the Apex court, a section of the people still prefer high-decibel crackers over the eco-friendly ones.

The Indian firecracker industry is the second largest in the world after China. Surprisingly it does not export due to unsuitable storage and inadequate shipping facilities. Importing countries impose strict regulatory standards that India has been unable to meet. But India has a great potential for foreign revenue. Sivakasi in Tamilnadu is the hub of Indian fire cracker industry. It is home to over 9,500 firecracker factories, produces almost the entire fireworks output of India. Two brothers Shanmuga Nadar and P Ayya Nadar who found their way to work in a Kolkata based match factory in the early 1990s later returned to Sivakasi to begin their own enterprise.

Fireworks have been categorised under restrictive items. The Director General of Foreign trade, the Petroleum & Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO) have not granted licences to anyone to import firecrackers from any country. So buying China-made firecracker is illegal. With guidelines of the Apex Court for environment-friendly crackers, now producers add less of chemicals like sulphur and potassium nitrate. Potassium chlorate was discovered by French chemist Claude Louis Berthollet during the end of the 18th Century. The colour inducing chemical Potassium Chlorate is a banned explosive in India since 1992. The illegal trade began with China because Potassium Chlorate is much cheaper than its alternatives. It also probably sourced illegally from matchstick factories. It has very powerful oxidising ability and produces the flame of the firework when it mixed with Sulphur. It is beautiful but extremely dangerous.

The technology for fireworks with low emission levels was developed by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). The green crackers are sent to the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO) for safety checks and granting licences to the manufacturers. But they will not be available for this Diwali. NBRI in Lucknow is working on plant-based materials which could be used in fireworks. The Tamil Nadu Fore Crackers Association was involved in an experiment on the modification of chemical combination, control the emission with colours, smoke and height of lighting, brightness and ability to burst that has become viral through WhatsApp recently. Hope we celebrate a safe and sound Diwali.