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Smokeless Diwali: Delhi, there is something foul in the air, don't make it worse

A ban is rarely a great solution, but we must recognize that no other agency is upholding our right to breath clean air.

Dinesh Kapur 

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Go outside and get some fresh air. Go for a walk, it will clear your mind.” Fresh air and a relaxing walk are simple pleasures unavailable to residents of Delhi/NCR. Walking, running or cycling here might cause more damage to your health than any good.

Why do you say this?
Because on an average day in Delhi/NCR PM2.5 pollution is between 150-400 micrograms per cubic metre. This means the ‘baseline’ or ‘everyday’ pollution in the NCR due to essential or routine economic activities, in and around Delhi, is 2 to 4 times above the danger mark. Transportation, factories, coal-fired power production, waste burning, unending construction work, slash and burn agriculture in neighbouring states, and local climate effects are the major reasons. This has been the case for the last 5-10 years. It is a problem because PM2.5 levels above 60-100 micrograms per cubic metre are considered unsafe by the WHO.

What does PM2.5 do?
Such poor air quality is a contributor to chronic year-long complaints of cough, sniffling, irritability in the eyes, headaches, fatigue, asthma, bronchitis, and skin allergies. Common ailments in Delhi/NCR. These high levels of PM2.5, over longer periods, increase the risk of serious breathing disorders, developmental disorders in children, cardiovascular issues, and neurological problems. Shocking, but not unexpected, is the fact that 40 percent of children in the NCR have critically low lung function. Almost every day in Delhi is an attack on our health that we regretfully ignore. 

If there are so many factors, why are people focusing on air pollution due to Diwali firecrackers? Last year air pollution (PM2.5 and PM10) levels in the NCR were 14-16 times above the safe limit on the day after Diwali. Such levels have never been recorded in an Indian city before. It was a public health emergency for Delhi/NCR. Testing for breathing disorders went up by 10-20 times. Schools were shut. The number of sick days increased dramatically. If regular days in Delhi are a dose of hazardous air, last November, the day after Diwali, was a quite simply poison.

We can handle 14-16 times pollution for one day of celebration, okay?
If you really believe that you are completely wrong. Such levels of pollution are ‘anti-human’. Doctors don’t know if our bodies can cope with such pollution. According to Dr Arvind Kumar, one of India’s lead chest surgeons, in his 25 year experience, only patients that were smokers had black deposits on their lungs. In recent years, Dr Kumar has seen PM2.5 deposits aggregating on the lungs of nonsmokers, children, and even people that are active/healthy. And there is no mechanism to clean your lungs - these deposits are permanent. They decrease your lung capacity and eventually impacts your cardiovascular and neurological function.

Okay, but why is the SC proactively banning firecrackers?
This is not a judicial overreach. The court has not proactively walked into the situation. The ban is in response to a petition in the SC by children suffering from severe breathing problems from air pollution after Diwali 2015 and 2016. They asked the court to uphold their “right to breathe clean air” which is a part of the “right to life”. This raised the question - is the “right to life” more important than the “right to celebrate using firecrackers”.

It is just one week of air pollution, banning sale of firecrackers won’t solve Delhi’s air pollution problems. This is like trying to lose weight by fasting on one day. No, it is not the same thing. The SC was never trying to give a solution that works for 365 days or magically solve NCR’s air pollution. The SC is trying to limit the peak pollution that your body is exposed to and prevent additional toxic pollutants (Sulphur, Metal Oxides) that peak after Diwali. This ban can only hope to prevent air pollution from rising above pre-existing levels of 150-400 micrograms per cubic metre and reaching inhuman levels witnessed last year. 

I’ll only stop bursting firecrackers if the SC addresses other issues like emissions from ACs, transportation, and crop burning first! Please understand, that we don’t have a choice. ALL sources of air pollution need to be addressed, with utmost urgency. It is not a case of firecrackers OR crop burning. We need to stop pollution from firecrackers AND crop burning AND other sources till the situation improves. Directives against slash and burn agriculture, polluting vehicles, and emissions standards for factories already exist. For these, the SC can’t do more than reminding governments (municipal, state, and centre) of their enforcement responsibilities and asking citizens to follow laws. And if you feel so strongly about other contributors of PM2.5 then you absolutely must raise your voice and demand action. You must put air pollution on the development agenda. As for ACs are not meant to produce smoke or PM2.5, and are essential in hospitals, food storage, and offices. Firecrackers are vastly different.

But this is selective shaming of Hindu festivals! Absolutely not. Religion has nothing to do with campaigns for a smokeless Diwali.
The only thing attacking our religion is air pollution. Even before Diwali Delhi/NCR’s air quality is very poor. The problem lies in the sheer scale of our cities. Today, we have 46 million people in the NCR. This is nearly double the population of the whole country of Australia. If each person in the NCR bursts one snake bomb (equal to 464 cigarettes) that alone will produce the smoke of 200 billion cigarettes in one minute! Even one firecracker per person can make Delhi a gas chamber.

Why are some public tweeters calling this an attack on Hindus and urging people to burst more crackers?
A quick scan of twitter, and TV interviews will show that the people urging Delhi-ites to burst more crackers live outside Delhi/NCR. Delhi, these people are not with us. They don’t understand the grave crisis you and I are facing in Delhi/NCR (and most of North India). They live in cities close to the sea or with better air quality or in houses with air purifiers. They can afford holidays and treatment. They don’t care about our children, the sick, or the millions of urban poor in Delhi. And don’t forget we have an equal number of people, including our cricket team, urging for a Diwali without smoke.

What about a bloodless eid and bloodless muharram?
This isn’t relevant. Your quality of life and lives of children are facing an immediate threat from air pollution. While many would support a vegetarian diet simply for health and environmental reasons, these traditions from other religions, are not putting your life at risk. Smoke from firecrackers is putting you at risk. And if you feel strongly about animals rights then we encourage and urge you to do something about it. Strength to you.

Why did the SC fail to give enough notice?
The SC first banned firecrackers on 25 Nov 2016. That was nearly a year ago! And even though the problem was visible last year, the SC still requested the Central Pollution Control Board to submit a report quantifying the impact. However, the CPCB, surprisingly, refused to do this over 7 months. Firecracker manufacturers had one year to plan for contingencies. However, they spent most of this time lobbying to overturn the ban. And they were successful on 13 Sep 2017. However, the petitioners pointed out that air quality in NCR was already very poor before Diwali and any increase would impact children significantly. Hence, the ban was reinstated. There is no doubt that the SC could have certainly shown more consistency, however, their decision is not unfounded.

What about workers in the firecracker industry? Those workers can be re-skilled and employed in other sectors, however, you cannot buy a new pair of lungs. You have got to understand that your health is not worth firecrackers of any amount. That said, there is no denying that we need to make this shift easy for everyone. We need to come together and create a demand for alternatives, and a plan for those impacted economically.

Delhi, firecrackers are the only thing in our immediate control - transportation, waste, and, slash and burn agriculture require many agencies and state governments to work together. Therefore, as citizens, our questions should be directed at agencies that are meant to defend us against pollution. A ban is rarely a great solution, but we must recognize that no other agency is upholding our right to breath clean air. 

And if you hear people say they will “burst extra firecrackers and teach the SC a lesson” this Diwali, remind them that the SC judges can probably afford to travel to places with good air quality. You and I are ones that will be left behind to inhale the smoke. So we urge you to avoid firecrackers and avoid entering the race for the Darwin award. Let’s make this Diwali the start of a battle against air pollution. A victory of light over darkness. Wish you a safe and happy Diwali!
Dinesh Kapur studied Public Policy at Oxford University's Blavatnik School of Government as a Start-up Nation Fellow from 2015-2016. He was a sustainability researcher @ NIUA for India's Smart Cities Mission between 2014-2015. He currently works on technology policy issues at Google. Views expressed are personal.

First Published: Wed, October 18 2017. 09:12 IST
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