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In banning the sale and stocking of firecrackers in Delhi-NCR, the Supreme Court cited studies that showed firecrackers led to a spike in pollution, which is hardly unobvious. That something must be done about air pollution in Delhi is a forgone conclusion – after all, between 10,000 and 30,000 people are estimated to die every year because of it.
In fact, much of the pollution comes from road dust, agri residue burning, electricity production and road transport. The effort on these other fronts has unfortunately been incremental and slow. On the other hand, the firecracker ban impacts the celebration of an important religious festival in India. Therefore, air pollution levels before and after the ban will be observed closely by all.
The court itself said that, “we are of the view that the order suspending the licences should be given one chance to test itself in order to find out whether there would be positive effect of this suspension.” The ban is therefore being seen as a testing ground. A significant reduction in pollution could persuade curbs on firecrackers in other locations as well.
But how exactly can the impact of this ban be studied? If the impact of such a ban is to be analysed, we can compare air pollution levels in two time-periods or two locations, one where such a ban is in place, and another where it is not. However, such a study in the case of pollution is possible only under the condition of ceteris paribus, that is, if all other factors are held constant.
This, unfortunately, is not possible in the real world. Particulate pollution levels are impacted by weather conditions such as wind, pressure and temperature, as well as the emissions from other sources such as industry, construction and agriculture.
When the Odd-Even car scheme was tried out in 2016, the University of Chicago studied pollution levels in Delhi and compared it to pollution levels in other cities in NCR such as Noida and Faridabad at the same times using a ‘differences-in-differences’ approach. This methodology is still imperfect, but is sounder than a simple comparison of pollution levels with levels in the past or in other cities.
This method, however, cannot be replicated in the case of the firecracker ban because it has been applied to NCR as a whole. There are no cities similar to NCR where pollution levels can be adequately studied and compared. Cities that are far off would be unsatisfactory samples as geographies and local climates would differ.
However, the lack of sound evidence should not imply that the ban would not have an impact on air pollution. Lower sales can be estimated by surveys in NCR and surrounding districts. Of course, this will have to be controlled for the existing economic conditions in the country. Then, these lower sales can be multiplied with the emission factors of various firecrackers.
For instance, a ground spinner (chakri) emits 9,490 mcg/m3 of PM2.5 particulate matter, which causes various lung diseases and cuts short human lives. A garland of 1000 crackers (ladi) emits 38,540 mcg/m3 and a snake tablet emits 64,500 mcg/m3 in a few minutes. This exceeds the safe standards set by WHO by a few thousand times.
And these are only particulate matters – firecrackers also emit other pollutants that are severely harmful to humans. Imagine a million fewer snake tablets are used in NCR during Diwali this year. You can do the math on the back of an envelope.
One wonders the wisdom of partisan quacks with a victim complex who wish to distribute firecrackers among children in slums as a response to the ban. While they are at it, they may as well tell them to eat cake.
There is an important distinction to be made here between the use of firecrackers and other religious practices. The use of firecrackers and loudspeakers leads to negative ‘externalities’, which are the adverse consequences of an activity on a third party which do not wish to partake in that activity. The celebration of holi with willing friends or enjoying food with family does not constitute an externality.
Insofar air pollution is concerned, the larger battle will of course be structural. Our transport, agricultural practices, construction and industry need an overhaul. There are, however, low hanging fruits with far lower economic costs, which must be grabbed without hesitation. Never mind what the particulate matter readings are at the end of the exercise – they won’t reveal the gains made anyway. Firecrackers are equal opportunity threats to our health and safety. They don’t discriminate between users and bystanders, or liberals and conservatives.