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Firecracker ban: If the SC move reduces air pollution, how will we know?

Firecrackers are undoubtedly a threat to environment and our health, but it may not be possible to accurately measure how effective this ban will be

Siddharth Singh 

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

The of India recently banned the sale and stocking of firecrackers in the National Capital Regionuntil November 1, barely 10 days before Diwali. Will the move have an impact on Delhi's air? And if it will, how will it be gauged? Siddharth Singh demystifies the order and its implication for Business Standard.
In banning the sale and stocking of firecrackers in Delhi-NCR, the cited studies that showed firecrackers led to a spike in pollution, which is hardly unobvious. That something must be done about air in Delhi is a forgone conclusion – after all, between 10,000 and 30,000 people are estimated to die every year because of it.
After news of the firecracker ban spread, the usual cycle of brouhaha ensued, with culture warriors perceiving it as an attack on the Hindu faith and demanding concessions from other religions. The absurdness of this argument aside, they also cited – correctly – that is not merely caused by firecrackers on Diwali.

In fact, much of the 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 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 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 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 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 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. 
For this reason, a simple comparison of particulate level this year versus the previous years on Diwali day will not suffice, as wind conditions, temperatures and other sources of would be different. Similarly, NCR’s levels cannot be compared to other cities in India, and neither can before and after levels in NCR itself. 

When the Odd-Even car scheme was tried out in 2016, the University of Chicago studied levels in Delhi and compared it to 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 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 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 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. 
Gains from a restricted firecracker use has other benefits too which cannot be easily quantified. In Delhi, there were 350 fires and over 500 cases of burn injuries on the day of Diwali in 2015. These included severe eye injuries including blindness. A study showed that over 70% of the victims of firecracker led injuries in Delhi are between 5-30 years old. 

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 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.
Siddharth Singh is a German Chancellor Fellow working as a Visiting Fellow at the Wuppertal Institute in Berlin. He tweets as @siddharth3

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

First Published: Thu, October 12 2017. 09:48 IST