New Delhi/Bengaluru: As the air quality worsened in northern parts of India and the Covid-19 pandemic witnessed a new wave in the national capital in the festive season, all focus shifted to firecrackers and their sales across the country.
A few state governments announced a complete ban but then a couple of them, ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), went on to reverse the decisions partially or completely under pressure from their political constituents.
Earlier this week, the National Green Tribunal banned sale of all kinds of firecrackers until 30 November in cities where the average of ambient air quality during November last year was ‘poor’ or worse. The Calcutta High Court also intervened with a ban, effectively spanning the Diwali and Chhath Puja festivities in West Bengal. The Supreme Court has upheld the ruling.
These festivities are the mainstay of India’s Rs 5,000-crore fireworks industry. This has meant that the ban on firecrackers has been dominated by both religious and political undertones. Hindu groups have questioned the ban on firecrackers during important ‘Hindu festivities’.
But there are economic and health considerations, indicating that policy makers are grappling with difficult choices.
Firecracker manufacturers and traders are struggling with the plunge in sales and rising losses and those working in the units fear losing livelihoods.
There are health concerns as well with many fearing that firecrackers and the resultant pollution may further worsen the health of the population battling the pandemic.
The religious and political compulsions
Firecrackers are synonymous with Diwali, a major festival for the majority Hindu population. Any ban on firecrackers by governments invokes a political backlash from Hindu groups as well as from trader bodies that are traditionally closely affiliated with the BJP.
At present, the ban on firecrackers is effective in the non-BJP ruled states of West Bengal, Rajasthan, Odisha, Maharashtra and the Union Territory of Delhi.
After a ban announcement, BJP-ruled Haryana relaxed the move partially, allowing the burning of firecrackers for two hours on Diwali day. Another BJP-ruled state of Karnataka also rolled back the ban permitting green firecrackers to be used citing “public pressure”.
However, AAP-ruled Delhi is facing opposition from trader bodies and BJP leaders for going through with the ban.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) questioned why firecrackers are banned only during Hindu festivals. “I want to ask everybody who puts restrictions or bans on our festival by one means or another whether these firecrackers will not lead to pollution later on? Why ban or restrict them during Hindu festivals? Why not ban them throughout?” VHP national spokesperson Vinod Bansal asked.
“The Supreme Court had imposed certain restrictions and the authorities were to be held responsible. Are those restrictions also not enough? Those who are claiming that pollution will be reduced through restricting firecrackers, can they guarantee that pollution won’t happen later on? Hindu Samaj is environment friendly — we not only do suraksha (protection) but pooja too,” added Bansal.
Swadeshi Jagran Manch national co-convenor Ashwani Mahajan pointed out that the use of crackers is deeply linked with Diwali celebrations and questioned why states are not allowing green crackers approved by the Supreme Court.
“Already industry and scientists have done their work and come out with green crackers that are also certified by CSIR-NEERI, in which potassium nitrate and sulphur is not put and other pollutants are also reduced to the minimum. There is a misconception that all fire crackers cause pollution but it is the Chinese crackers that caused it more,” he said.
“Now since the central government has banned import of Chinese crackers effectively, that problem of excessive pollution is solved effectively; and strangely no agency responsible for controlling pollution had any role in that ban. We have to see all aspects of pollution, livelihood and the fact that use of crackers is deeply linked with Diwali celebration,” he said.
“Delhi is not becoming a gas chamber because of fire crackers, as they are not burnt at all these days, but because of the inaction of the governments and the authorities,” he added.
The economics of firecrackers
India’s firecracker industry is estimated to be around Rs 5,000 crore, with the majority of the production in Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu. However, government flip-flops and intervention by courts have plunged it into a crisis.
The uncertainty around sales of green crackers allowed by the Supreme Court in 2018 has not helped the industry either.
In a statement on 8 November, B.C. Bhartia, president of the Confederation of All India Traders, pointed out that the firecracker industry provides employment to about 10 lakh people and estimated the total manufacturing at Rs 5,000 crore. “In the absence of any clear policy on firecrackers, the industry is dying its own death,” he said.
The Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers Association (TNFAMA) estimates that there are 1,000 licensed cracker units in Sivakasi with a market size of Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,000 crore. But there are several units that are unregistered and operate out of sheds and small homes.
“On an average, production has dropped by 30 per cent,” said TNFAMA president P. Ganesan. He added that many of the manufacturers take huge loans during the festival season. If they are unable to sell the crackers, they will face heavy financial losses, further impacting Sivakasi’s economy and people depending on it.
A lot of these manufacturers are producing green crackers in Sivakasi, though many are unable to get the formula to make green crackers the right way.
Decisions to ban the use of firecrackers both by courts and the government stem from poor air quality as well as fears of adverse effects on Covid patients.
The Delhi government’s decision to ban crackers came as the city’s air quality worsened to reach the severe category for many days on account of massive stubble burning in states like Punjab.
In Karnataka’s case, the initial decision was prompted by the state-level Covid advisory committee’s advice.
Karnataka’s Health Minister K. Sudhakar said the committee had sought a ban on firecrackers as they would have a negative impact on the health of people, especially those who are infected by Covid or have recovered from it. The onset of winter and pollution levels are adding to the risks.
“This would make people with respiratory ailments to be affected and make them more vulnerable to the virus,” a senior doctor, who is part of the Covid advisory team in Karnataka, said on condition of anonymity.
With inputs from Chitleen Sethi, Apoorva Mandhani and Aneesha Bedi.