File photo | Fireworks illuminate the sky during Diwali celebrations, in Mandi, 14 Nov 2020 | PTI
File photo | Fireworks illuminate the sky during Diwali celebrations, in Mandi, 14 Nov 2020 | PTI
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As I write this, there is a continuous stream of firecrackers outside the window of my Bengaluru apartment: relatively subdued in my immediate vicinity compared to previous years, but nevertheless quite vigorous. It is just as well that the Karnataka government under B.S. Yediyurappa reversed its decision to ban firecrackers — albeit permitting only “green” ones — because it is unlikely that people would have refrained from celebrating Diwali the usual way, and the already overworked police force would have the unhappy task of enforcing a very unpopular rule.

There is little doubt that firecrackers, green or otherwise, add to atmospheric pollution. They are also a known fire hazard. They terrify animals, and as a dog owner, I have an acute sense of what a harrowing experience it is for them. All of this is true, but it does not follow that a nationwide ban on firecrackers is the answer. Indeed, a blanket ban across India could be counterproductive in other ways, because the unpopularity of the policy energises socially conservative and reactionary politics, shrinking the envelope of freedom and rule-of-law.

The controversy over firecracker policy highlights four bad policymaking habits in India: nationalising, judicialising, moralising, and rushing policies.

Also read: Delhi Police blames delayed announcement, non-cooperation of public for cracker ban failure

New Delhi is not India

Over-centralisation of political power in the Union government, the disproportionate influence of New Delhi in public discourse and pervasiveness of social media turns almost every issue into a national one. The capital’s polluted air is on the minds of media persons, policymakers, politicians and judges, which makes it easy for them to be persuaded that banning firecrackers is obviously necessary. They easily miss the fact that India is a vast country and there are many areas where the air is not as polluted, the space not as populated and the preference for firecrackers not as intense as the national capital. They also miss the fact that a lot of people are dependent on the firecracker industry, and their interests and livelihoods are also legitimate considerations. One-size-fits-all is generally a bad idea for a diverse and plural nation like India, and especially so if the ‘one size’ is that of New Delhi.

That is why it is just as well that state governments are making these decisions. It would be even better if they devolve these decisions to municipalities and panchayats.

Also read: If not pollution, Hindu groups still have 2 good reasons to support firecracker ban on Diwali

Package orders

Even if the Narendra Modi government is not involved in nationalising this particular issue, there is the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and, consequently, the Supreme Court. This also judicialises the issue. Why is judicialisation not a good thing? Because it is blunt and hard to reverse.

Judges seldom take into consideration the economic consequences of their decisions, and unlike politicians and civil servants, they are not publicly accountable for them. It also creates uncertainties, and grey areas feed corruption and strengthen the unscrupulous. The NGT declares where firecrackers are permitted and where not. The Supreme Court has the final say. A few judges are making decisions that thousands of sarpanches, hundreds of mayors and 32-odd chief ministers ought to have made. Worse, elected officials cannot exercise their own policy judgement once the court has given its verdict.

Not a moral issue

The third bad habit is the tendency to moralise policy issues. Lighting firecrackers is not an immoral act, no more than driving a car or taking a flight is. It is best to deal with pollution as a practical issue. It is undesirable because it has negative consequences for air quality and our living environment. The role of public policy would be to minimise pollution. This is best done by changing the incentives of polluters, not passing moral judgements on them. Yet in the popular opposition to Diwali firecrackers, I sense a growing element of moralising, of judging people who make, sell, and light them.

Converting a debate on policy into one of morality turns it into a battle between right and wrong, destroys the middle ground and transforms its politics.

Also read: Chinese fireworks ban to green crackers, Rs 1 lakh penalty — What states are doing for Diwali

Bans before Diwali

The fourth bad policy habit is the most palpable one: abrupt, drastic decisions that are effective immediately. It is positively undemocratic and unjust to announce a ban on firecrackers a few days before Diwali. There is no time for anyone to make adjustments — manufacturers and dealers are left staring at huge losses and children who had been looking forward to the festival face disappointment. We see this sort of abrupt, nearly whimsical decisions made by government authorities more often than not, and those who do not accept them have to approach the courts, thereby judicialising the matter. It is entirely possible to make clear decisions well in advance, announce an adequate transition time table and help those adversely affected for no fault of their own.

What would a reasonable firecracker policy look like? First, leave decisions to states and local governments. Second, announce a two to three-year timetable for the transition to less polluting types of firecrackers; with states like Tamil Nadu that produce firecrackers helping the industry make the transition. Third, promote moderation and responsible use of firecrackers, using a mix of public education, taxation and restrictions. If we get rid of our bad policy habits, it is possible in most places in India to both celebrate Diwali with firecrackers and be responsible towards the environment.

Nitin Pai is the director of the Takshashila Institution. Views are personal.

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  1. It is a national and moral issue. Sanatan is under attack from the left-jihadi combine. We must protect the Sanatan way of life and eradicate the opponents of the Civilisation of India. The question is does The Print and the Lutyens lobby want to stand in the way of Hindus?

  2. Diwali/Deepawali – the name itself suggest that it is the festival of Diya/Deep/Deepa. But the right-wingers want to celebrate it as Crackerwali just for the heck of their political/ideological obsession and ego. Before industrialization, the Hinduism once stood for the betterment of the Nature, Environment, Flora and Fauna. But from 20th and in 21st century it is accelerating to become the opposite of the principles once it stood for.

  3. Absolutely spot on… is high time that these kind of things are decided based on practicality….. there is likely to be push back on the ban band wagon….in fact the biggest culprit, in such matters, are the courts…SC included….. they give out wierd judgements, without understanding the basics of such matters…

  4. Can any reader tell me that why West Bengal never makes it to your pages when there is something to share with the rest of the country?
    1. There was no peaking of COVID cases in Bengal after the Durga Pujas. The CM did a lot but people were also disciplined. But everyone did celebrate their pujas …but differently.
    So we Indians can do it.
    2. There has been a very subdued display of fire crackers for the last few years in Kolkata during Diwali
    .In response to pollution.
    Yet you are carrying an article saying that this is not possible.
    But we Indians can do it! If one state can do it so can others.

    The CM despite all her faults has been out and managing the Pandemic. And she has done very good work. It cannot be Utopian though!
    West Bengal will be fighting an election and against heavy odds. Some good press will go a long way to strengthen the liberal forces in the state.

    • Is it the job of media to take sides in an election? And what is liberal and therefore good for you, can be liberal and bad or illiberal and bad or even illiberal but good for others.

  5. Mr Pai,
    Sadly if you follow what you are suggesting- things will never ever change in India- many a times tough laws and law enforcement is necessary- if remedies that you suggest would have worked – wouldn’t India have been cleaner than Singapore?

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