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Why those deathly crackers in the festival of light

The stench of gunpowder did not accompany a triumphant Rama when he returned to Ayodhya after vanquishing Ravana. Firearms were not part of Krishna’s arsenal when he killed Narakasura. The divinity of Kali simply required a machete to take down whatever came her way. The goddess of wealth would be really inconvenienced by fireworks that startle and daze her steed, the owl. Whatever one’s reason for observing Deepavali or Diwali, the festival of light was always about earthen lamps, and later candles and coloured matches.

Even in modern India, few saw fireworks till the rich started importing sparklers from Europe. Fire mud pots (aanar) were manufactured in the 19th century Bengal but desi manufacturers truly stepped in when imports were affected due to the World War Two. From three in 1942, the number of factories rose to 189 by 1980. Today there are more than 500, mostly concentrated in Sivakasi. Nearly all of them pride themselves in their noisy, noxious crackers.

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Firecrackers, in all likelihood, are a Chinese invention. More than two millennia ago, it was accidental bursting of green bamboo chunks thrown into fire. By the beginning of the last millennium, gunpowder was added to bamboo for a bigger bang. The advancement in pyrotechnics was rapid in China and Marco Polo took the unique art of fireworks to Italy in 1292.

Today, the firecrackers (indeed all fireworks and much of it made in China) flooding our markets follow the formula perfected many centuries ago: 75 % saltpetre (potassium nitrate), 15% carbon and 10% sulphur. When lighted, these chemicals burn with atmospheric oxygen. The combination generates poisonous oxides of carbon, sulphur and nitrogen. Heavy metals such as cadmium and lead are also released.

Studies claim that during Diwali, the levels of these oxides rise more than 100 percent. Exposure to chemicals is a threat even while storing or carrying firecrackers. Thousands of children and women toil for long hours in the sweatshops where these are manufactured. Records across India show that every Diwali presence of suspended particles in the air shoots up by 90-150 percent, reducing visibility and suffocating us. The noise, well beyond the threshold of human tolerance, traumatises the young, old, sick and pets alike.

Our air quality is already so bad that any trigger can lead to lethal smog. Lack of wind speed and burning of millions of tonnes of wheat husk by Punjab farmers (though incinerating agricultural waste is illegal) created a stubborn blanket that hung over much of north India for the past two weeks. The smog threatened to trip the northern grid that powers 28 per cent of India’s population in nine states.

Smog moistens transmission lines which soon become caked with deposits of airborne pollution. If unchecked, this leads to short circuits and eventual tripping. Polymer insulators can protect the wires but only few states have it in place. The entire northern grid suffered due to smog and fog in 2008 and 2009. A major collapse in 2001 took more than 12 hours to restore.

Experts fear that the smog, and with it the risk of a blackout, will intensify after the Diwali extravaganza which coincides with a likely western disturbance. Even after the apparent clearing of smog over the last two days, the air quality index that peaked to 920 earlier in the week – almost double the “critical” or “very unhealthy” mark of 500 – still hovers around 350 or “very poor” level in the capital.

The Delhi Chief Minister has already appealed to citizens to avoid fireworks. The union Environment ministry has taken up the issue of burning agricultural waste with the Punjab government. Even the Supreme Court has stepped in with a bench headed by Chief Justice Altamas Kabir promising to deal with the rising pollution.

The threat is not just about long blackouts and disruption of essential services. The Great Smog of 1952 proved fatal for 12,000 Londoners in the months that followed. More than 25,000 were affected due to aggravation or development of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, bronchitis and other respiratory ailments. Every year, doctors all over India report a surge in these cases on or after Diwali.

Suspended particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) directly enters the alveoli of the lung. In hazy Beijing, the lung cancer rate has increased by 60 per cent in the past decade though the smoking rate has remained mostly static. Chinese experts feel that smog with high PM2.5 may soon replace smoking tobacco as the top risk factor for lung cancer.

In the recent years, a lot has been invested in awareness campaigns and in putting legal restrictions in place to discourage firecrackers. Yet, Sivakasi alone sells R 900 crore worth fireworks, mostly firecrackers, every year though a state like Punjab cannot raise R 400 crore for polymer insulation to safeguard the northern grid against polluting smog.

Worse, while we splurge over R 1000 crore in a noisy celebration spewing toxic fumes, the annual budget (2011-12) for the National Pollution Control Board to clean up that mess and more stands at a mere R 40 crore. The academic debates over who – the Indian, the Chinese or the Arab – actually invented gunpowder will continue. But we surely don’t have to be in a race to choke on it.