Half-hearted ban on sale of crackers won't help: India needs sustained efforts to tackle air pollution

The Supreme Court verdict banning the sale of firecrackers in the Delhi/National Capital Region (NCR) is strange, to say the least, especially since it has not prohibited the bursting of firecrackers. Apart from making the order difficult to implement, the learned judges have also failed to gauge the emergency facing the country.

Last year, post Diwali, Delhiites woke up to streams of toxic air streaming into their homes. The young, the old and infirm, all were very literally gasping for breath with the more serious cases being rushed to the hospital.

The nuanced stance of the highest court of India banning the sale of firecrackers till 1 November 2017, but allowing the public to explode their existing stock has raised several question marks. The Delhi Police’s chief spokesperson and Commissioner of Police (Traffic), Dependra Pathak, is a perplexed man.

A file image of smog covered street in New Delhi from 2016. PTI

A file image of a smog covered street in New Delhi from 2016. PTI

Pathak, along with other police officials pointed out that such an order is difficult to implement especially since retailers who have bought firecrackers will continue to do business from their homes.

Police officials also questioned how they were expected to monitor online purchases of crackers. There are several websites who are not functioning from Delhi but who is to stop them from supplying firecrackers to Delhiites.

Several leading doctors who have been actively promoting the "Right to Breathe" campaign in the national capital believe the ban — spread over Delhi and 23 districts of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Rajasthan along with environmental activists — should have been imposed across the country.

Dr Randeep Guleria, head of AIIMS, and a pulmonary specialist attributes the sharp rise in respiratory problems to the increased particulate matter (PM) 2.5 levels in the Delhi/NCR region.

As part of a WhatsApp campaign, Dr Arvind Kumar — who is also part of the "Right to Breathe" campaign — of Ganga Ram Hospital has been showing pink healthy lungs of people living in an unpolluted environment and the black, diseased lungs of people living in the national capital. The concern being voiced by doctors is understandable because, already, pollution levels have worsened in the last fortnight with PM 2.5 levels having risen 11 times between 22 September and 8 October.

Dr Guleria says that after Diwali, doctors in NCR report a 30 percent rise in the number of patients complaining of respiratory disorders.

Of course, part of the blame for the rising pollution levels must be put on the shoulders of farmers of Punjab and Haryana who continue to burn the stubble in their fields. Wind directions in the last fortnight have been from the north to the southeast bringing in high levels of toxins and a haze hanging low over the horizon which for Delhites means the beginning of winter.

Last year, the air quality was unprecedented in its toxicity levels during Diwali. In 2016, the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) had recorded PM 2.5 levels touching 624 micrograms per cubic metres on Diwali day while the PM 10 levels had crossed 1,000 at 10 pm in the NCR region and 1,600 at 2.30 am.

The problem is not just in Delhi/NCR region though. All the cities in north India including Gwalior, Kanpur, Agra, Lucknow, and Patna are suffering from acute pollution caused by firecrackers, vehicular pollution and stubble burning by farmers.

No wonder these cities are reporting a spike in both respiratory diseases and heart problems.

"All our major cities (whose number has presently crossed 135) have crossed the critically polluted levels. This is something very serious," says Dr Anumita Roychowdhary, deputy director general at the Centre for Science and Environment.

"It's time the government declares a national emergency on air pollution and treat this problem on a war footing," she added.

Some pollution experts including Dipankar Saha who heads the Central Pollution Control Board’s air laboratory services are quietly optimistic about the Supreme Court order. He believes that the order is the first step and if it is properly implemented, it will help to ensure better quality air this year.

But octogenarian Bhure Lal, who heads the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority believes that while the Supreme Court order might help ensure better air quality this Diwali, the need of the hour is to come up with a sustained and long-term plan to tackle this problem which must be strictly implemented and monitored on a regular basis throughout the country.

All these experts, however, dismiss the claims that there are no thorough studies to show the extent to which bursting of firecrackers affects air pollution levels. A study undertaken by the Chest Research Foundation in Pune has conclusively shown that firecrackers are highly polluting as they produce high levels of PM 2.5 over a brief period of time. Firecrackers also result in a huge increase in potassium and sulphur levels.

Of course, the trading community is upset with the Supreme Court order as this comes across as re-imposition of a ban that was lifted just a month ago.

As one lawyer pointed out, "The SC has been doing flip-flops since 11 November 2016. They had suspended licenses of both wholesale and retail traders selling firecrackers and then ten months later, in September 2017, they actually lifted this ban which in hindsight was a mistake since the traders went ahead on the basis of this order to invest in purchasing fresh firecrackers."

It is ironic how three determined children namely Arjun Gopal, Aarav Bhandari and Zoya Rao Bhasin along with their committed parents have spearheaded this significant piece of legislation. The 11 November 2016 order was issued on the basis of these children’s petition which had ordered the suspension of all licenses that permit wholesale as well as the retail of fireworks within the territory of Delhi/NCR.

The September 2017 order was again challenged by these children who pointed out how firecrackers posed a serious health risk to them and thousands of other children especially since air quality deteriorated abysmally in Delhi/NCR. In fact, this had forced authorities to shut down schools post Diwali in 2016.

It was this plea by the three children that led the Supreme Court to point out that Diwali could indeed be celebrated with an equal fervour via various other means. The country, however, needs much more progressive legislation and its sustained implementation to improve the air quality and the health of its citizens.

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Updated Date: Oct 11, 2017 08:01:47 IST

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