SC order on firecrackers proof of state machinery's failure to implement existing rules; green governance exists only on paper

When crops were harvested by hand, farm labourers would cut crops from their base, clearing the farmlands for tilling and sowing the next crop all at once. In the era of machine harvesting, however, since crops are only cut from the spike, it leaves farmers with the additional burden of clearing stalks or stubble. Farmers, usually have a fortnight or so to sow the next plant (wheat), and market and thresh the first one. Though there are machines available to clear the stubble, it comes expensive. This leaves farmers with no other option but to burn the stubble to clear the farms for the next crop.

Hence, stubble burning goes on in Punjab and Haryana. And the smoke from the stubble blows toward the national capital causing grey smog in the national capital.

The predictability of pollution and the powerlessness of several state governments to come to a single effective conclusion raises the question if maintaining air quality is a national priority at all. Since the consequences of stubble burning season coincides with the festive season, the Supreme Court’s order on "green crackers" may offer some respite. One of the reasons the highest court has had to intervene, last year, and this year with a ban on bursting crackers with chemicals like barium and a firecracker bursting window of two hours, is the redundancy of the existing framework of norms.

Ban on crackers in India

Representational image. AFP

In 1940, the Indian Explosive Rules were enacted. These laid down a system of licensing for manufacture, possession and sale of crackers. In 2008, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry notified The Explosives Rules, 2008. This was a rather nuanced document.

It defined ‘fireworks composition’ as any chemical compound or mechanically mixed preparation of an explosive or inflammable substance used for the purpose of making manufactured fireworks and is not included in any other class of explosives, and includes any star or coloured fire composition.

Some of the other definitions were ‘foreman's certificate’ that is a certificate of competence issued by the 'Controller' to a person who is conversant with the process of manufacturing fireworks or safety fuse, as the case may be, and associated hazards for the purpose of supervision of such activities by him; ‘high explosive’ means explosive characterised by a very high rate of reaction, development of high pressure, and presence detonation wave, but does not include fireworks and safety fuse; 'licensing authority' as the authority empowered to issue licence or certificate or permit specified in Part 1 of Schedule IV and ‘man-limit’, the maximum number of individuals permitted by the licensing authority to work inside a particular premises for manufacture or processing of explosives.

Now, if there were rules in place for the strict monitoring of the use of chemicals and manufacturers were to be strictly bound by licenses, then why was the Supreme Court made to intervene?

"Under the 2008 rules, licences are issued by the Petroleum and Safety Organisation (PESO). District Magistrates too can issue licenses for manufacturing on a smaller scale. We have a PESO licence and have only used formula approved by the authorities. One SC order has shaken up what we obeyed as the law,” said Rajeev Jain of the Gudiya Brand, which makes crackers with less explosive content in Jhajjar, Haryana.

In Sadar Bazar, the cracker market in Old Delhi, the head of the traders’ association and a dealer of crackers, Devraj, said that the cracker business has more than halved as compared to last year. In one year, the licences issued to retailers in this market have fallen from 72 to 24.

“Cracker chemicals are complicated to understand and one has to be well versed with technicalities to be able to understand who is flouting the norms and how," he said, giving the example of the specifications of a cracker godown, which the draft rules describe as a 'magazine'. This is meant to be an air tight space specially constructed in accordance with the specification provided under these rules or of a design and approved by the Chief Controller of Explosives. In April, there was a fire incident at a magazine in Vellore and another one in Sivakasi.

“The local police administration lacks specialised knowledge of chemicals that can start a fire,” he said. Devraj revealed that stock worth crores are now lying in such godowns mostly located on the periphery of towns, and such a situation was avoidable because it is well-known that dealers buy the stock early to get a bigger discount. More than 90 percent of the segment is based in Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu.

In 2014, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry had stated that the possession and sale of fireworks of foreign origin is illegal, owing to the presence of highly combustible potassium chlorate in the smuggled items. The Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers Association (TNFAMA) had then stated that customs officials who intercept illegal cargo then send it to laboratories for testing, and it takes no less than six months for them to turn in their reports. It is during this period that illegal importers pay fines and have the illegally imported crackers released.

“It’s a largely unregulated, unorganised sector. As per the PESO guidelines, usage of chemicals like potassium nitrate, lead, mercury, sulphur dioxide in certain quantities is banned but these are still found in crackers," said Delhi-based environmental activist Vimlendu Jha, calling the lag between what’s on paper and what’s on ground a complete governance failure.

Meanwhile, cracker traders in and around the national capital are wondering how they will follow the Supreme Court order and eliminate the key ingredient of ‘barium’ from the crackers.

“There are many forms of barium. Sparklers and green torches cannot be made without barium. There has been a shift towards green crackers in the last two years, for example the conical anaar cracker is being replaced by the matka anaar which results in far fewer emissions,” explained Ashok Kumar Saini of Star Night Fireworks in Gurgaon, adding that his business has been reduced to a third of its size.

He also pointed out that Cock brand is doing some research with (National Environmental Engineering Research Institute) NEERI on green crackers but research by IIT Kanpur and Safar (air quality forecasting system) was happening mainly in the area of measuring pollution. Meanwhile, Dilshad of Chaudhry Firecrackers in Ghaziabad, said that the business is at the brink of shutting down. Rejeev Bedi, a wholesaler from West Delhi’s Janakpuri expressed that although the business has halved, cracker brands like Jumbo and Coronation are moving towards greener products.

Though a green cracker is an oxymoron because some degree of smoke is inevitable, the reason for this legal intervention by the Supreme Court is the inability of the state machinery to implement its own robust system of checks and balances over the years.


Updated Date: Oct 25, 2018 09:27 AM

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