Satellite images taken by US space agency NASA in October already show signs of deadly dust clouds smothering a vast area of north India. The images explain how crop residue burning in several fields in Haryana and Punjab has resulted in increased levels of air pollution.
However, the phenomenon is not new. It’s a common sight during the winter months when stubble burning and toxic smoke, combined with low temperatures, make life a living hell.
In 2020, Delhi’s average annual concentration of PM2.5 in a cubic metre of air was 84.1, as per IQAir study, a Swiss group that measures air quality levels. During October and November, stubble burning contributes between 20% and 70% of Delhi’s air pollution. A report from the environment ministry showed that the average contribution of stubble burning to Delhi’s air pollution increased from 10% in 2019 to 15% in 2020. If this is not enough, bursting of firecrackers, especially during Diwali, adds to the pollution woes.
It’s no surprise that Delhi, for the fourth consecutive year, has imposed a ban on the sale, purchase and use of firecrackers extending till the end of the year.
So far, so good. Restrictions on crackers are justified as it will cut pollution. But what about the of lakhs of people dependent on the industry that is already reeling under the impact of the Covid-19 crisis?
For traders, manufacturers and retailers, this time of the year is considered the best for business, but a blanket ban of another year will result in huge losses. “Over `4-5 lakh worth of stock will go waste this year again,” says Tarun Sehgal, trader and owner of Central Fire Works shop in Paharganj area of Delhi. “For the past two years, the pandemic has shut down businesses. Now, a cracker ban during the festive season will add to our losses. At least the government should allow the sale of green crackers, which we ordered last year, before they imposed the ban,” says the 54-year-old retailer who he has been running the business for more than two decades.
Sehgal had to eventually shut down his store to start a signage printing business. “The government should ban cigarettes and agarbattis too. They also cause pollution,” says Sehgal.
Industry under pressure
According to reports, the firecracker industry is estimated to have an annual turnover of over Rs 4,800 crore from 2,200 big and small factories in India employing over five lakh people in manufacturing units directly and four lakh people indirectly. As an age-old tradition during the festivities, firecrackers are common on many occasions in India. Thus, a blanket ban during the festive months can be avoided, says the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT), an apex trade body that represents 8 crore Indian traders and 40,000 trade associations.
“It’s a seasonal business with over 80% of the skilled labourers. A bulk of the industry’s production is consumed during Diwali, and the rest is demanded during weddings or other festivals like Holi. Manufacturing takes place round the year but sales pick up only from August to December. China has contributed about 50% fireworks usage in India for a long time but this year no import has been made from the neighbouring country. But the ban has adversely affected the industry and livelihoods of many who solely depend on it,” says Praveen Khandelwal, national secretary general, CAIT.
Last year’s backlog and low sales will affect cracker producing units in Sivakasi in Virudhunagar region in Tamil Nadu, a major hub for the country’s firecracker production. The district accounts for nearly 80% of production with over 1,000 manufacturing facilities of various sizes and over 1,000 traders of firecrackers functioning in and around the region. The ban has impacted the production bringing it down drastically by 50% in Sivakasi.
“Every year, there is uncertainty over the sale and use of firecrackers, especially during Diwali. Most households depend on this industry as this is an age-old skill which families know and depend on for their livelihood. There are four lakh workers in and around Sivakasi—a majority are women,” says a factory owner and from Sivakasi on condition of anonymity.
“The ban has not just affected north India but states like Telangana, Karnataka and Rajasthan too. No fresh orders mean no earnings for labour in the packaging and printing sector that makes corrugated boxes for crackers. A major part of the workforce is involved in this sector but this year a 50% cut in orders has made matters worse,” he adds.
The ban has also impacted production of wholesalers and retailers. “Some units have scaled down their production or stopped making items,” says AS Rajendra Raja, vice president, Indian Fireworks Manufacturers’ Association. “The numbers are down for sellers and buyers,” he adds.
Raja does not reveal exact figures but gives an estimate of the business. “This year, the production is only 50% of last year. If `3,000-crore worth of firecrackers were produced in 2020, this year the figure could be over `1,500 crore. After the ban, the impact on trade would be around `500 crore of losses,” says Raja.
Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu CM MK Stalin urged a reconsideration of the blanket ban in Delhi, Odisha, Rajasthan and Haryana and permit sales that fall within the norms set by the Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal. The impact on Tamil Nadu’s economy, largely dependent on the MSME sector for growth and employment, has been significantly severe after the pandemic.
“The Supreme Court has already banned certain categories of polluting firecrackers and now, green crackers with significantly less emissions are being manufactured. Therefore, a blanket ban on firecrackers is not reasonable,” Stalin said in a letter to the four chief ministers on October 15.
The green alternative
Studies over the years have assessed a statistically significant contribution of ambient air pollutants on bursting of firecrackers during Diwali. The conventional firecrackers, when burst, emit oxides of sulfur and nitrogen along with particulates which include chemicals like copper, zinc, sodium, lead, magnesium, cadmium, etc, which have harmful bearing on human as well as environmental health. Active roles played by the Supreme Court and various state governments have resulted in a ban on conventional firecrackers along with restricted timings for use of green firecrackers. The mandatory use of green firecrackers might result in about 30% less particulates in the air. While this is not a solution to the problem, it’s a cleaner alternative.
The SC had allowed bursting of low-emission crackers in 2018. Green crackers were developed by scientists at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research-National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (CSIR-NEERI) as per the court’s directions. These do not contain banned chemicals such as lithium, arsenic, barium and lead. They are called Safe Water Releaser (SWAS), Safe Thermite Cracker (STAR) and Safe Minimal Aluminium (SAFAL) crackers.
“Diwali holds a great cultural and religious importance for the people of India, but there’s an indisputable fact that bursting crackers poisons the air further making it a deadly cocktail of noxious pollutants. To combat the complication of eco-friendly firecrackers, green crackers seem to be the only hope for jubilant people for now. However, the real change would come only by sensitising people and bringing about a behavioural change while keeping in mind the sustainability of solutions offered,” says R Suresh, fellow, TERI.
Over 200 manufacturers in Sivakasi are trained under CSIR-NEERI to manufacture and meet the green cracker demand. But the approval of licences and stringent manufacturing guidelines for many factory owners is a long-drawn process. Samples of green crackers are approved at National Environmental and Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), a CSIR lab in Nagpur with 30% lower emission as compared with traditional ones, noise levels cut to 125 decibels from 160, free of mercury, arsenic and barium, and all this must be approved by the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO). Wrapping paper of firecrackers must be biodegradable and the green boxes must have a QR code (to trace origin and contents).
“We are eager to manufacture green crackers but approvals and permissions take time. The manufacturers could not supply in sufficient quantities this year as only a handful of factories could share their samples and get approvals. Some factory owners could not reach NEERI due to transportation and time constraints due to the pandemic,” says Raja of Indian Fireworks Manufacturers’ Association.
“After conventional crackers were banned in 2018, green crackers were manufactured with limitations. However, select options, combined with a limited variety of products like fountain crackers or sparklers, haven’t done well for business,” says K Subhash, firecracker retailer in Sadar Bazar area of Delhi.
A TRULY GREEN DIWALI
Women in Paradsinga village of Madhya Pradesh’s Chhindwara district are making replicas of firecrackers using recyclable material embedded with seed balls
If firecrackers are banned, make way for a greener festival. How about marigolds, amaltas or onion saplings? Women from 40 families, part of the Gram Art Project (GAP)—a collective of farmers, painters, social workers, and writers from Paradsinga village in Chhindwara district of Madhya Pradesh are making replicas of firecrackers using recyclable materials embedded with seed balls.
Rather than bursting them, these ‘crackers’ can be sowed in a pot, watered, and nourished into an edible plant.
“We need to address the impacts of our actions on voiceless species like birds and animals that suffer miserably due to the use of firecrackers during festivals like Diwali every year. Thus, we came up with this idea that not only benefits them but the overall environment,” says Shweta Bhattad, member, GAP.
The seed crackers have as many as seven types of seeds in them, including red amaranthus, amaranth, fenugreek, common purslane, mustard, green amaranthus, and spinach. Visit https://gramartproject.org.
Here are a few states that have imposed restrictions on the sale, purchase and use of firecrackers to curb pollution levels
- Haryana State Pollution Control Board has directed all 14 districts to impose a ban on all kinds of firecrackers
- Delhi has a complete ban on the storage, sale and use of firecrackers
- Rajasthan government has reversed its earlier decision to ban the sale and use of crackers. It has allowed only green crackers to be used amid restricted timings (8-10 pm) during Diwali
- Odisha government has also banned the sale and use of fireworks during Diwali
- Uttar Pradesh government had banned the sale and use of firecrackers in 13 cities in 2020. However, there has been no announcement so far this year
- Calcutta High Court has ordered a complete ban on the use and sale of firecrackers, including green crackers, throughout West Bengal during Diwali/Kali Puja festivities
- Punjab government has allowed the sale and use of green crackers. However, it has restricted the timings (8-10 pm) for bursting of crackers on Diwali
The pandemic has given enough reasons to go online. then why not brighten the festive spirit with virtual crackers?
- From festive digital invitations, e-diyas and e-crackers, this festive season is all about virtual greetings and celebrations. Gadgets like firecrackers in the shape of rockets, ladi bombs, and flower pots use LED lights and crackling sounds to generate a firecracker-like visualisation. Plug and play your favourite one
- Diwali Cracker Simulator- Fireworks is a digital celebration on phone with many types of fireworks available to enjoy explosive sounds in a game. It is available on Google Play Store. Select different types of fireworks, firecrackers, rockets for firework visuals with explosive and fantasy effects
- Diwali Crackers Celebration & Relaxation is a tap game with multiple virtual crackers available on Google Play Store, where you can make your own cracker in the app with real effects and sounds
- Google Arts & Culture ‘Diwali @ Home’ is an experience in augmented reality, colouring books for the family, and a treasure trove of cultural stories available on smartphones that support web augmented reality. So augment diyas from smartphones or burst different crackers, all of which is possible virtually.
“The ban has impacted production of wholesalers and retailers. Some units have scaled down their production or stopped making items” —AS Rajendra Raja, vice president, Indian Fireworks Manufacturers’ Association
“The real change would come only by sensitising people and bringing about a behavioural change while keeping in mind the sustainability of solutions offered” —R Suresh, Fellow, TERI
“Manufacturing takes place round the year but sales pick up only from August to December. The ban has adversely affected the industry and livelihoods of many” —Praveen Khandelwal, national secretary general, CAIT