New Delhi: Diwali, the festival of lights, has evolved beyond its traditional essence, now inseparable from the explosive burst of firecrackers. Unfortunately, this modern celebration comes with consequences – from pollution to health issues. Despite clear directives from the Supreme Court discouraging the use of firecrackers, residents of the capital city have chosen to overlook these guidelines.
The consequences of this non-compliance ripple across various dimensions, encompassing a surge in health issues and an augmented burden on waste pickers, often hailing from marginalized communities. In an effort to understand the motivations behind firecracker usage, the prevailing lack of enforcement, and the crucial aspect of individual accountability, The Mooknayak delves into conversations with diverse segments of the population.
Nitin, a Rapido Rider by day, talked about his 6-year-old daughter who suddenly developed health conditions during the celebrations. "I did not burst many firecrackers. But had gotten a few for my daughter. She is 6 years old. Overnight, she developed a throat infection and has been coughing ever since." In a distressed tone, the rider said, "I haven't even earned 500 rupees till now and the medicine bill has come up to 620 rupees." Nitin continued, "The government only decides to ban crackers around Diwali. Just wait and see how many firecrackers are burned during the inaugural ceremony of Ayodhya’s Ram Mandir.” According to the rider, the police force itself is involved in the process. "I live in Chirag Delhi. The policemen in my colony themselves buy crackers. Who will implement the ban then”?
Talking to a grocery store owner in Govind Puri who wishes to remain anonymous about bursting crackers during Diwali, it was understood that he and his family enjoyed the festival to the fullest. He said, “I did not burst crackers, but my children did.” Revealing the incompetence of the police, the store owner said, "The police also know everyone was bursting crackers. They do not do anything. How many people will they stop?” He added, "Because of the rains, the pollution was less. That's why we burst crackers yesterday. If the pollution would have been too much, the implementation of the ban would have been stricter. We also wouldn't have let our children burst crackers."
Ravi, a vegetable seller from Govind Puri Extension, reveals how firecrackers are sold illegally by certain shop owners. “You will just have to approach shops which are specially set during Diwali and ask them for crackers. They will bring boxes out from underneath the table. If that feels risky, one can easily buy crackers from Noida or Gurgaon.” Every person The Mooknayak talked to revealed how the police are in this game. Everyone knows firecrackers are being sold illegally, but no one takes any step, thinking it is just a festival and catching a few people will not create much of a difference.
People celebrating the festival by bursting crackers would just leave the waste and move on to the next brand. The “invisible” workers coming to work the next day morning are pressurized to pick up after everyone. This not only leads to more burden on waste pickers but also exposes them to respiratory issues caused by the leftover chemicals from the burnt firecrackers.
India's municipal solid waste management (MSWM) system relies on an anonymous workforce composed of various actors. Sanitation workers in the formal sector are directly contracted by government municipalities, tasked with street sweeping, drain cleaning, and waste transportation to landfills. Door-to-door garbage collectors, often subcontracted by municipalities through private operators, collect household waste. Additionally, waste pickers in the informal sector make a living by gathering, sorting, and selling recyclable waste. This occupation reflects both symbolic and practical manifestations of caste and gender discrimination, as the majority come from historically oppressed communities (Dalits, Scheduled Castes, and Scheduled Tribes) compelled into this profession. Informal waste pickers, bearing the disproportionate burden of maintaining city cleanliness amid the rising waste volume, remain excluded from formal integration into the MSWM system.
According to a research publication from the 'Dalit Bahujan Resource Centre' titled 'A Study on the Socio-Economic Status of Waste Pickers in Andhra Pradesh,' various challenges faced by the waste-picking community, predominantly composed of Dalit and Bahujan individuals, were identified. The study revealed that these individuals inhabit the outskirts of the urban economy, residing in inadequate, unprotected dwellings such as thatched houses without access to basic amenities like electricity, water, drainage, and toilets. Their children often lack educational opportunities, and the community experiences regular health issues, exacerbated by the absence of social security measures. Additionally, they face harassment from law enforcement and criminal elements, with some residing near dumping yards, making them susceptible to airborne infections. The nature of their profession, involving work in unconventional seasons and locations, contributes to frequent illnesses among them.
On 7th November, the Supreme Court while hearing on an Intervention Application in the Arjun Gopal case, on behalf of a Rajasthan resident, emphasized that its directive prohibiting the use of barium and banned chemicals in fireworks extends beyond the National Capital Region, applying to the entire nation. A bench comprising Justices A S Bopanna and M M Sundresh addressed an application seeking instructions for the Rajasthan government to adhere to the Supreme Court's orders, which include the ban on specified chemicals and the regulation of noise levels during the use of firecrackers. But very evidently, this directive was flouted even in the National Capital.
Bhagyashree Pancholi a lawyer from Udaipur, had filed an Intervention Application in the Arjun Gopal case, in seeking the effective implementation of court orders to curb the misuse of firecrackers. The application outlined the glaring disregard for the permitted timings and the type of crackers allowed by the Government of Rajasthan.
Speaking to The Mooknayak, Bhagyashree pointed out the alarming situation where all kinds of crackers, including those with banned chemicals, are openly sold without any checks or markings for green crackers. The lawyer emphasizes that the violation extends beyond Diwali, affecting various festivals and, notably, destination weddings that contribute to prolonged and unchecked firecracker usage in Udaipur city. She drew attention to the adverse impact on Udaipur's environment, particularly in the city of lakes, where the bursting of crackers poses a threat to flora, fauna, and water bodies.
The Mooknayak spoke to advocate Diksha Dadu, who practices at the Supreme Court and various courts and tribunals in Delhi, to know more about the lack of implementation. She said, “The sale of firecrackers was first challenged in 2015. There was a writ petition that was filed which asked for banning crackers all over. Then, the Supreme Court passed an order which said it will not ban all types but only the ones that are not environmentally friendly. The same was challenged in 2018 when the sale was restrained in E-commerce websites.” “In 2021, this directive was again challenged. In 2023, the SC issued directives which were supposed to be considered for the entire country but very evidently was not done so. People have been burning crackers without any fear.”
Talking about the need of the hour, the advocate said, “There should be a strict order instead of issuing directives. We have been seeing lately that the Supreme Court has been issuing a lot of directions, but most are not being implemented. This is where the role of the executive body comes in. A blanket ban should be put on these products, and no provision for even green crackers should be there.
The advocate said, “There is no mention of such practice in religious scriptures. There is no constitutional, social, or moral backing. Delhi’s Air Quality Index was low for the past few days due to sudden rains, but it is on the rise once again.” “If bans are not working, then it becomes the responsibility of district-level MLAs. Otherwise, they should be penalized. In 2021, the SC said to the Investigation Officers and specific police stations that if they come across any person manufacturing and selling crackers, the person as well as the police station will be penalized.” If the police or the executive body is not doing anything, the responsibility at the end of the day falls on the shoulders of the citizens. Since we now know the SC has directed the banning of fireworks, we now can take pictures of the act and report it to the police.
In the landmark case of Arjun Gopal vs. Union of India in September 2015, three infants aged between 6 and 14 months took a historic step by filing a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court. This unprecedented legal action sought a ban on the use of firecrackers during festival months, emphasizing the severe impact of resulting pollution on the health and immune systems of infants. The petition, filed by the legal guardians of infants Arjun, Aarav, and Zoya, also called for regulations on seasonal crop burnings, vehicle emissions (aligning with Euro VI standards), and industrial pollution. The PIL aimed to protect the infants' right to a clean and pollution-free environment.
Highlighting the vulnerability of children to pollution due to their underdeveloped immune systems, the petition cried the alarming statistic that every third child in Delhi already had impaired lungs. The plea argued that the burning of firecrackers wasn't an essential part of festivals like Dussehra and Diwali, asserting that it couldn't be claimed as a constitutional right. The petition additionally requested a stay on the issuance of firework licenses by the Delhi Police Licensing unit. Citing reports on children's susceptibility to lung diseases, asthma, bronchitis, and cognitive impairment, the Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favour of the petitioners, marking a significant step towards acknowledging and addressing the health hazards posed by unchecked festive celebrations.