Indian court chooses clean air over fireworks for Diwali

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The Indian government orders diesel generators and a power plant in Delhi to be shut down as air quality in the capital deteriorates ahead of the Hindu festival of lights, when a night of firecrackers sends pollution levels rocketing.
Indian people buying firecrackers at a shop in New Delhi on Oct 9, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (NYTIMES) - For generations, millions of Indians in New Delhi, the capital, have celebrated Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, by setting off a symphony of fireworks.

In the days leading up to the festival, which is Thursday (Oct 19), homes are cleaned, whitewashed and outfitted with oil lamps to commemorate the return of Lord Rama, one of the most revered Hindu gods.

On the eve of the festival, fireworks, an important centrepiece, crackle through the night.

But amid concerns about the poisonous air quality in New Delhi - stemming, in part, from the use of fireworks - a different scene has unfolded this Diwali season.

After India's Supreme Court this week reinstated a ban on the sale of fireworks in the National Capital Region, which includes New Delhi and is home to about 45 million people, fireworks sellers sat idly outside their closed shops, wondering what to do.

For those who rely on fireworks sales for their livelihood, conditions have become desperate. In a busy street in Old Delhi, one vendor of firecrackers doused himself with kerosene and threatened suicide.

Outside his shuttered shop, another vendor, Deepak Srivastava, 36, said: "We are not criminals; we are small-business men. This is the biggest festival for Hindus. We are totally dependent on this business. Now, we will plan our future differently."

Air quality has deteriorated in New Delhi for years, but after last year's Diwali celebrations, a breaking point of sorts was reached. A thick, toxic haze settled over the city for 10 days, mixing with other emission sources and pushing levels of the most dangerous air particles, called PM2.5, to 16 times the level that the Indian government deems safe. In response, city officials temporarily shut down more than 1,800 public primary schools.

The Supreme Court stepped in, approving a ban in November on the sale of fireworks in the National Capital Region. The court cited data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) that found the city's air quality to be the world's worst, and a report from India's Central Pollution Control Board indicating that pollution levels in the region were four or five times as high on Diwali.

After appeals by fireworks manufacturers, the Supreme Court temporarily lifted the ban Sept 12. The most recent order, issued Monday, reinstates the prohibition on fireworks until Nov 1, nearly two weeks after the end of Diwali. But concerns about enforceability persist.

Some environmentalists say the order is too narrowly defined to be effective because it bans just the sale of fireworks, which can still be purchased in neighbouring states. Others say upending the tradition of using fireworks to celebrate religious festivals and other important occasions, despite the health risks, poses a challenge.

"I think culturally we have a tradition of burning fireworks, whether it's at weddings, festivals or cricket matches," said Prarthana Borah, India director for Clean Air Asia, an international environmental group. "So it requires a change in perspective."

Bans on fireworks have been considered in other large Asian cities. In China's notoriously polluted capital, Beijing, lawmakers rescinded a prohibition on fireworks in 2006 before the Lunar New Year in response to protests.

Deaths and injuries from fireworks in China draw attention to the issue every year. But efforts to curtail their use in India are a relatively new phenomenon, and some people have framed the issue as an attack on Hinduism.

Reacting to the order, Bhupendra Singh, a member of the country's governing Bharatiya Janata Party, which has ties to far-right Hindu groups, invited "friends from Delhi" to celebrate Diwali in Madhya Pradesh, where he serves as a minister. He said there would be "full freedom" to use fireworks.

Tathagata Roy, the governor of Tripura state, lamented the ban, asking on Twitter whether the Hindu tradition of cremating the dead would be the next practice to come under scrutiny.

Harish Fulara, 35, the father of two young children who like fireworks, acknowledged the health dangers but suggested finding other ways to curb pollution, saying that he wanted to be free to practice his religion. "We see the pollution," he said, "but we also see our religion."

Others, including Renu Mehta, 48, whose husband suffers from upper respiratory problems, welcomed the ban. She said responsible restrictions on religious practices should be considered if they affect the well-being of others.

"Pollution is a public problem," she said. "We just cannot afford any more of it."

Many retailers are angry. Indians buy an estimated half-billion dollars' worth of fireworks each year, with most used for Diwali, and about US$100 million's (S$136 million) worth are purchased in Delhi alone, according to A. Asaithambi, president of the Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers' Association.

In response to the court order, a group of traders approached the Supreme Court on Wednesday asking for modifications. But in the East Delhi neighborhood of New Ashok Nagar, vendors are already preparing to push sales underground.

"People want fireworks, and we want to sell," said one retailer, who refused to give his name. "Maybe all we need to do is pay more money to government workers to close their eyes."

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