The Supreme Court’s 9 October ruling banning the sale of firecrackers in the National Capital Region of Delhi until 1 November has made both traders and residents unhappy. However, as The Sunday Guardian found, vast sections are determined to burst firecrackers this Diwali, regardless of the repercussions. On Friday, standing firmly on its judgement, the court refused to relax the ban, despite traders expressing their concerns over huge revenue losses they would incur because of this. While travelling across NCR, this newspaper found that some traders were resorting to the underhand sales of their goods, while some residents were ordering firecrackers online, or even pooling in money to hire taxis to go to areas outside of NCR to buy their firecrackers.
Traders are anguished over the uncertainty caused by SC’s two conflicting rulings on the sale of firecrackers. In its 12 September ruling, the Supreme Court had modified its November 2016 ban on sale of firecrackers in the NCR, noting that a complete ban was “too radical a step”. Soon after the ban was lifted, traders got fresh licences and built up an inventory. However, the order passed on Monday has come as a major blow to both big traders and small manufacturers. “The firecracker business is not always run on hand-to-hand cash system. For instance, many small traders will procure goods worth Rs 50,000 and would pay only Rs 10,000 initially. The remaining money is paid after the sales. The SC order has choked the entire chain,” lamented Vishnu, a firecracker trader setting up his kiosk soon after the police concluded their hurried raids in Sadar Bazaar, one of the biggest wholesale markets for firecrackers in Delhi. The Sunday Guardian investigation found the raids to be perfunctory, with several traders like Vishnu resurfacing with their makeshift shops soon after the officials would leave the spot.
In the famous firecracker market near Jama Masjid, the streets were deserted. Most shops remained closed, with angry owners sitting outside. However, a few shops were open despite the court order.
Nitin Jha, a firecracker shop owner at Jama Masjid was furious with the ban on what he called his only source of income. “Our entire year’s planning depends on how much we make during Diwali. The ban decision has hit us severely by depriving us of the only source of income we have.”
According to industry estimates, the ban on the sale of firecrackers in Delhi-NCR will cause huge business losses running into hundreds of crores, if not more, for thousands of people involved in this industry.
TALES OF WOE
In Paharganj market, where most shops remain closed, a firecracker shop owner said, “If we had known about the possibility of such a ban beforehand, we would not have bought crackers worth lakhs of rupees.”
In Laxmi Nagar, a hosiery shop owner who had recently got the licence to sell firecrackers from the police after paying Rs 500, said, “I am telling my workers to set up a stall and sell firecrackers somewhere just outside of NCR, so that at least the loss is lessened.”
Another shopkeeper in the area said that though the ban has unsettled the market, both sellers and buyers were willing to go against the order. “I am selling the products to whoever is asking for them. Even people are telling others about my shop, as everyone wants to know from where they can buy firecrackers without any hassles.”
Some wholesalers have devised innovative ways to get rid of their inventory. Sellers have taken it to social media to advertise their goods, while others are selling them online, while also getting in touch with their yearly customers to check their needs and deliver the firecrackers at their doorstep. Meanwhile, consumers, too, are adamant. Many could be seen queuing up outside the shops in Jama Masjid to buy firecrackers.
One of the buyers, who did not wish to be identified, told this newspaper, “Diwali is a celebration of happiness. So why put a ban on something that is an integral part of the festival? We respect the Supreme Court, but the culture of ban is a wrong in a progressive society. They should regulate the sue of firecrackers, not ban them.”
A couple buying Diwali gifts in Laxmi Nagar said, “The ban is just another way to increase the prices for already very expensive firecrackers. I have to send gifts to my daughter’s in-laws, and as a tradition, we give firecrackers too. Now, we have to use backchannels to buy these crackers, just because no shopkeeper is able to sell these openly.”
Interestingly, several youths, who had given up bursting crackers, are irked by the “unreasonable” ban. In an act of protest, these youths have vowed to burst as many crackers as they can. “My friends and I have not been bursting crackers for the past few years considering the noise and air pollution. But after the ban, we have ordered firecrackers,” Akshay, a CA student, told this newspaper.
While traders are upset with the ban and the residents are calling the court order “an attack on tradition”, legal experts believe the order has several loopholes.
Speaking to The Sunday Guardian, advocates noted that while using firecrackers increases the pollution level, the major contributors of air pollution are construction dust, vehicular emissions, industrial pollutants, waste burning, and burning of crops in the states surrounding Delhi.
“Ban on the sale of firecrackers is not the correct way to devise steps to curb air pollution. The dense smog that Delhi witnessed immediately after Diwali last year, was not just because of firecrackers. There were several factors including crop burning in Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, coupled with the early winters. Of course firecrackers added to the already poor air quality. But if the intention is to improve air quality then much wider and a more holistic approach has to be incorporated,” Vaibhav Joshi, a Delhi-based lawyer, told The Sunday Guardian.
Experts also pointed out that court orders to curb pollution have failed to have a substantial impact on the ground. For instance, the Supreme Court had directed the repairing and vacuum-cleaning of the roads. However, a report by this newspaper in November last year found that the Delhi government hadn’t even received the tenders for the vacuum-cleaners. Even the banning of crop-burning in Punjab and Haryana in 2015 failed to yield the desired results. In absence of economically viable alternatives, farmers continue to burn crop residue.
Furthermore, the SC had recently directed the government and authorities like the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to prepare a report on the degrading quality of air and submit it on or before 31 December 2017. However, the order of the ban came even before the report could be filed.
“There are several government and non-government organisations working on environment protection. The court can direct and regulate them but it cannot legislate. Also, in its 12 September order, the court had revoked the ban and put certain limitations and regulations. There was no need to ban again after revoking it only a fortnight ago,” Joshi added.
Prashant Bhardwaj, a Supreme Court lawyer, told this newspaper that the implementation of the order is extremely challenging. He noted that since the ban is on the sale and not on bursting crackers, this will give rise to conflicting arguments in case of violation of the order: “The bursting of crackers is not an offence. In case of violation, it’ll be very hard to determine when and where the crackers were bought. Also, it will give rise to a parallel economy and harassment from the law enforcers. It’s not a criminal offence so police can easily be pacified with money.”
Meanwhile, Advocate Gopal Shankarnarayanan, appearing for petitioner Arjun Gopal seeking restoration of the ban on the sale of firecrackers in NCR, said, “It’s a welcome move. However, a lot more has to be done in order to protect Delhi’s critically declining air quality.”