The Supreme Court is showing commendable concern for the health of the air that Indians breathe, and its recent order that the bursting of firecrackers be restricted to two hours not just on Diwali, but during all festivities across the country—between 8 pm and 10 pm—has to be seen in this context. The Court has been so meticulous that it has allotted even a separate slot, that of 11.55 pm to 12.30 am, for bursting firecrackers during Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations. But then as it happens with all such orders that try to standardise customs and practices, this order too has been greeted with a great degree of dismay by the general public. This is something that was certainly not the Supreme Court’s intention. South of the Vindhyas, Diwali is celebrated in the morning, just as weddings are in many parts of the country. So complaints regarding this are being voiced by those affected. There is also unhappiness among many who wait the whole year to burst fire-crackers on Diwali, not just for reasons of faith but also to celebrate the festival of lights, or to worship Goddess Kali, particularly in the eastern parts of the country. Worse, coming so soon after the forward-looking verdict permitting the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple, the firecracker order is being interpreted as an unwelcome intrusion into the majority community’s beliefs and faith. Such a charge is completely false, apart from being unfair, and would leave the Supreme Court justices shocked, as public good and fairness are the only motivators that drive India’s courts. In fact, after last year’s blanket ban on the sale of firecrackers in Delhi-NCR caused major resentment among the public, this year the judges did not tread down the same path and instead introduced time restrictions, asked the state governments to demarcate designated areas for community bursting of firecrackers, apart from allowing the sale of “green crackers” in Delhi-NCR. The problem, of course, is of enforcing the order. India’s law enforcement agencies are in no way equipped to ensure that the court orders are implemented, especially in a situation where the majority of households in this billion-plus country will burst firecrackers in nearly every nook and cranny of this vast landmass. No law enforcement agency can possibly police every lane and bylane of this country’s cities and villages. In fact, that is not even desirable, because India is not a police state. However well-intentioned the judges may have been, a court-mandated ban cannot work unless the urge to desist from pursuing the banned activity comes from within the public. For that to happen, not only is education needed, but also alternative and affordable replacements. The use of plastic bags may have been banned by the courts in certain parts of the country, but these bags continue be used for reasons of convenience and for lack of economic alternatives. Green crackers may have been permitted to be sold in Delhi-NCR, but neither firecracker sellers nor law and order enforcers know what environment friendly crackers are. This sector is largely unorganised, with fly by night operators often catering to the huge demand during Diwali. Chances are, overnight, crackers will be labelled green and sold openly in markets by unscrupulous traders to escape the police dragnet. This will make a mockery of the purpose for which the court order has been given.
Also, restrictions on the bursting of firecrackers on the day of Diwali, and during other festivities, will not clean the environment. Such days are too few and far between for these curbs to have any positive impact on the air quality of heavily polluted cities. All that such restrictions will do is dampen the festive spirit, which is not desirable. If the air in Delhi-NCR is polluted, it is not because of firecrackers, but because of the “fire chambers” created by crop burning in the neighbouring states in October-November. The presence of particulate matters reaches dangerous levels in Delhi-NCR not because of sparklers and fire bombs, but because of the predominance of construction dust in this region’s air. In fact, loose dust next to even well paved roads contributes to Delhi-NCR’s air pollution in a major way, as do the use of kerosene, wood and charcoal stoves for purposes of cooking. Cleaning the air has to be a year-round activity, so as to ensure that the wanton bursting of firecrackers on one day of the year does not push the polluted cities towards the point of no return. Moreover, not all human habitats in this country are equally polluted to merit such stringent restrictions on the bursting of firecrackers. It cannot be a case of “one size fits all”.