Fear Of Toxic Smog Leads India To Limit Diwali Fireworks

Oct 17, 2017
Originally published on October 17, 2017 3:57 pm

India is set to celebrate Diwali this week, but the Indian capital could be in for a different sort of celebration.

Once illuminated with clay lamps, the festival of lights has morphed into a festival of sound and fury.

It's estimated some 50,000 tons of fireworks are exploded during Diwali, which marks the homecoming of the Hindu god Lord Ram from exile. But a public health alarm was sounded in Delhi after Diwali last year, when a toxic haze blanketed the city for days.

Delhi's air quality is extremely poor: A 2015 study found that half of the city's 4.4 million schoolchildren have diminished lung capacity.

To control the escalating pollution, the Supreme Court banned the sale of fireworks during this year's Diwali. (The use of fireworks, though, was not banned.) The ban on sales extends until Nov. 1 to allow the court to fully monitor its impact in the wake of the festival.

Heading into this week of celebration, pyrotechnic wholesalers in Delhi's old city section sit in front of their shuttered stores and warily eye anyone who might be a plainclothes cop enforcing the ban.

Merchant Praveen Kumar complains that his livelihood is going up in smoke.

"It's 100 percent correct that we are adding to pollution. But the government says it's only three percent of the total — the other 97 percent isn't addressed," he says. "Besides, what do we tell the kids on Diwali: 'Go pray, eat your food and go to bed?' How will they enjoy that?"

Hina Shrivastav's family has peddled fireworks and firecrackers for generations. He calls the ban an assault on tradition.

"It's one of the biggest festivals of Hindus. And in Diwali if there are no crackers, then Diwali doesn't mean anything — only lights and sweets. It's too boring!" he exclaims.

Some traders accused the court of bias against Hindus for singling out their festival, an argument that anguished the court. It said the ban was imposed to safeguard the public's health.

Other traders asked why farmers burning crop stubble on land just outside Delhi weren't penalized, or why diesel vehicles belching toxins weren't banned.

Jyoti Pande Lavakare, co-founder of the citizen advocacy group Care for Air, says the court is considering all factors. But in tackling fireworks that contain hazardous chemicals, she says the judges took the easiest issue first. And she notes the foul air extends far beyond Delhi.

"Everywhere there are polluted cities in India that are equally, if not more, polluted," she says. "Not just firecrackers but all these other measures should be imposed pan-India. This is not about Delhi, this is about the whole country."

Delhi-ites who bought fireworks before the ban will be free to fire them, though there are expected to be many fewer. That's welcome news for Radha Singh, 60, who is unusually exposed to the high pollution levels that cause significant health impacts. She taps her chest and says she's very ill.

"I fall sick every Diwali," she says. "I can't tolerate the smoke. I've no money for a doctor or medicine." Singh also says she has no home. "All I can do is lie down at my place," she says, and points to a tree along the roadside.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This week India celebrates the festival of lights, or Diwali. And there will be one big thing missing from the celebrations in New Delhi, and that is fireworks. India's supreme court has banned the sale of fireworks in the capital because of health concerns. Our New Delhi correspondent Julie McCarthy has more.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Diwali has morphed from a festival of lights illuminated with clay lamps to a festival of sound and fury.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLODING FIREWORKS)

MCCARTHY: It's estimated some 50,000 tons of fireworks are exploded during Diwali, which marks the homecoming of the Hindu god lord Ram from exile. A public health alarm was sounded after Diwali last year when a toxic haze blanketed the city for days. Delhi's air quality is so poor a 2015 study found that half of the city's 4.4 million schoolchildren have diminished lung capacity. To control the escalating pollution, the supreme court banned the sale of fireworks during this year's Diwali.

In Delhi's Old City, pyrotechnic wholesalers sit in front of their shuttered shops and warily eye anyone who might be a plainclothes cop enforcing the ban. Praveen Kumar complains that his livelihood is going up in smoke.

PRAVEEN KUMAR: (Speaking foreign language).

MCCARTHY: "It's 100 percent correct that we're adding to pollution," he says. "But the government says it's only 3 percent of the total. The other 97 percent isn't addressed," he says. "Besides, what do we tell the kids on Diwali? Go pray, eat your food and go to bed? How will they enjoy that?" Hina Shrivastav's family has peddled fireworks and firecrackers for generations and calls the ban an assault on tradition.

HINA SHRIVASTAV: It's one of the biggest festival of Hindus. And in Diwali if there is no crackers, the Diwali doesn't mean anything. Only lights, and you know, sweets. It's - it's too boring.

MCCARTHY: Other traders asked why farmers burning crop stubble on land outside Delhi weren't penalized, or why diesel vehicles belching toxins weren't banned, or the polluting dust from construction sites. Jyoti Pande Lavakare, co-founder of the citizen advocacy group Care for Air, says the court is considering all factors, but in tackling fireworks that contain hazardous chemicals, she says the judges took the easiest issue first. And she notes the foul air extends far beyond Delhi.

JYOTI PANDE LAVAKARE: Everywhere there are polluted cities in India which are equally if not more polluted. Not just firecrackers, but all these other measures should be imposed pan-India. This is not about Delhi, this is about the whole country.

MCCARTHY: Dehli-ites who bought fireworks before the ban will be free to fire them, though they are expected to be a lot fewer. That's welcome news for this 60-year-old old rag picker Radha Singh.

RADHA SINGH: (Speaking foreign language).

MCCARTHY: "I fall sick every Diwali. I can't tolerate the smoke. I've no money for a doctor or medicine. All I can do," she says, "is lie down at my place." She points to a tree along the roadside, which she says has been her home. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.