Diwali, the festival of lights, is the celebration of Lord Rama’s return to Ayodhya after 14 years of exile, and the defeat of Ravana. It is the season of pujas and festivities, diyas and lights, Rangoli and colour; celebrated with new clothes and gifts, sweets and food and, of course, family. Diwali is a festival of happiness all around, but, as always, there is much more to it than meets the eye. Like numerous other festivals and holidays, Diwali has become inherently linked with fire crackers and all the ills that accompany them.
Crackers are something that most children grow up loving, as they wait for the day when they are old enough to be allowed to light the bigger, more exciting ones. My family never celebrated Diwali, but as a child I often found myself with friends, waving a few sparklers around in excitement. It was something most enjoyable, something encouraged by everyone around me, and I revelled in it, completely oblivious to all the facts I am now aware of. I was unaware of the pollution I was causing, of the infants and elderly who were adversely affected by the smoke, of the trauma that the noise caused to animals all around, and that my enjoyment was probably at the expense of children who had been illegally employed to make those crackers. I knew that crackers could be dangerous, but I was unaware of just how much damage they cause.
I was unaware that every year, pollution levels rise drastically around Diwali, with the PM 2.5 levels in Delhi in 2016 peaking at an amount 30 times higher than the prescribed limit during the week following Diwali. I was unaware that in addition to air pollution, crackers cause severe noise pollution, causing levels to rise to 1.5 times the prescribed limit, at a maximum of 104.2 dB(A) in Delhi on Diwali day, 2016. I was unaware of the child labour that this industry encourages, forcing innocent children to come in direct contact with the toxic materials, leading to both physical and mental problems, and causing the deaths of 237 labourers at Sivakasi (the town where over 80% of India’s fireworks are manufactured) over the past few years. I was unaware that fireworks are actually categorised under ‘restricted items‘, and no licenses have been provided to import them from anywhere; and that this means that not only are several of the crackers we buy illegal, but they also pose a major threat to those who rely on the industry for their livelihood. I was unaware of the immediate, irreversible damage that this smoke causes to our bodies, blackening the insides of our lungs and causing breathing problems. I was unaware of the number of accidents that are actually caused due to fire crackers in India around Diwali, with almost 200 individuals suffering from cracker-related injuries in Delhi in 2014. I was unaware of just how much trauma is caused to animals, especially to the dogs I love so much, and the strays who have nowhere safe to hide. And, although I always saw it on the roads and felt ashamed the following morning, I was unaware of just how much waste is generated due to crackers.
And that remains one of our primary problems – too many people are still unaware of the facts. However, the good news is that awareness is rising. In the weeks leading up to Diwali this year, I have received numerous messages, posters and videos detailing the adverse effects of bursting crackers. There have been noticeably less crackers being burst over this week leading up to Diwali than in past years (in areas around me, for sure). Reports have found relatively lower noise levels in certain areas, and reduced sale of crackers in some cities over the past 2 years, with vendors in Bengaluru reporting up to 10% less sales than last year. Officials have issued statements requesting people to reduce waste, with the BBMP Commissioner emphasising the need to keep drains and streets free of litter from fire crackers, particularly in the context of recent flooding of roads. And, of course, the SC has banned the sale of crackers in the Delhi NCR region until November 1st this year, and although people can still get them from elsewhere, reports show that overall Sivakasi sales have gone down by nearly ₹1,000 crore this year. People are clearly becoming more aware and acknowledging the problems that are caused by these fire crackers, and that is a great first step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, not everyone feels the same way. Some people see it as an attack on their religion and traditions. Others believe that it is unfair to target this one day in the year, when the noise and air pollution levels are above what they should be throughout the year anyway. Still others like to point out that by driving cars and eating non-vegetarian food, we are constantly adding to our carbon footprint, and therefore are in no position to target a few specific issues like crackers. And to all those people I simply say this – two wrongs don’t make a right. True, there are far more pressing issues to be addressed relating to pollution. And nothing is stopping you from addressing them. If you think cars are a terrible source of pollution, great – start using more public transport or cycling or walking. If you feel strongly about how people waste electricity or water, start a campaign to raise awareness and change that too. But don’t deflect the problem away from this issue.
Crackers have been proven to have adverse effects on the environment. Further, unlike the more subtle, gradual causes of global warming that are pointed out in this context, the impact of crackers is felt immediately. Your actions today directly affect someone’s breathing, with an immediate spike in cases of respiratory disorders like asthma. The litter on the roads is apparent the very next day. The trauma caused to animals, infants, pregnant women and the elderly is instantaneous, and they do not recover for several days. And it is all so completely avoidable.
Last year, I made an observation during Diwali. It may have only been specific to the areas I visited, but I noticed a lot less people of my age, be it teenagers or young adults, bursting crackers. It appeared to be primarily the older generations, rooted in their traditional mindset, who in turn influence the young children to join in. And those wishing to stick to their “traditions” seem unaware that this festival of lights truly began just as a celebration of light, with fireworks only gaining popularity in India in the early twentieth century, with the establishment of Sivakasi in 1923.
This year, I think that trend continues. As more and more youth become aware of the consequences, they embrace different ways of celebrating the festival. They are willing to take a stand, and do their best to convince the rest of their families and friends to do the same. And this gives me hope, that the people of my generation are learning, and that with our numbers, we can truly make a difference. There are only two days till Diwali, and I have seen minimal crackers. I hope that continues, and that we can stop bursting crackers altogether. Be it festivals like Diwali in India, occasions like Guy Fawkes Night and the annual Fourth of July Fireworks in the US, or worldwide celebrations like New Years Eve, let us cut down on the fireworks that are damaging the environment.
Finally, to assist my understanding on the trends and beliefs relating to this subject, I’d like to hear from you. I’d be grateful if you could fill this in, so we can see where more people stand. And of course, if you have more to share, feel free to use the comment section below.