As I looked out the window of my sixth-floor apartment, the morning after Diwali, I couldn’t contain my dismay. I had gotten up for my morning walk, but this was no day to be outside: puffs of smoke still bellowed out of ash piles on the ground and soot lined the tops of every car in the community driveway. A thick black smog hung on the morning air.
India’s booming fireworks industry is probably large enough to rival China’s, but it’s mostly for domestic consumption: we light crackers during festivals and at parties, on holidays and at work, after the elections and during a sports match; according to the Economic Times, an estimated 500,000 kilograms of fireworks were burnt in the capital last Diwali. I imagine that fireworks bring joy to a lot of people in my country. But there’s a steep price to pay for that euphoria, as with the three people who lost their lives in a fireworks explosion last September, the sixteen who were injured under somewhat similar circumstances in January, or the 52 who died in a factory accident in 2012.
And so, that morning, I went back inside and googled “firecracker accidents.” Over 500 complaints had been lodged in Delhi, leading to more than 300 arrests relating to the purchase and sale of toxic fireworks on Diwali; in Mumbai, as many as one hundred complaints had been registered. In the industrial area of Bawana, seventeen people were found dead at the spot after a huge fire broke out in a two-storey fireworks factory. Elsewhere, in Hyderabad, the government-run Sarojini Devi Eye Hospital admitted over fifty patients with injuries in the eye and facial area, also firework-related. I read about the controversy when actress Priyanka Chopra had a grand display of fireworks at her wedding, after urging people to spare the air for asthmatics like her.
I used to love fireworks as a child. Never the noisy ones, but shooting rockets into the sky was like being an astronaut, launching into space to discover alien life. Just before my fifth birthday, back when my father was still alive, we bought five sacks of assorted fireworks to light on Diwali.
After my dad died, however, we stopped buying crackers for good. At first, it was because the wounds were still too fresh and everyone in the house missed celebrating the festivals with him. But then I started having nightmares, anxiety, depression, and intrusive thoughts; some time after I turned ten, I was diagnosed with PTSD and OCD. Bright lights and heavy noise became a strict taboo in the house.
If growing up with PTSD was a massive disadvantage, it also gave me a unique perspective: spending each Diwali with a blanket wrapped around my head to keep the noise out helped me appreciate the tribulations of others who are similarly affected. And as I skimmed through my Google search that morning, I realized I was not the only one. Dr. Lalana Bakhale, a renowned cardiologist, had recently made an appearance before a crowd in Tapabhumi, Kundai, on behalf of a nonprofit called Krutarth. As a medical practitioner, she believed that it was her duty to make the public aware of how harmful firecrackers can be to our health, especially when lit without proper precaution. “It can lead to injuries in the eye and permanent hearing loss,” she told the crowd; “Due to the toxicity of the air inhaled, premature delivery can occur in pregnant women. The premature child is often born with a list of lung problems and is also at the risk of brain hemorrhage. Also, there is a severe risk of heart attacks among the sick and elderly.”
The Goa-based Krutarth Foundation is a nonprofit focused on progressive revivalism, incorporating modern science and medicine into traditional desi culture. Founded in 2014, the foundation has taken part in a number of social uplift initiatives: installing electric pressure pumps across nine high schools in the region (for the provision of cleaner toilets), holding demonstrations for environmental awareness in local schools and places of worship, leading a regional initiative on tree planting, and hosting dramas based on local folklore.
They’ve also been organizing a local movement for a complete ban on hazardous fireworks. The issue had already received the attention of the Indian Medical Association (IMA), Delhi, whose Joint Secretary, Dr. Anil Goyal, urged people to have a safer Diwali by abstaining from the use of fireworks and synthetic candles. In Goa, the Krutarth Foundation coordinated with the IMA’s local chapter to raise public awareness.
The IMA’s involvement has played a vital role in the issue, eventually influencing the Supreme Court’s decision to to impose strict restrictions on firework usage later in the year. But to my surprise, there has been little coverage of the organization’s work; all I could find was a single article in The Goan. But with the help of the article’s author, I managed to get Mr. Rajendra Desai on the phone a couple of days later, Krutarth’s founder, and he explained Krutarth’s future-oriented approach and emphasis on the educational and cultural upbringing of children and young adults. “If we can properly educate our children on the threats that firecrackers pose to our environment,” Mr. Desai told me, his voice filled with enthusiasm, “our country is safe for the next quarter of a century.”
The situation in Goa was bad, he told me: “We have teenagers bursting crackers near schools and hospitals and people with heart conditions have it worse than anyone else.” Pregnant women were at particular risk during festivities as were people with diagnosed mental health conditions, who often react terribly to the noise. But he was full of stories and examples; he told me about a recent train accident in Amritsar, when the train siren was overshadowed by the crackers set off by devotees gathered near the station to celebrate Dussehra. The people, afraid of being injured by the sparks from a lit effigy, retreated towards the tracks. The evening train ran straight through them, killing sixty and injuring about seventy-two.
Dr. Purnima Usgaonkar agrees, an experienced pediatrician who has toured high schools and community centers in the region to educate children and adults alike about the negative effects festive fireworks can have. “Noises above 85 dB can cause permanent damage to the human ear,” she told me, when I spoke with her. “They’re also lethally dangerous for patients with pre-diagnosed heart conditions and newborn babies.”
But loud noises aren’t the only thing to be afraid of: on the morning after Diwali, the air quality index (AQI) went past 999 in the city of Delhi, the maximum measurement (the normal safety limit is around 50). But you didn’t need a scientific measurement to see the air turn a smoky black, or that people from across the city were complaining of rashes, watery eyes, and troubled breathing. About 1000 complaints were lodged by residents on the use of loud and poisonous crackers; overstretched and understaffed hospitals saw a dramatic rise in the number of patients admitted with critical lung problems.
The situation is the worst in September. During the celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi, crackers are lit on rooftops and in the middle of the street, near national monuments and right next to hospitals. And in Diwali, effigies stuffed with fireworks are lit all across the city, celebrating the death of the demon Narkasur in the hands of Lord Krishna.
The issue is not new, but the movement is gaining momentum. In September 2015, the fathers of three infants filed a petition before the High Court of Delhi, appealing for a countrywide ban on fireworks in the interest of coming generations. The High Court chose to grant the petition in 2016, implementing a complete ban on the purchase and sale of fireworks in the National Capital Region. But in face of strict opposition from firework manufacturers, who received added support from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the High Court decision was since placed under review of the Supreme Court of India.
As the Supreme Court deliberated, doctors and activists have made their voice heard. In August, Mr. Desai appeared with Dr. Purnima Usgaonkar and Dr. Lalana Bakhale, both senior members of the Indian Medical Association, at the Vishwa Hindu Parishad Hall in Ponda, Goa, and gave a detailed speech on the devastating effects that fireworks manufactured using potassium nitrate, sulfur, and carbon can have on the human ecosystem.
This was just the beginning, however; a local campaign followed, with leaflets and pamphlets distributed, speeches given at schools and community houses, demonstrations at public markets and an appearance at the Tapabhumi Sausthan, a Goa-based religious organization. Krutarth addressed a lengthy letter to the Inspector General of Police: “We seek your support, assistance and action in the form of clear instruction to all Ganeshotsav Mandals,” the letter read, “not to burst firecrackers of any kind within 300 meters of any nursing home, maternity home, or other in-patient institution.”
Finally, in October 2018–not long after Diwali–the Supreme Court reached a decision. Instead of a blanket ban as proposed by the High Court, the Supreme Court instead chose to implement nationwide restrictions ruling out the purchase and sale of anything but green fireworks. It also placed time restrictions, limiting fireworks to two hours a day on special occasions. The Supreme Court didn’t initially immediately explain which fireworks would constitute as “eco-friendly” or “green”–leading to confusion and criticism from manufacturers and environmental activists alike–but it has since accepted the definition set forth by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
“Green crackers are basically reduced emission crackers,” explains CSIR Director Dr. Rakesh Kumar in an interview with Livemint, “wherein we reduce some harmful components, like Barium, Aluminum and Chromium which are conventionally used to get different colours. So, the strategy is to reduce or replace these components with less toxic chemicals which can bring down emissions to significant levels.”
It’s a major victory, but Krutarth’s work is not over, as Mr. Desai insisted to me: “While the law can tell you what to do, I’m here to tell you why do it.” When I last spoke to him, he had just wrapped up his work on a campaign that sought to revive a more traditional Indian Diwali, free of fireworks and electric waste. By supplementing the use of fireworks and electric lighting with traditional oil lamps made out of baked clay, they advocate for a synthetic-free version of the festival of lights, one that stays true to our traditions without compromising the environment. “If we all work together on this, I’m confident that a complete ban on fireworks is not that far away,” he asserted. “I don’t need to start a national movement, I just need to get enough people thinking seriously about the issue so that the politicians are forced to reconsider.”
There’s a long way to go. Most people are still confused about what green crackers even are (and in a protest of the decision, a group of traders placed crackers inside vegetables, insisting that these were the only so-called “green crackers.”) Given how difficult enforcement will be, we can expect that toxic fireworks will big business for some time. Which is why grassroot movements like Krutarth so precious: to make an impact, people need to realize the very tangible impact these practices have. Celebrating ethnic roots is important, but not at the cost of health and ecodiversity, a needle Krutarth works hard to thread.
I love everything that our culture has to offer, but a sure sign of a good society is to adapt to the needs and requirements of the people living within it. I’d give up everything for a chance to relive those precious moments with my father. But if I could choose, I wish he had taught me gardening instead.