Millennium Post

Going up in smoke

In the year 2011, only 519 licences were issued against the 1,220 applications received by the Licensing Unit of Delhi Police. But the figure crossed 800 not only in 2012, but also in 2013. This year, 1,167 applications have been received and majority of them have been allowed.

‘The Licensing Unit of Delhi Police has a set of rules of eligibility for selling firecrackers. If those rules are adhered to, there is no problem in issuing a license,’ says a senior police official.

Even if the requirements are not fulfilled and oblivious to the hazards that are involved, it is no big deal for the traders to sell firecrackers without license. ‘Because it has always been like that and it is not a problem as long as we are sure that nothing would happen and people are there to buy our product, we continue to sell them,’ says Dilip, a firecracker seller at Rajouri Garden in west Delhi.

‘In order to bring this menace under control, the demand has to come down, which will not happen all of a sudden and needs a collective understanding,’ says environmental activist Vikrant Tongad. He further says, from a very young age one should be made to understand the hazards and the ecological degradation it leads to. Though the Delhi Government has reached out to school children in the past and done intensive campaigning against firecrackers, the present demand proves that more has to be done, Tongad adds.

Today the purchasing power of people has increased tremendously which has enabled people to shell out more money despite the high prices of the crackers. It may also be a way to show off one’s economic status. ‘More the crackers, more affluent you are,’ says Dr Ashish Thomas, Assistant Professor (Environmental Studies) at the Hindu College. ‘Secondly, even though people are aware of the polluting effects of crackers, the common excuse is that it’s a once-in-a-year event,’ he adds.

Lost children of Sivakasi
‘It was twenty years ago, we went to Sivakasi  (Tamil Nadu)- India’s firecracker hub which generates 80 per cent of the firecrackers sold across the nation, after a major accident had just taken place in one of the firecracker factories where many children used to work. I still remember, we went to the spot with a woman whose son was employed in that factory. She went mad, when she couldn’t find her son and finally she found a piece of human leg torn apart. Seeing the shoe in that leg, the mother received the biggest shock of her life and lost her memory. Yes, she doesn’t remember a thing, even today,’ recalls recent Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi.

‘Both people involved in the making of firecrackers and the one using it during celebrations are subjected to immeasurable risk to life,’ says Satyarthi. He further exhorts by saying: ‘Let’s celebrate Diwali by lighting lamps and not by killing children. Let’s not turn Diwali into a festival of darkness for those parents who have lost children at firecracker factories.’ In September 2012, 30 people died in an accident at a fire factory in Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu. Last year in Delhi-NCR, 365 cases of severe burns and minor injuries and one death was reported. The deceased person was identified as Raj Kumar (23), who was a resident of Ghaziabad.

Irreversible damage to the environment

The poisonous gases and substances produced by burning of crackers are sulphur dioxide, nitric oxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter (PM) that includes all the metallic compounds, suspended particulate matter (SPM) and ozone which is a strong and harmful oxidizing agent.

According to a report published by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the concentration of particulate matter in the air of Delhi during the past four Diwalis was found to be ten to twelve times higher than the standard.

‘PM and SPM get deposited in the lungs causing irreversible damage. They aggravate chronic pulmonary diseases (like bronchitis and asthma), besides causing severe damage to eyes, throat and nose. Besides that, sulphur dioxide, nitric oxide and carbon monoxide can cause severe chest congestion and other respiratory problems,’ especially in children, says Dr Ashish Thomas.

According to the noise standards set by the CPCB, the manufacture, sale or use of firecrackers generating noise level exceeding 125 decibels within a radius of four metres from the point of explosion is prohibited. However, it is also important to mention that the Chinese firecrackers imported these days do not adhere to that norm. In a survey, it was found that noise levels due to firecrackers have increased enormously in Delhi, Bangalore, Jaipur, Chennai and Kolkata over the last few years.

Dr Thomas further says, ‘Noise levels during the last three Diwalis in the national capital have been 30 to 40 per cent higher than the standards set by the CPCB. It can lead to hearing loss, high blood pressure, heart attack in people suffering from heart ailments and sleep disturbance especially among elders.’

The firecracker psychology
‘It is more of a psychological thing,’ says Dr Samir Parikh, Director of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences at Fortis Healthcare. He adds, ‘the involvement of the gender quotient- how the male children are encouraged to take part in bursting firecrackers on Diwali or use harmful synthetic colours during Holi- further aggravates the situation.’

Additionally he opines, ‘the decision to go against firecrackers has to be a collective step on part of the adults. As in, if one set of parents stops giving firecrackers to their child, but their neighbours do not do so, the child shall witness his peers getting involved in a celebration which he/she has been deprived of. That can adversely affect the child’s behaviour. So it is more of a collective responsibility for the society.’

‘I can’t agree to the idea that one day all of a sudden people shall stop bursting firecrackers. In this regard, orientation has to be given from a very young age. Children have to be made aware of how this pollution year after year can turn into a severe menace in future,’ says Dr Parikh.

‘Simultaneously, the school students should be talked to and the awareness of the hazards- physical, ecological and economic- should be ingrained into them at the right time. Film stars, cricketers and other influential icons can be used for the purpose efficiently,’ Dr Parikh finally adds.

How did firecrackers start getting associated with Indian festivals?

Firecrackers originated in China during Han dynasty (200 BC). In the eighth century, gunpowder was invented in China. Following the discovery of the present day chemicals associated with firecrackers, the Chinese further developed the production of firecrackers as an art. They then exported this invention to various countries for religious festivals and victory celebrations. In earlier days in India, firecrackers were probably part of victory celebrations of kings. Slowly, it became associated with festivities but it was still restricted to the affluent people.

According to one belief for using crackers during Diwali, the sound of them is an indication of the joy of the people living on earth, making the gods aware of their plentiful state. A more scientific belief associated with crackers is that the fumes produced by the crackers kill a lot of insects and mosquitoes, found in plenty after the rains.

Whatever is the reason of the origin, the use of firecrackers gained prominence with the establishment of Sivakasi (in Tamil Nadu) as the firecracker production hub in India in the 1950s.

With increasing availability of indigenous firecrackers and tremendous increase in the earning power of people, firecrackers became intricately associated with the festivals, especially the festival of lights, Diwali.

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