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Much ground left to cover

Execution is a major challenge in the judgment on firecrackers, writes Anisha Raman

Much ground left to cover

First, let's get a lowdown on what the Supreme Court judgment says. It says that sale and burning of only green firecrackers be allowed in Delhi-NCR. The court ordered that cleaner crackers be introduced in the market and usage of chemicals in production be banned. The apex court says firecrackers must only be sold by licensed dealers and bans the sale of old crackers in Delhi-NCR. Also, no e-commerce website is allowed to sell firecrackers. It directed the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to monitor levels of few metals seven days before and after Diwali and has asked authorities to minimise pollution by restricting the time of bursting firecrackers to 8pm-10 pm as well as spatial containment of pollution through "community cracker bursting" in areas identified by CPCB. It also says the enforcement agency and local police will be held liable if banned crackers are burst in their areas.

What are green crackers?

The SC identifies usable crackers in two categories: improved crackers and green crackers. Improved crackers are those which avoid the use of ash as filler material (to reduce PM emission by 15-20 per cent) and usage of charcoal within the limitation that Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO) prescribes. Green crackers are safe water and air sprinklers that emit less sound and light. They also ensure a PM reduction of 30-35 per cent and reduction in NOx and SO2 due to in-situ water generation acting as a dust suppressant. These also cost less owing to a usage of low-cost oxidants. The judgment may prove to be a great initiative towards setting new standards for the manufacture of firecrackers and spreading awareness about firecracker emissions. Implementing this would remain a challenge, seeing how authorities are still struggling with noise standards for crackers despite laws being formulated for the same in 1999. This may also make industries switch to cleaner crackers.

However, there is also a pressing need to enforce labelling standards or mechanism, or order manufacturers to declare the chemical composition of firecrackers. In 2005, SC had asked the Centre to reclassify all firecrackers into those that emit sound and light, and make guidelines for both. Till now, only noise regulations are in place and chemical compositions have been defined. There is no clear mechanism for proper enforcement and checks. Labelling should be in place for all sound and light crackers. The labels on crackers should also include statutory health warnings.

How to regulate sale?

The question is how will the enforcement agency identify if the crackers being sold are the ones that SC permits? There is a huge enforcement gap that needs to be amended to check if unlicensed dealers are illegally selling the crackers. The nature of the offence itself requires intense on-ground monitoring and well-thought control mechanisms because crackers are burst within minutes and the damage will be done before the police decide to spring into action.

The judgment also states that those crackers, which have already been produced and do not meet the conditions, cannot be sold in Delhi and NCR. However, numerous incidents of an illegal sale were reported in and around Delhi last year in spite of the ban on the sale of firecrackers. So, the concern here is if there is a check on people bringing in the banned firecrackers from neighbouring states to Delhi or not.

Diwali makes an already bad situation worse

From 2013 to 2016, there has been an increase in PM 2.5 levels before Diwali in Delhi, shows CPCB's data. Although the particulate levels reduced owing to judicial intervention in 2017, other anthropogenic sources continue to increase pollution levels during these months. The pollution from crackers only worsens this trend while depositing deadly chemicals in our environment.

Pollution during Diwali becomes a cause of concern due to meteorological patterns between September and November. During 2015-2017, the Air Quality Index levels have been between 326 and 426 during the festival, which falls in "very poor" and "severe" categories. The mixing height is the height up to which the dispersion of pollutants happens. The mean wind speed during these months declines and this, coupled with lower mixing height, leads to stagnant high concentration of pollutants. In 2015, it was 590m, which decreased to 492m in 2016 and 481m in 2017. The average wind speed shows a similar trend. It was 3.4 m/sec in 2015, which decreased to 1.8 m/sec in 2016 and 0.57-0.71 m/sec in 2017. The decrease in wind speed and mixing height on Diwali days leads to the accumulation of pollutants and lesser dispersion. Delhi had already hit "severe" level of air quality on Dussehra. A constantly dropping wind speed and low temperatures will only ensure the Capital keeps on breathing severely polluted air.

In 2016, the Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based non-profit, conducted an exposure monitoring exercise at RK Puram and Chattarpur areas of New Delhi for three hours on October 30, the Diwali night. Exposure monitoring shows what an ordinary human being in that area breathes and, in this case, the damage that three hours of bursting firecrackers did to Delhi's ground-level air. The CPCB standard of PM2.5 in a day is 60µ/m3 and that for PM 10 is not more than 100µ/m3. In the high-density area of Chattarpur, PM 2.5 concentration at night was initially 872 µ/m3, touching a maximum of 1,270 µ/m3. Similarly, PM 10 readings averaged at 1,400µ/m3, reaching 2060 µ/m3. An indicative analysis showed that the air in Chattarpur and RK Puram was 15 and four times more dangerous than what CPCB calls 'severe'.

Gaps in execution

The directive, though well intended, raises some pertinent questions. One of them is how will the industry make the switch within such a small time frame since the laws are still being formulated. PESO still has to formulate a process to identify and check green crackers, regulate licensing of dealers and oversee disposal of stock.

Another set of questions the judgment raises is how to certify a cracker 'green' and how will the enforcement agencies identify areas within Delhi and spread awareness within such less time? The Supreme Court has put the onus on citizens, community action groups, and authorities to try and reduce air pollution. Hopefully, the SC's faith will be proved right. If we don't have a blanket ban, we must not also have a blanket of smoke.

(The views expressed are of Down To Earth)

Anisha Raman

Anisha Raman

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