Chennai’s skyline lit up by firecrackers on the occasion of Deepavali, November 2013. Photo: Sriram Jagannathan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0.
The National Green Tribunal’s (NGT’s) ban on firecrackers in cities with poor air quality reeks of seasonal, knee-jerk environmentalism. The ban, however, will bring relief to areas already suffering poor air quality and urban animals and wildlife. That is definitely a good thing. But unless one shuts one’s eyes, it is an inescapable fact that the ban transfers the burden to the labour intensive firecracker industry in Sivakasi.
NGT’s move begs other questions too. If poor air quality is a justification (rightly so) for banning activities that worsen air quality, will they use the same logic to issue a moratorium on setting up or expansion of polluting industries, or of polluting activities such road expansions that trigger higher vehicular traffic? They should.
By NGT’s definition, Chennai will not fall within the purview of the ban because the city’s air quality index for November 2019 is within “acceptable” limits. But this index is misleading. It is calculated by averaging the results from a meagre three air quality monitors (if CPCB monitors are to be considered) in the city of Chennai – only three monitoring stations that average the results over the metropolitan area’s 1189 square kilometres. This takes the utility of averages to absurd lengths, and hides the fact that within this city with so-called “acceptable” air quality are pockets of densely populated areas that have horrendous air quality. Everyday is Deepavali day in these parts. Such pockets are to be found strewn across the country – in Raipur, Jeedimetla, Thane Belapur, Vapi, Valsad and Ankleshwar, Rajerhat, Eloor, Neyveli and Vizag.
These are almost always places with a higher-than-average proportion of SC/OBC communities. Yes! Caste is an important determinant of the environment quality one is exposed to. Athipattu, Minjur, Chinna Sekkadu, Manali, Kodungaiyur, R.K. Nagar are all areas that have SC populations far in excess of the 16.8% average for the city of Chennai, according to 2011 Census of India data.
These are also the places that the city has chosen to burden with its largest garbage dump, the petrochemical industries, the coal yards, the power plants and the coal ash dumps. Here, road accidents almost always involve heavy, smoke-spewing diesel vehicles carrying containers or chemicals to and from the ports and industries strewn across this landscape. These are places with no playgrounds, where children are condemned to a life with PubG. NGT’s logic of “no more pollution in polluted areas” must be applied to these places as well. But will it?
It is an established fact that poor and historically marginalised communities are worst affected by elite articulations of problems and solutions. The seasonal environmentalism of the NGT is a case in point. Deepavali is not a surprise event. It happens every year at roughly the same time – October or November. The fireworks industry, like fossil-fuel based industries, nuclear and coal power plants, mining, synthetic pesticides, plastics and weapons of mass destruction, should be recognised as sunset industries. They have no future. It should be possible to cut such industries to size over time, to plan the phase down and make arrangements for the absorption of the workforce in other productive activities so as to ensure that the hardship of a solution is not a source of pain for the poor.
For such a transformation to happen in articulating problems and framing solutions, the elite – including in the judiciary, the executive, the legislature, the media and civil society – need to realise that they neither know all the questions nor have all the answers. The elite need to acknowledge their eliteness and the confines of the ghetto that their privilege puts them in. They need to grow the humility to seek answers of those that they see as beneath their station. That includes the worker in the fireworks industry, the stubble-burning farmer in Punjab, or the child without a playground in North Chennai.
Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist. This article first appeared on The News Minute and has been republished with permission. The views expressed here are the author’s own.