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To Ban or Not to Ban: Of ‘Green’ Firecrackers, Fake QR Codes and CBI Inquiries

To Ban or Not to Ban: Of ‘Green’ Firecrackers, Fake QR Codes and CBI Inquiries

Chennai’s skyline lit up by firecrackers on the occasion of Deepavali, November 2013. Photo: Sriram Jagannathan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

  • No firecracker can be truly green because the point is to avoid their emissions, not to have different emissions.
  • The idea of green firecrackers is also undermined by the differentiation problem and by manufacturers and vendors who exploit it to continue business as usual.
  • While the Supreme Court has banned higher-emission firecrackers, on whose shoulders must the burden of implementation lie: the petitioner, the executive or the court itself?

The flip-flop on a complete ban on all fireworks continues, even as state governments, high courts, activists, manufacturer and trade lobbies are entangled in conflicting interests – while the Supreme Court stands by its order allowing people to combust ‘green’ firecrackers.

No firecracker can be truly green because the point is to avoid their emissions, not to have different emissions. Second, it’s absurd to expect any state or district to implement such a wide-ranging effort to identify and exclude from sale any product that consumers already have a tough time telling apart from the ‘conventional’ variety – much less during a festival famous for its chaos.

The big picture is that manufacturers, traders and certifying agencies have misused the 2018 Supreme Court judgement that first mentioned green firecrackers, and the court has since taken recourse through the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

To understand how we got here, it’s important to begin from the flurry of directives regarding firecrackers.

The governments of Delhi, Rajasthan and Odisha have banned all firecrackers until January 2022 in a laudable effort to protect the health of their people, especially during a pandemic of a respiratory illness. These bans fed some hope that the air over North India in winter 2021 may not be better than it has been in the previous years – buffeted by the fact that unseasonal rains have also kept farm fires to a minimum. So far.

Haryana and Assam also announced bans but they were half-hearted, restricting only some kinds of firecrackers and only in some districts – followed by announcements that they’d review the bans. Rajasthan announced and withdrew its ban in one fortnight.

On October 29, the Calcutta high court responded to a petition by banning all firecrackers in West Bengal, citing public health and the lack of a mechanism to distinguish between green and non-green firecrackers. The directive followed a state government announcement allowing the use of green firecrackers for two hours a day.

The differentiation problem is the nub of the matter. There is no way a buyer can know if a firecracker is green unless the state can give a surety that all green firecrackers are duly certified, can’t be duplicated and that their sale will only be under supervision. Until these mechanisms are in place, all firecrackers must be banned.

On the same day, however, the Supreme Court allowed the use of green firecrackers but told states and Union territories to comply with its order – to prohibit the manufacture, sale or use of other, higher-emission firecrackers ahead of Diwali. The court even warned the states’ chief secretaries, police commissioners, police district superintendents and station house officers that it would hold them personally liable in the event of a violation.

According to the Supreme Court, green firecrackers should by definition produce at least 30% less toxic particulate matter and gases (sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, etc.) than conventional firecrackers, and shouldn’t contain barium salts, aluminium, strontium, lithium, arsenic, antimony, lead and some other banned substances. And having appointed agencies to check for these attributes, the apex court thought its job was done.

It would have been – were it not for the manufacturing and trade lobbies rushing to the Supreme Court with the Calcutta high court order. The Supreme Court then set aside the latter’s total ban on November 1, effectively reversing a thoughtful direction that had understood the main issues and their practical implications.

Now, with just a day or two to go for Diwali, the fates of Delhi’s and Odisha’s complete firecracker bans hang in the balance – along with the health of some half a million people living in the Indo-Gangetic plain.

In addition, the rains also appear to be easing; NASA satellite imagery indicated over 4,000 farm fires in the 24 hours until November 1.

Now, the fires and the fireworks – the two pollution monsters that contribute to North India’s winter pollution – stand poised to strike. Air pollution exposure kills almost 1.7 million people of all ages in India every year, according to the 2020 ‘State of Global Air’ report.

Not really green

A man celebrates Diwali with firecrackers, New Delhi, October 2017. Photo: PTI

There are two issues at stake here. The first is the definition itself.

Can any firecracker really be green? Sarath Guttikunda, director of UrbanEmissions, an independent group that disseminates air quality forecasts for 640 districts, and Bhargav Krishna, a fellow of the Centre for Policy Research, agreed that “green firecracker” is an oxymoron – because anything that burns, emits particulate matter and gases and eventually contributes to air pollution can’t be ‘green’.

This said, the Supreme Court assumed a different definition – that green firecrackers are less polluting, rather than non-polluting. But here, manufacturers, traders and certifying agencies have been flouting the court’s pronouncement in both letter and spirit. Lawyers who represented the petitioner in this case alleged that they continue to use banned substances in their products and mislabel them as ‘green’ to lure buyers.

If manufacturers are found guilty of continuing their use of barium salts and other harmful substances in their firecrackers, they should be held in contempt of court and jailed. But this said, we come to the second issue: on whose shoulders must the burden of implementation lie – the petitioner, the executive or the court itself?

Also read: Air Pollution Nine-Times More Likely to Kill India’s Poorest Than the Rich

Only four crackers certified

The Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO) is the government agency responsible for checking and certifying firecrackers according to their emissions. Thus far, PESO has identified only brands of firecrackers to be ‘green’ – out of 300.

This is how Supreme Court advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan first got suspicious. In December 2019, he reported that several firework shops in Hosur, near the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka border, were selling power firecrackers, including the so-called ‘bombs’, ‘rockets’ and ladi (little explosives weaved together into a garland), of the sort that the Supreme Court had banned.

He purchased several of these offending items in their original packaging, and found upon a closer check that their ingredients included many banned toxic substances. He included his findings with his petition, informed the apex court that manufacturers were continuing to use banned substances, and asked for an independent inquiry.

“They have been continuing to buy massive quantities of all the banned chemicals and storing them in their factories, as if the court orders didn’t exist,” Sankaranarayanan said.

Some manufacturers have also used another government agency, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), to qualify their products. But while NEERI can check and help regulate the contents of firecrackers, it is not a designated certifying body like PESO.

“Even if a single rocket goes off into the night sky, or you hear a single ladi, you know the court’s orders have been violated,” Sankaranarayanan said. “This is the easiest way for governments to know and to regulate.”

In response to his submissions, the court asked the CBI to step up, and scheduled to hear the defending parties after Diwali.

But the CBI has already found more evidence: according to Sankaranarayanan, investigators “went to the largest manufacturers – Standard, Vinayaga and Sri Amman – and found all of them had placed orders for 30,000 kg of barium, even until 2021,” Sankaranarayanan said. “Clearly, they have been using these chemicals recklessly, mislabelling them and misrepresenting [the firecrackers] to the public.”

When Awaaz Foundation’s Sumaira Abdulali and the Maharashtra state pollution control board tested firecrackers in Maharashtra, they also found vast quantities of boxes with fake QR codes. When a potential buyer scans a code on a box of firecrackers on their phone, a webpage must display the crackers’ contents. The fake codes, however, loaded webpages that displayed false information.

So while the courts are pondering serious questions about lives and livelihoods, firecracker manufacturers are busy on the lookout for loopholes and blindspots using which they can continue business as usual.

Delhi’s air and people

A person walks a dog in a garden on a smoggy morning in New Delhi, December 23, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis/Files

“Until November 4, air quality is expected to be in the ‘poor’ category” and “could dip to the ‘very poor’ category on November 5-6 due to northwesterly winds and bursting of crackers,” news agency ANI quoted IMD scientist V.K. Soni as saying.

At 2 pm on November 3, it was 325 – already ‘very poor’.

According to the Union Earth science ministry’s System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research, or SAFAR, the share of crop-residue burning to the PM2.5 concentration over Delhi was already 8% on November 1, and climbing.

Also read: Inside India’s Fight Against Noise Pollution

For those of us living in North India, it’s that time of the year again: when the mercury begins its downward dip, the delicate orange-white harshringar flowers[footnote]Nyctanthes arbor-tristis[/footnote] release their fragrance into the air, and the festivities can begin. The season feels more special this year because of the lockdown last year, for the most of which we stayed indoors with our fear for company.

But those of us looking at another graph, that of the air quality index, are also reminded that our eyes are watering more every day, that our throats have seized up, that something we’ve dreaded for a while is upon us once more.

In fact, for the leaders meeting at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, here’s an idea: how about hosting COP27 or COP28 in New Delhi, in November or December? They will all learn firsthand what our inescapable ‘airpocalypse’ smells, feels and tastes like.

Jyoti Pande Lavakare is a journalist, author of the grief memoir Breathing Here is Injurious to Your Health: The Human Cost of Air Pollution (Hachette 2020) and co-founder of the clean air non-profit Care for Air.

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