“What is a ‘green; cracker, madam?” Kumar, a 53-year-old Diwali firecrackers trader in Bengaluru’s Hulimavu suburb asks me as I set about some Diwali shopping earlier this week.
While commercial streets and alleys are filled with small shops selling decorative items, diyas, colourful trinkets, flowers and more, shops selling Diwali firecrackers are few and far between and attract few customers.
“We opened our shop only last week after the Supreme Court verdict, and sales have been low since. The law is affecting us; new policies come suddenly, and we have no time to incorporate it. Our hard work, manual labour, raw materials and financial investments is at stake. Forget profit, we are afraid that we will not be able to break even this year,” Kumar says.
Kumar was referring to the Supreme Court verdict of October 23, which imposed restrictions on the use and sale of Diwali firecrackers in a bid to bring down galloping air pollution across India, particularly in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR). The restrictions included a two-hour window for bursting crackers on Diwali, sale of crackers only through licenced shops and a ban on online sales.
According to the court, only ‘green crackers’, i.e. crackers that are low on emissions and noise will be allowed in NCR. The court also mandated the police to hold traders in contempt for any violations. On October 30, the court modified its order, saying that authorities in states are at liberty to change the timings but the duration would not exceed two hours a day.
As a result, several state governments have placed restrictions on the burning of firecrackers. The Karnataka government has said fire-crackers can only be burst between 8 pm and 10 pm. In Tamil Nadu, where people traditionally burst crackers at dawn on Naraka Chaturdashi, the government has allowed the bursting of firecrackers between 6 am and 7 am and 7 pm and 8 pm.
While people are still figuring out what ‘green crackers’ are and where to find them, some are turning to Chinese-made e-crackers which can reportedly be ‘ignited’ remotely and are neither loud nor do they cause pollution. The garbage generated, however, is a completely different story.
Cracker industry feels the heat
Sivakasi, the firecracker hub of India, where 80 percent of the crackers are manufactured, however, is holding out hope because the Supreme Court has not called for a blanket ban on the sale of firecrackers.
“This is our only source of income, and we have been doing this for generations now. Last year’s ban cost us; we even got pre-orders for production late,” Selva Raj, a local trader in Sivakasi, told YourStory over the telephone.
Last year on October 9, the Supreme Court reinstated the 2016 ban on the sale of firecrackers in Delhi-NCR during Diwali. The Maharashtra environment ministry has also expressed concerns over air pollution. Hence, several states imposed a ban on the sale of Diwali firecrackers completely.
Media reports have quoted Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers Association (TANFAMA) president T Asaithambi as saying that firecracker production had fallen steeply as a result of the ban. Sivakasi is home to over 900 units manufacturing firecrackers.
“Earlier, every year, we used to do business of Rs 6,000 crore. While 8 percent of our total production is for Tamil Nadu’s consumption, the remaining is for other parts of the country. Due to the ban imposed by the SC last year in Delhi-NCR and the petition seeking a blanket ban, our dealers were reluctant to take orders...the cumulative loss of business was around Rs 2,000 crore,” he said in an interview with Hindustan Times. In addition, an estimated 5-8 lakh people are employed by the industry and allied areas.
Diwali firecrackers skilling required
While many traders understand the need for “green crackers” to curb the growing toxic air pollution, they maintain that support for such initiatives has not been provided to them.
Earlier in August, the Supreme Court had asked the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change to take up “short-term measures/actions it proposes to tackle pollution due to firecrackers this Diwali”. In response, the ministry suggested the use of ‘green crackers’ or crackers which would run on the technology called Safe Water and Air Sprinklers or SWAS, where the material would absorb water and generate heat, thereby aiding the bursting of crackers. However, the ministry failed to provide the firecracker industry with research, skill and training support.
“If they know the way ahead, teach us how to go green. We want sales ultimately, whichever way possible. You cannot stop people from bursting crackers. So, instead of making it illegal, why can’t the government provide us training and help us learn,” Kumar asks.
The Supreme Court has imposed a ban on the use of barium salts in cracker manufacturing, and also a ban on using the long garlands of crackers (laris) on the grounds that these caused noise pollution and generated way too much garbage.
However, Kumar sees hope. “Sale always increases as we move closer to Diwali. We have 2-3 more days to go, we might be able to make something.”
As India readies to celebrate the festival of lights, lakhs of people whose livelihood depends on the firecracker industry stare at a bleak future. Unless technology and research assistance reaches this industry, the story of a ban of sale on firecrackers will repeat itself year after year, leading to loss of jobs, income and livelihoods.