It is that time of the year when the entire nation comes together to light diyas and candles illuminating the surroundings and celebrate the festival of lights. Diwali is celebrated with fervor and enthusiasm by Indians all over the world. Whether it is lighting of diyas, gifting sweets and presents, dressing up and making rangolis, puja etc., all these celebrations associated with Deepavali represents the rich culture, heritage and traditions of Indian society. However, these traditions began to be replaced by patakhas/firecrackers. The present generation associate Diwali with only firecrackers as it causes exhilaration especially amongst the children. Ironically, the bursting firecrackers poses the maximum risk to the children. Absence of a proper law or guidelines related to bursting of firecrackers led to further proliferation of firecrackers in the market. The firecrackers contains harmful chemicals like lithium, mercury, arsenic and lead which causes respiratory problems, burning sensation in the eyes, nervous and mental disorders, hearing problems etc. Animals and birds are also susceptible to the harmful effects of firecrackers. Despite of all the ill effects of bursting firecrackers, it was only recently that a robust judgement against the use of firecrackers was delivered.
The past two years have witnessed alarming level of air pollution in the capital of our country which has become a cause of concern for the residents especially children. Delhi observed the highest level of air pollution in 2016 just after Diwali when the entire city was covered with thick smog. On the next day of Diwali, it was discovered that PM2.5 levels in the air had crossed 700 μg/m3 being among the highest levels recorded in the world and about 29 times above the standards laid down by the World Health Organization (WHO). This resulted in many falling sick and others having to purchase face masks for personal use and install air purifiers in buildings. In the backdrop of these staggeringly high PM2.5 levels, the supreme court on the petition filed by 3 infants (Arjun Gopal, Aarav Bhandari and Zoya Rao Bhasin) under article 32, directed on 11th November 2016 suspension of all permits to sell firecrackers within the territory of national capital region(NCR).. Applicant who himself was a manufacturer of firecracker contended on the behalf of all the manufacturers that it is a violation of their fundamental right to freedom to practice profession of their choice and that the ban would lead to denial of their right to livelihood (article 21).They also stressed on the other factors contributing to air pollution in Delhi and how bursting of firecrackers goes on only for 2 days having minimal effect on the pollution levels. Supreme Court however, having being convinced by the arguments laid down by the petitioner about the hazardous effects of the firecrackers that contain harmful chemicals, decided to impose a complete ban on firecrackers in November 2016.
The petitioners again filed a petition challenging the judgement given in September 2017 in which SC lifted the suspension on permanent licenses. The Supreme Court opted for a balanced and a pragmatic approach while retaining essence of the November 2016 judgement. Only green firecrackers were allowed to be sold in the markets and the court also laid down the time frame for bursting crackers 8-10 pm during Diwali and other festive occasions and 11:45-12:45 during Christmas and New Year. The bursting of firecrackers would take place only at open areas that were to be designated by the municipal corporations. SC directed the concerned police authorities and the District Magistrates to make sure that guidelines laid down in the judgement are complied with. A Committee is to be appointed and chaired by the Chairperson of the SC appointed CPCB(central pollution control board) and consisting of officers at the appropriate level to conduct a research study on the impact of bursting fireworks during Dussehra and Diwali on the health of the people. The court also chided the authorities for its lackadaisical attitude towards the rising air pollution. The court by recognising the right to breathe clean air as a part of right to health which is an inferred right under article 21 of the constitution, has put an obligation on the government to protect this right and ensure access to clean and healthy air.
While the Supreme Court was successful in delivering a balanced judgement, but it was the implementation of the judgement that was the testing part. The judgement was delivered taking into consideration all the interests while ensuring that the citizen’s right to breathe and access to clean air is not compromised. Soon after the judgement was given, all eyes were set on the night of 7th November. The Court itself recognized the hardships which may be encountered to monitor and prevent the burning of crackers by the people. The police soon after the judgement started seizing illegal firecrackers and started night patrolling to ensure adherence to the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court. Over 300 people were arrested and 2,776 kg of banned firecrackers were seized in a single day.
Despite of a major crackdown, people came out to burst illegal firecrackers violating almost all the rules laid down in the judgement. While reports suggested fewer crackers were burst this year than in 2017, air quality was just as bad as last year. The average AQI touched 390, at “very poor” level bordering on “severe”, just 13 notches below last year. CPCB said that if the air pollution level continues to be severe then emergency measures might have to be taken to combat with the rapidly increasing pollution levels. The government has already taken steps like banning construction activities and movement of vehicles carrying heavy goods into Delhi till November 10. Citizens have been asked to buy air purifying plants and to not go out without wearing a mask.
An analysis of the impact of the judgement unfortunately signifies failure but not solely on the part of the government authorities and enforcement machinery. In fact, it is the citizens of Delhi who have failed miserably in the test. Rules were blatantly flouted showing no concern and responsibility towards the environment. If the capital of the country has no respect for rules, how would law enforcement work in the other cities. This is no time for us to play blame game but for all of us to realise how development cannot take place at the cost of environment. The government should planning developmental projects on the lines of the globally model of sustainable development. We, as citizens should start developing a civic sense, start respecting the laws and change our conditions of living by making it suitable to the environment. Today, Delhi stands as the most polluted city in the world. Delhi which is known for its food and cultural heritage is now known as a gas chamber where life every day is becoming difficult. Environment has given us a place to survive and in return we have become the sources of its degradation. We cannot completely rectify our mistakes but we have to stand together and make efforts to stop further exploitation of our environment and air.
If not you, then who? If not now, then when? If not earth, then where?