Toxic Air Killed 1.2 Million Indians in 2017. Why Are We Still Celebrating With Firecrackers?

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Toxic Air Killed 1.2 Million Indians in 2017. Why Are We Still Celebrating With Firecrackers?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

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rung in the new year locked in an emotional, tipsy debate with my father. For my father, New Year’s Eve means fireworks. He, an otherwise environmentally conscious person who advocates against the use of plastics and uses paper bags, is in the habit of watching the fireworks displays as these colourful detonators signal that it’s time to buy a new desk calendar. Along with so many others, he believes no festivities or celebrations are truly complete until a few rockets have been fired into the night sky.

Fireworks have been a hallmark of celebrations since the 7th century, when the Chinese started burning dry bamboo for its light and explosive sounds to scare away the mythical monster, Nian, which devoured humans and destroyed their houses. By the time 2019 rolled around, it was clear that the only things that we’ve managed to scare away are our animals and our hopes of breathing in clean air ever again.

Everything in our popular culture today, from inaugurations of events like the IPL to star-crossed lovers in our films staring dreamily into the distance as the sky lights up with fireworks, and even media circuses like Priyanka Chopra’s wedding are marked by explosives going off in style. Add to that our media – with headlines like “Priyanka Chopra Marries Nick Jonas, Spectacular Fireworks Light Up Jodhpur Sky” – do nothing but add to the problem. They keep intact the aspirational quality we already ascribe to fireworks. Naturally, during every festive season you will have some aesthetically taken photos of these resplendent displays flooding your social media timelines.

India is home to 14 of the most-polluted cities in the world. While Delhi wore the crown of being the most polluted city for a while, our “cultural” Kolkata soon joined the ranks, presumably out of jealousy of not having taken the the lead on this one. While Bengalis previously prided themselves on their not-always-so-subtle display of wit and intelligence, our newest cultural ethos mandates a display of opulence as well. Not surprisingly, as we wheezed our way into the new year, the Air Quality Index (AQI) at the air monitoring station at Rabindra Bharati University on the first day of this year, read “severe” at 400 while Delhi still beat us at 505. Mumbai fared better this year, but Solapur drove up Maharashtra’s state average with a recorded AQI of 701 as of January 3. Rumour has it they were looking to coin a new superlative for “severe”, but those tasked with the job died on their way to work, their lungs darker and gloomier than the initially proposed ending of Bird Box!

Clearly, India is a country that cannot afford this display of opulence. According to the Lancet report, 1.2 million people died in India in 2017 due to toxic air and related pulmonary diseases. While firecrackers might not be the worst pollutant through the year, during the festive periods they overtake every other pollutant. These “pretty” pollutants spit out a range of harmful chemicals including carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, aluminium, lithium, lead, and magnesium, just to name a few. These cause substantial damage both to children and adults resulting in a range of disorders ranging from hormonal imbalances, respiratory diseases, muscular atrophy, heart ailments, and lung cancer. A rudimentary Google search will give you these basic results, and a deep dive might even turn you into an eco-activist.

The only things that we’ve managed to scare away are our animals and our hopes of breathing in clean air ever again.

Yet, when the apex courts banned firecrackers last year before the Diwali season, many saw it as an attack on festive traditions. Vimlendu Jha, an environmentalist and founder of Sweccha, has been campaigning against air and water pollution for years. He points to the growing middle class, the rise of disposable income, combined with a mentality where dikhawa is cultural capital as the most plausible reason for why love to light crackers at the drop of a hat. “Education is not necessarily a marker of intelligence, and though there is enough evidence present, we somehow do not seem to connect the dots,” said Jha, a viewpoint which had him promptly labelled as anti-Hindu and anti-national.

One plausible way to justify this defence of a clearly harmful practice could be politics – the Indian fireworks industry is the second largest in the world, second only to China’s, and generates close to ₹20,000 crores in annual sales. Yet child labour, poor health standards, and frequent accidents are issues that surface time and again at Sivakasi, a town that produces 90 per cent of India’s firecrackers. However, most of the town’s population, employed in the 860-odd fireworks or ancillary factories are not the ones who can afford these firecrackers to mark their celebrations. Those that can afford them, spend lakhs of rupees on firecrackers to amplify their exultant mood. The rising middle class, ideal consumers of the “pretty” aesthetic, have very little empathy or understanding of the catch-22 situation a blanket ban creates.

Not surprisingly, these are also the same people who oppose the firecracker ban as anti-Hindu, though Diwali is the festival of lights and not the festival of sparks, and hissing fireworks are a poor substitute for earthen diyas. As long as fireworks remain an indicator of social status, and the likes of Priyanka Chopra and Chetan Bhagat refuse to check their privilege, our Facebook timelines will continue to be swamped with DSLR photos of fireworks and arguments like “What’s the harm, it’s just one day!?”

But then again, when did we, the ever-so-arrogant middle class take responsibility for any of our actions? That said, as long as my father remains a fan of fireworks, I can guiltlessly justify my smoking habits to him. If I am going to die of lung cancer, I might as well smoke, no?

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