News of the Supreme Court order decreeing a cracker-free Diwali this year spread like the proverbial wildfire through wholesale markets in New Delhi on Monday, uniting shopkeepers big and small in their anger and dismay.
With losses running into crores, their Diwali was going up in smoke, said shopkeepers in Sadar Bazar and Jama Masjid, two of the biggest cracker markets in the city.
The news travelled fast in the narrow bylanes of the two markets in the Old City with shops piled high with crackers of all kinds, ranging from sparklers selling for about Rs 20 a stick to powerful bombs going up to Rs 1,000 and more.
The Supreme Court said its order of last November banning the sale of firecrackers in Delhi-National Capital Region would continue till October 31 -- Diwali falls on October 19 -- in an effort to check pollution this festival of lights.
Writer Chetan Bhagat expressed his disagreement with the SC's order, saying it should be regulated not banned.
In a series of tweets, he said that the tradition of burning fire crackers was essential to the festival of Diwali.
'SC bans fireworks on Diwali? A full ban? What's Diwali for children without crackers?' he tweeted.
Banning crackers on Diwali is like banning Christmas trees on Christmas and goats on Bakr-Eid, Bhagat wrote.
'Regulate. Don't ban. Respect traditions,' he tweeted.
He also tweeted in Hindi, 'Aaj apne hi desh mein, unhone bacchon ke haath se fuljhari bhi cheen li. Happy Diwali mere dost. (Today, in their own country, they have snatched away
sparkles from children's hands too. Happy Diwali friends).'
The writer went on to say that if crackers were banned to control pollution, the action should be emulated for 'goat sacrifice and Muharram bloodshed' during festivals like Eid.
'Can I just ask on cracker ban. Why only guts to do this for Hindu festivals? Banning goat sacrifice and Muharram bloodshed soon too?' Bhagat wrote.
'I want to see people who fight to remove crackers for Diwali show the same passion in reforming other festivals full of blood and gore,' he tweeted.
Bhagat's tweets were met with sharp reactions by Twitterati including politician Shehzad Poonawalla, who wrote, 'Yes coz when Shri Ram returned to Ayodhya you (& those who
read your books) were bursting Chinese made crackers to celebrate the homecoming?'
Bhagat replied, 'Be careful in your choice of words. That's all I would say.'
Responding to another series of tweets that noted that Diwali celebrations were not equivalent to bursting crackers, and that it was a festival of lights and 'not noise or air
pollution', Bhagat said a ban was not the solution.
'So you are going to decide for everyone? Ban whatever doesn't suit your style?
'It is one day of the year. Our biggest festival. Uber has saved pollution more than any ban would. Come up with innovations. Not bans,' he wrote.
He added, 'Diwali one day a year is causing disorders? Or unchecked polluters who pollute everyday?'
"All dealers across NCR have been affected. The ban was imposed in 2016 last year and was lifted temporarily around 20 days back. Now, what will be do with the old stock? Crackers worth crores will go waste," said Amit Jain, who sells firecrackers in Jama Masjid.
Harjit Singh Chhabra, head, Sadar Nishkarm Welfare Association, estimated that losses could go up to hundreds of crores.
According to him, 500 temporary licences have already been issued to sell firecrackers in Delhi-NCR. Of these, Sadar Bazar has 24. This does not include those who have a permanent licence.
"Ban nuclear weapons, not crackers," said one shopkeeper in Sadar Bazar. "The Supreme Court's job is to regulate not ban," added another who had set up shop close by.
"They have banned Diwali in Delhi," said a third.
The posters came up equally rapidly. A banner saying 'Patake hi Patake' was pulled down to make way for a new one declaring, 'Nashe se mar rahe hai log, patakon se nahi (People are dying because of drugs, not of crackers)'.
"We are selling crackers not nuclear weapons that you impose a ban. This is India, not Taliban that you can go on banning things like this," Chhabra told PTI.
Shopkeepers in Sadar Bazar have threatened to go on strike and insist they won't follow the order.
"We can't sell in shops so we will sell on the pavement if nothing works out," Chhabra said, addressing a crowd that had gathered near his shop.
"This is not child's play. They have revoked the old ban only to bring it again. What do we do with these crackers that we bought," he added, showing his licence giving him permission to sell crackers till November 21.
His story found wide echo in the area. Sandeep Mahajan, another shopkeeper from Sadar Bazaar, said he has over 600 kg of crackers worth about Rs 8 lakh.
"My losses will be three times more. I had bought crackers worth Rs 25 lakh," added Rajiv Saxena of RK Enterprises.
Many of them said they were just getting over the blow of '28 per cent GST on crackers'.
"We are clueless about what to do next! For us Diwali is finished. The last I knew, Supreme Court was authorised to regulate, not ban. This will only create new avenues for corruption. I can already see policemen taking rounds to harass us," said Surinder Chawla.
While environmentalists and others welcomed the apex court order, Chawla is amongst those hoping that the biggies of Sivakasi -- firecracker manufacturing hub -- manage to get a stay.
"People running the industry in Sivakasi are big shots. They will get us out of this situation," Chawla said.
The 'cracker lobby' also contests that a ban would help in reducing pollution.
"Trucks are roaming throughout Delhi and there is no check. The big industries are polluting air 365 days and you don't do anything. But come Diwali and you are all alert... do they actually think that one day can make this huge impact?" asked a permanent licence holder in Jama Masjid who did not want to be identified.
Pawan Khosla, who had come to purchase crackers for the festive season, had no clue about the apex court order.
"Thank god you told me," he said, adding some more to his bulging gunny bags of the incendiary stuff.
"Diwali is celebrated for around five days. In those five days, 10 lakh kilogrammes of firecrackers are used per day," a Supreme Court bench had said in August this year.
It was reportedly informed by a counsel that 50 lakh kg of fireworks were stocked in and around the National Capital Region.
Meanwhile, Union Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan welcomed the apex court's order and urged people to abide by the SC guidelines and 'give green Diwali and our environment a chance'.
Experts, welcoming the apex court's order, cautioned that while firecrackers cause episodic spikes in levels of air pollutants, what is needed is a sustained focus on tackling the menace.
"It is a welcome move. The air of Delhi is anyway saturated with pollutants at this time of the season as paddy stubble burning starts and temperature drops. Diwali fireworks only compound the problem," Bhure Lal, chairman, Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) said.
Going by the prevailing conditions, wherein the air quality is already 'very poor' in many parts of the city, the situation may spiral out of control if firecrackers are set off indiscriminately during Diwali, according to SAFAR.
However, the 24-hour average AQI (air quality index) is 'poor', a shade better than 'very poor', it said. Vardhan, in a series of tweets, said firecrackers cause numerous lung ailments and trigger high blood pressure and anxiety.
'And of course, we must spare a thought for poor birds and animals who spend a terrible evening scared by all the fire & noise,' he tweeted.
A 'very poor' AQI essentially means that people may suffer from respiratory illness on prolonged exposure to such air. On further dip in air quality, the AQI will turn 'severe'.
"The ban would ensure that the levels of air pollutants do not reach as high a limit as they did last year around Diwali. With meteorological conditions not being favourable for dispersing dust and particulate matter in a short interval, the regulation is a step in the right direction," Ajay Mathur, director general of TERI, said.
According to a report on composition of firecrackers prepared by Pune-based Chest Research Foundation, they emit extremely high levels of PM 2.5 over a short period of time with the 'snake tablet' variety producing a peak level of 64,850 ug/m3 (micro grams per cubic metre).
The 24-hour prescribed average of PM 2.5, which are ultra fine pollutants measuring 30 times thinner than a human hair, is 60.
Greenpeace India also welcomed the SC decision, saying the verdict might provide some relief from the episodic air pollution spikes in the city in October i.e. during Diwali.
'However, the pollution levels in north India are multiple times higher than the national standards throughout the winter months, hence we also need to look at a stricter, comprehensive and time-bound action plan to address all sources of air pollution across the country,' it said in a statement.
A report prepared by the the Central Pollution Control Board on the health hazards of chemicals and metals present in firecrackers lists toxic dust and carcinogenic (cancer-causing) compounds.
According to the report, many gaseous pollutants emitted due to bursting of firecrackers remain airborne for days, posing danger to children and unborn babies.
A study by a team of scientists of IIT Kanpur has pointed out that during Diwali, PM levels nearly double from the average level and the organic content of PM increases more than twice.
'It is noteworthy that levels of potassium and barium, main components of firecrackers, can increase by about ten times,' it says.
Meanwhile, Confederation of All India Traders has urged the Centre to file a review petition before the SC on its order.
In a statement, the CAIT said conducting business of firecrackers is a legitimate activity protected under the Constitution of India giving 'Right to Work'.
"The Supreme Court has imposed ban on sale of firecrackers in Delhi-NCR but there is no ban on bursting of crackers. Possibility of people buying crackers from other states and bursting them in Delhi-NCR cannot be ruled out. The distinction between Delhi traders and traders from the rest of India seems to be unjustified," CAIT Secretary General Praveen Khandelwal said.
"Many traders dealing in crackers must have purchased their stocks for this Diwali by now and the ban will put them in huge losses," he added.
The traders' body asserted that bursting of crackers on Diwali symbolises happiness of people on the return of Lord Ram to Ayodhya and welcoming Goddess Lakshmi since centuries, and is an integral part of Indian culture.
'Even today crackers are burst on any grand event like Asian Games, Commonwealth Games or any event to demonstrate happiness. It is noteworthy to mention that environment danger is not caused only by crackers but several other factors also contribute much and as such a thorough study is required and demand suitable steps,' CAIT said.