Firecrackers: The pollution we consciously choose

Despite interventions by courts, the rampant use of toxic firecrackers is encouraged by influential people and overlooked by policy measures and enforcement authorities

  • Published:
  • 28/12/2021 01:36 PM

‘Green-crackers’, supposedly reduced-emission firecrackers promoted by the government as safe, are often banned firecrackers in disguise
Image: Sanket Wankhade/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

At Marine Drive, Mumbai, I measured decibel levels some years ago. A father laughed as he handed his nearly eight-year-old son an exploding cracker ‘bomb’. The child bent over. When it exploded quicker than he expected and black burns marked his face, I watched his mother hug him. I wondered, not for the first time, why people give crackers to children.

I wondered why people light crackers at all. But really, I knew: Crackers with names like ‘Atom Bomb’, ‘Thunder Bomb’ and ‘Saddam Bomb’ declare their own powerful symbolism. Firecrackers are the emissions we choose.

Firecrackers add to the soupy air of Indian cities, the noisiest and most polluted in the world: A toxic mix of emissions from traffic, construction, garbage burning, industry and other ‘uncontrollable’ sources. Cracker use is encouraged by influential people and often overlooked by policy measures and enforcement authorities.

‘Green-crackers’, supposedly reduced-emission firecrackers promoted by the government as safe, are often banned firecrackers in disguise. Still, they are permitted in some states for 35 minutes, from 11.55 pm to 12.30 am to mark the New Year 2022.

In October 2021, the Supreme Court (SC) expressed its displeasure with years-long government disregard of its orders. “If it is found that any banned firecrackers are manufactured, sold and used,” the chief secretary, home secretary, commissioner of police and district superintendent of police “shall be held personally liable”.

In a rare action that demonstrated enforcement of the SC order, Commissioner of Police, Solapur, Harish Baijal set a precedent. He determined that many green-crackers were fake. He seized and “destroyed crackers worth Rs 30,00,000 as they did not have any certificate” from the government agency that developed them, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (Neeri).

The earliest firecracker was a continuously heated bamboo that exploded with a loud bang in China in 200 BCE. But gunpowder is louder than heated bamboo. During the Han Dynasty, about 142 AD, alchemist Wei Boyang first described gunpowder as a mixture of three powders that would “fly and dance”. After his discovery, though firecrackers are still called ‘baozhu’ or the ‘exploding bamboo’, gunpowder-based explosives replaced the bamboo.

Mongol invasions in the 13th century brought explosives to India. Originally instruments of war in the invasions, an envoy of Mongol ruler Hulegu Khan in 1258 was met with the splendour of thunder and light of a dazzling firecracker display in Delhi. Gradually, firecracker displays spread all over the country and became symbols of triumph, marking its celebration. The victory of good over evil, light over darkness.

As they became accessible to ordinary people, firecrackers also became common to mark victorious cricket matches and political elections and to celebrate the symbolic beginnings of new years, birthdays and weddings. They are synonymous to the festival of lights, Diwali.

In Kerala, where intensely competitive firecracker face-offs use unbranded firecrackers called ‘amittu’, an explosion burned down a temple and killed over a hundred people in 2016. “Chemicals are filled in a cast iron heavy cylinder and exploded,” laments L Xavier, vice president, Forum for Prevention of Environmental and Sound Pollution, a petitioner to the landmark SC judgement covering various aspects of noise pollution in 2005. He continues, “Such crackers continue to be used even today. Nothing has changed.”

During the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged citizens to celebrate Diwali with diyas and lights, some firecrackers in Rajkot, Gujarat were named ‘Modi bomb’ and ‘Rafale Skyshots’. In Zaidapur, Uttar Pradesh, children making crackers without safety measures or licenses were caught on video  despite previous explosions that had killed people.

The SC banned dangerous and polluting crackers. The government then encouraged green-crackers developed by Neeri. Just like firecrackers are low-intensity bombs with reduced potential to cause grave physical injury, green-crackers are supposedly reduced-emission firecrackers, billed as environmentally friendly.

The Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (Peso) authorised a few varieties for manufacture and distribution. Between them, Neeri and Peso are responsible for ensuring that manufacturing is according to approved specifications and the police license distribution, while the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) ensures that emissions are within permissible limits.

Along with the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, Awaaz Foundation checked the firecracker boxes for compliance. Authorised green-crackers must carry a mandatory authenticity stamp of Neeri and a QR code on their packaging boxes. The QR code identifies composition, including heavy metals, noise levels, date and place of manufacture. It identifies green-crackers as genuine. However, several boxes did not have QR codes. Before Diwali, Awaaz Foundation used a free downloadable app, also developed by Neeri, to check QR codes on boxes that had them. All the 20 varieties we tested displayed the message ‘Invalid QR’.

Senior advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan, representing his minor son Arjun Gopal in the SC, placed our findings before the court. The SC order of October 29 reads: “It is reported that even under the guise of ‘green crackers’ banned chemicals firecrackers are being sold and there is a mislabelling on the boxes and even the QR codes provided on the boxes of 'green crackers' are alleged to be fake.”

Awaaz Foundation then tested their chemical content at a lab and found that green-crackers contained banned chemicals and heavy metals. These additives create unique and distinctive light displays, more dazzling colours, more brilliance and more smoke. Additives like barium, which is poisonous, produces green colours and stabilises other volatile elements.  Antimony helps create glitter effects. A 2017 SC order directed “no firecrackers manufactured by the respondents shall contain antimony, lithium, mercury, arsenic and lead in any form whatsoever”.

Green-crackers like anar, sparklers and chakris are considered ‘safe’ for children to handle. Nevertheless, they contained all of these banned substances, along with barium, another banned substance. They also contained other toxic chemicals such as potassium, lead, sulphur and chlorine. Our findings were confirmed by a prima-facie finding of the CBI, on record with the court.

Many of these metals are listed under the Hazardous Chemicals Rules of the Environment Protection Act, which restrict contact during transport, storage and handling.

Dr Hasnain Patel, president, International Board of Clinical Medical Toxicology says, “heavy metals are especially hazardous to children. Heavy metal poisoning is a common cause of serious disease like diabetes, cancer, nervous system disorders and organ failure.”

In addition to being dangerous, metals may combine with the sulphur and oxygen, which firecrackers also contain, when they are ignited. The chemical reaction may result in highly toxic metal and sulphur oxides and sulphides.

Dr Rakesh Kumar, former director, Neeri, acknowledged the toxicity of metal oxides and other by-products of partial combustion, but explained that we don’t know the exact composition of firecracker emissions “as it may vary widely depending upon the raw material used and conditions of its burning. Such detailed tests as far as we know for by-products have not been carried out”.

The United States Environment Protection Agency says that even short-term exposure to sulphur oxides “can harm the human respiratory system and make breathing difficult. People with asthma, particularly children, are sensitive”.

Even in the absence of tests, ordinary people know the immediate effect of particulate matter, which they inhale when crackers are lit. Every winter, a cough congests my throat and chest and lingers until spring.  I know I am not alone when I hear other people’s hacking ‘seasonal’ coughs.

The United Nations lists air pollution ahead of Covid-19 as the world’s single greatest health emergency. A report from Lancet quantified that 1.7 million Indians died and the Indian economy lost Rs 2,60,000 crore because of air pollution.

The thrill of the firecracker is inextricably tied to its deafening bang. Like the Air Pollution Rules and the Hazardous Chemicals Rules, the Noise Pollution Rules are also notified under the Environment Protection Act.

In October, a few weeks before Diwali, a green-cracker lit by Awaaz Foundation and the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) tested 127.6 decibels. It crossed the threshold of pain. As I took an involuntary step backwards, I saw others turn away, their hands over their ears. The sound reverberated from a nearby building. Birds flew upwards.

Xavier says his day sometimes starts with “tremendous explosion of firecrackers at 5 am, loud enough to cause palpitations” when a church celebrates a feast from November 28 till December 15. “Repeated complaints to the authorities have had no effect.”

More Indians suffer disabling hearing loss than anywhere else in the world. Speaking on World Hearing Day in March 2021 at an event organised by the World Health Organisation, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan warned that India faces an “impending mountain of hearing loss.”

The SC’s October 29 order reads: “Nobody can be permitted to flout and/or disobey the directions issued by this Court/Courts. Any wilful and deliberate disobedience shall have to be viewed very seriously.”

Nevertheless, on November 2, two days before Diwali, the government told the SC that a mechanism to monitor and ensure that no fake or banned crackers are sold is in place. On that day, the AQI in parts of Delhi and Mumbai were 305 and 335 respectively, both cities in the ‘very poor’ category. Despite evidence to the contrary on record, the SC accepted “the explanation given by the state” that the government is ensuring compliance with all court orders.

On the very same day, in Glasgow, Scotland, Modi committed at CoP26 that India would meet net-zero emissions 50 years from now, in 2070. While the government actively pressed the SC to permit polluting crackers, Modi did not make any commitments to begin reducing emissions now.

On November 3, the eve of Diwali, President Ram Nath Kovind tweeted: “Let us celebrate this festival together in a clean and safe manner and resolve to contribute in conservation and protection of the environment.” At the same time, spiritual leader Sadhguru, with a massive following of millions of disciples, said in a viral video: “Let children have the fun of bursting crackers.”

In complete disregard of health, environmental and climate imperatives, green-crackers were burst during Diwali and for many days afterwards, in some places throughout the night. Around the same time, firecrackers were also burst on the street outside a celebrity home to celebrate the release of an actor’s son from jail.

Immediately after Diwali, AQI in parts of Mumbai shot up to 438 µ/mg3 and in parts of Delhi to 999µ/mg3 or the maximum readings possible in the calibration of the meter; in the ‘severe’ category  and beyond. A few days later, all ‘non-essential’ activities in Delhi including schools were required to be closed to protect people’s health.

Sankaranarayanan wrote an open letter to the SC: “I will not bore you with tales of political apathy, corporate lobbies and dishonest lawyers.”

Firecrackers and green-crackers are the greenhouse-gas emissions we choose.  They cause climate change and acid rain. They bring disease and death to our own citizens. Unlike other emissions, no fig leaf of ‘development’ can cover our choice.

The United Nations said, “Improving air quality can enhance climate change mitigation.” It added that, conversely, “climate change mitigation efforts can improve air quality.”

Meanwhile, an email enquiry from Awaaz Foundation to Neeri received an official quote for testing of Rs 7,000 per sample, making this an unaffordable exercise for an NGO.

Police Commissioner Baijal, who was informed that Neeri’s instrument to check green-crackers is not working, was asked to pay Rs 250 per sample to a private lab. “So I selected 50 brands and sent the amount of Rs 12,500. For lack of communication from Neeri, the private firm is yet to accept the amount.”

In the absence of significant will to enforce from the government, religious or society leaders, it is unsurprising that firecrackers, those dazzling markers of triumph, victory and power, continue in common use. Their ability to shock and awe outweigh serious health hazards, adverse affects to climate change, contravention of our own laws and our international commitments to net-zero.

Green-crackers are permitted by SC orders on New Year. Clarifications from individual state governments are awaited. I look out of my window and wonder if sudden deafening noise at the stroke of midnight will mark January 1, 2022 in Mumbai. A night curfew due to the fast-spreading Omicron variant of Covid-19 may not permit green-crackers after all.

Nevertheless, in parts of India, a brilliant shower of red, gold and green high above will accompany noise, as firecrackers disguised as green-crackers mark the beginning of 2022. When I hug my children and wish them a happy new year, crackers will fleetingly brighten the sky, now obscured with grey smoke. Old people will be jerked awake. Infants will cry. In the morning, left-over bits of paper, plastic and ashes will lie in heaps, lining the streets.

We look forward and Indian cities remain among the most polluted in the world. We look backwards and we see why.

The writer is convenor, Awaaz Foundation