Supreme Court's decision banning sale of fire crackers a knee-jerk reaction to a serious problem

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For many years in the late 80s and early 90s, I used to work at our family textiles business. The factory was in Ankleshwar, an industrial estate about an hour’s train ride from my home in Surat. I would usually go to the factory in the afternoon, and return in the late evening. The business did not do that well and after the government liberalised India’s economy in 1991, we could not compete and shut it down a few years later.
The factory put polyester yarn through a process called texturising which made the plasticky yarn more wearable. This was done at high speeds and required a large air conditioning plant with a cooling tower. One day, the giant pipe which was sending water up to the tower fell apart. Its layers of metal flaked away like papad and I couldn’t understand why. That evening I stayed back in the factory a little later. As I was going to the station around 6.30, my throat choked on a fume of something that was pure acid.
Another factory near ours was releasing something regularly at that time (possibly to avoid pollution inspectors) that was clearly dangerous enough to destroy metal, leave alone the human lung. This was by no means a rare occurrence in industrial parts of India. In Udhna and Pandesara, a suburb of Surat where we ran some looms, I regularly saw dyeing and printing units discharge their brilliant colours directly outside, poisoning the ground water.
I am writing this on reading news of the Supreme Court banning the sale of firecrackers in Delhi during Diwali. As a regular visitor to Delhi, I notice nothing different about its air quality, and if it is polluted it is as much or as little as other Indian cities. Certainly it is less so than in places like Ankleshwar, which is where the real problem lies.
I find the constant tinkering in Delhi— the traffic rules and now the sale of firecrackers ban—to be bewildering. Why limit such genius solutions to just the capital when it is demonstrably true that the issue of air pollution and pollution in general is one that affects all of India?
Of course, the other problem is that in the current atmosphere (also poisonous) of Hindu nationalism, this was turned into another stick to beat Muslims with. A BJP governor asked if Hindus will be refused cremation next. Would an Indian court dare ban the slaughter of goats, author Chetan Bhagat asked. Have the Muslims asked for a ban on crackers? Why drag them into it?
The court itself said that it was unfortunate that its order was given a communal twist but it should understand the environment it operates in.It was reported that some 50 lakh kilos of crackers are in Delhi waiting to be sold and the ban will affect the livelihood of thousands of people, who boost their modest incomes in the festive season. Also affected will be lakhs of children and adults who enjoy Diwali, as I do.
In this part of the world, among the poorest in the world, we must ask ourselves whether curbing cultural activity is productive. Pakistan makes the same mistake through the ban of kite flying in Lahore for the spring festival of Basant. Judges there often believe that the practice is ‘un-Islamic’. The reason given for the ban is safety of birds and humans but the real intention is religious fervour.
Of course, kite flying leads to injuries and sometimes to death, but so do many other things. We do not and should not be thinking of banning something merely because it does not keep us safe. The ban on the crackers probably does not come from such piety but some sort of desire to bring change through a single stroke. This is a misplaced sentiment which usually does not result in any real change.
Given the Indian Supreme Court’s interest in things like love jihad and the National Anthem (it would be instructive to see what matters the Supreme Courts of other large democracies like the United States take up and what they reject) we should not be surprised that it is trying its hand at improving the quality of air in the capital.
The problem of pollution and the larger problem of climate change are very serious matters. Their gravity is reduced in some way when we jerk our knee and offer a ceremonial but ultimately meaningless solution to them. However, as well-meaning as their intentions may be, our courts should be more circumspect when issuing such orders.

Representational image.


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