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Vol. XXXI No. 15, November 16-30, 2021

Fireworks leave Chennai choking after festive celebrations

by our Special Correspondent

In an effort to mitigate the environmental impact of fireworks, the state administration sought to regulate the bursting of crackers this Deepavali. The manufacture and promotion of fireworks containing barium salts were prohibited as were that of sara vedi, a type of firework that threads multiple crackers into a string; further, citizens were asked to restrict cracker celebrations to two hours on Deepavali: 6 am – 7 am in the morning and 7 pm – 8 pm in the evening. People were also requested to exercise caution and discretion while bursting fireworks with an advisory to avoid such celebration near huts or in silent zones near hospitals, courts, religious places, schools and fire-prone areas.

Despite the measures in place, Chennai’s air pollution reached hazardous levels following the festive celebrations, falling to the ‘very poor’ category. The city roads were blanketed in smog; many reported poor visibility that affected pedestrians and vehicles alike. The Pollution Control Board conducted manual monitoring in five locations in the city, specifically, Besant Nagar, T Nagar, Nungambakkam, Triplicane and Sowcarpet. The board reported that the Air Quality Index ranged between 342 to 385 on the festival days, with a few parameters recording an increase beyond the National Ambient Air standards. Under the AQI standard, a measure of 0-50 is good, 51-100 satisfactory, 101‑200 moderately polluted, 201‑300 poor, 301‑400 very poor and greater than 400, severe. For further comparison, the same scale recorded Chennai’s AQI values in 2020 as ranging between 59 and 107. It wasn’t just air pollution that spiked; predictably, ambient noise levels recorded an increase too, measuring between 69‑79 decibels on Deepavali instead of the usual 55‑66 range that is recorded on non-festive days.

“My son spent Rs. 10,000 on crackers. The quantity didn’t amount to more than a single box of fireworks,” confided Jaya,* an itinerant vegetable seller who operates in the Mylapore neighbourhood. “I was aghast at the cost. But, what to do? The little ones were willing to forego new clothes for crackers. The smallest sulked for hours until my son gave in.” She went on to observe that almost everyone in her neighbourhood seemed to have burst more crackers this year. “Everyone was letting off all sorts of fireworks like buswanam, changu chakram, vedi, colour rockets… honestly, some didn’t seem to bother much about the time restrictions. Our house was full of smoke for quite a while” she said. “On the bright side, it seems to have chased away the mosquitoes for the time being,” she added after a pause.

Jaya’s observation is a rather perceptive one. Going by media as well as ground reports from citizens like her, it is evident that the city burst more fireworks this Deepavali than it had in earlier years. A few violated the mandated norms, too. Taking action against those flouting the rules, the Chennai police reportedly filed 758 cases against people who continued to burst crackers outside the mandated schedule; violators were formally booked under the bailable section 284 of the IPC (negligent as to hazard human life, or to be more likely to trigger harm or harm to any particular person, or knowingly or negligently omits to take such order). 239 cases were also booked against shops that sold crackers without a license or the installation of safety protocols.

In addition, Deepavali this year produced greater amounts of waste when compared to previous years as well. The city corporation is reported to have collected 138.21 metric tons of firecracker waste the next day, 40 tons more than it had in 2020; the figures for preceding years stand at 103 in 2019, 95 in 2018 and 85 in 2017. It is a point of note that such garbage was collected and removed speedily in keeping with the instructions from the Corporation Commissioner Gagandeep Singh Bedi, who wanted it cleared within 24 hours. The waste was reportedly taken to the Tamil Nadu Waste Management Limited unit at Gummudipoondi in 33 vehicles.

These reports, along with other citizen anecdotes, suggest that the firework regulations and the environmental concern that shaped them were perhaps received by some members of the public with a lesser measure of seriousness than they deserved. Social media chatter points to an unfavourable perception of such directives as an erosion of culture, with some voicing the need to assert traditional modes of celebrations in the face of changing norms. With green interests requiring greater focus in a rapidly transforming world, it remains to be seen how the city will balance hitherto taken-for-granted traditions with the adaptations needed to preserve a healthy, stable environment. The situation calls for creating greater awareness around the short-term and long-term impact of resisting such change both at an individual and at a community level – for the debate around Deepavali fireworks isn’t going to go away anytime soon and that’s just one in a line-up of public celebrations that must evolve.

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