Scientifically Illiterate Thinking behind Diwali Restrictions
Scientifically Illiterate Thinking behind Diwali Restrictions

Harsh Vardhan’s misdirected propaganda about Diwali fireworks can be understood in the context of the Hinduphobia that is deeply established in the psyche of the BJP’s constituents, such as the RSS, even as they outwardly profess great pride in our ancient traditions.

“You have more firecrackers than the Indian Army. This can burn the whole country,” observed Justices Madan Lokur and Deepak Gupta of the Supreme Court during the hearing about banning crackers during Diwali last year. They were apparently shocked to hear that about 50 lakh kilograms of fireworks were stored in the National Capital Region (NCR), awaiting sale for about five days of the Diwali season. This observation sums up the abysmally numerically and scientifically challenged quality of policymakers – including the judiciary, sundry statutory and autonomous professional bodies, and Cabinet ministers – who have decision-making powers over the entire nation, and have caused Diwali fireworks to be restricted to just two hours in the late evening from this year. I hope you are as shocked as I am at that observation – I don’t quite think I’ll get over the shock.

The NCR has a population of about 5 crores. Which means that the daily per capita amount of fireworks burst for about five days is – hold your breath – 20 grams! And the NCR, I believe, might have among the highest rates of consumption in the country. Now what really is the problem if all of that is burst in the form of laris, which have been outright banned by the SC in its wisdom? Think – that’s like each person, in lieu of his entire quota of Diwali crackers, bursting just a string of about ten of those red pellets, not even a full packet each! Have we, as a nation, gone crazy? You don’t even need to have passed high school to appreciate that this quantity cannot make any measurable difference to the pollution in any place, let alone a highly urban setting like Delhi. Indeed, it won’t be any different from all the smokers in the city smoking a couple of cigarettes more on a certain day. Little wonder, then, that no-one has actually tried to answer the critical point, for all the demonizing and negative propaganda, does Diwali actually make even a measurable contribution to air pollution? The facts, if acknowledged, are fatal to the narrative being peddled, as I pointed out earlier.

But ponder over that observation for a few minutes, to wrap your head round the kind of thinking that went into this entire farce. Even allowing for exaggeration, did the Justices really mean to express shock at that figure? Could they not divide that figure by the NCR’s population on the back of an envelope, just to get a ballpark figure? For the only thing I find shocking here is their reaction: more than the Army? Burn the whole country? About a hundred grams of very low- to low-intensity charge per head? This is in the same league as Rahul Gandhi’s widely-ridiculed claim of 27,000 crore vacancies in Gujarat.

Yet, how is such abysmal innumeracy and scientific illiteracy in charge of the nation’s fortunes? How can I trust this entire establishment – Cabinet, bureaucrats, professional bodies and judiciary – to ensure my country’s development by ushering in cutting-edge technology, most of which will be at the very frontiers of human knowledge? Can we ever become a world-leader in science and technology at this rate, with the danger that an overreaching judiciary will arbitrarily scuttle a new technology, based on no scientific reason at all, and guided purely by scaremongering and propaganda? In my mind, I have no doubt who is burning the country’s fortunes.

Unscientific time restrictions

The SC first restricted the burning of fireworks to two hours (8 to 10 p.m.), before immediately amending the order to allow South India to burst crackers for two hours in the morning, as per the custom in that part of the country. There are many things wrong with such arbitrariness. Why can a south Indian living in the north not burst crackers in the morning as per his custom? People do not even use the same traditional calendar in different parts of the country, so the traditional celebration time may vary considerably. Indeed, if you have anyway decided that crackers are the Devil’s work, what really is achieved by this forced late-evening window? The air will have grown cold, and any particulates and emissions from bursting crackers will not be dispersed through the night. You would be much better off allowing people to burst their crackers through the day and evening, as the emissions have a better chance of dispersal before the cold sets in at night. After all, a family’s fireworks budget is fixed, and no-one is going to buy proportionately more crackers if they are allowed more celebration time – only the intensity of the celebration gets distributed over the day.

I don’t think you needed a meteorologist or the CPCB to tell you this, but it is shocking that they did not make this point anyway during the hearing. Clearly, everything was not right with the intentions of the CPCB, and the Environment Ministry it reports to. Both seemed to be motivated not by their duty to protect the right of people to have fun in a legal way and the livelihoods of lakhs employed by the fireworks industry by making sensible and scientifically correct submissions, but the urge to play to the gallery of activists and NGOs by pushing for a blanket ban on crackers. In that respect, they are not different from the Communist government that seems hell-bent on desecrating Sabarimala.

And if controlling air pollution was the aim of the SC, what exactly did it mean by allowing fireworks into the late night on Christmas and New Year? If you have concluded fireworks are a truly bad source of pollution, should you not ban them outright on these two occasions, when they are not essential to the celebrations at all? That late into the winter, and so close to midnight, all the emissions from the fireworks will hang in the air for hours, choking the public as it sleeps! And are all those cute furry pet dogs, cats and birds suddenly OK with midnight fireworks? Make no mistake: this is secular monkey-balancing at its worst.

“Green” crackers

Apparently, the SC won’t listen to you if you are not “properly” dressed, as you are apparently breaching decorum. However, the same SC delivered a judgement mandating “green” crackers in future Diwalis without specifying what constituted “green” crackers. Talk of priorities!

We are left to glean from the statements of the Environment Minister, Harsh Vardhan, that these “green” crackers have yet to complete testing before they are certified for use. So did he put the SC up the gum tree? And even if he did, why did the SC mandate an as-yet uncertified product? Can one really trust such worthies with the custodianship of my rights and well-being? As a scientist, I find this to be textbook banana republic. Mind you, they should not only undergo some preliminary testing but extensive testing to ensure they are not worse than what they will replace. What if it turns out that they lead to emissions of significantly higher levels of carcinogens? To give an example of how things may go wrong, consider how halogenated fire retardant chemicals were replaced by the supposedly more benign organophosphates, only for it to be subsequently discovered that the latter posed no less of a hazard.

And how about a sense of proportion? Addition of barium compounds to fireworks has been banned, apparently because they are highly toxic. Barytes are plentifully available near Kadapa, and are a cheap additive for the units in places like Sivakasi. They are also mostly totally insoluble, so I fail to see how exactly they are toxic. Besides, given the per capita volume of firecrackers burst in India, what is the total exposure anyway?

Harsh Vardhan also claims his “green” crackers will use much lesser sulphur. If 20 grams of fireworks are burnt per person in a day, and if 20 per cent of that is sulphur, it’s just 4 grams! No wonder, the CPCB’s own data for Delhi last year showed the sulphur dioxide levels did not exceed acceptable levels. And after the monsoons, and ahead of the sowing season, I would say that’s a superb round of fumigation for public health, with one of the best disinfecting fumigants known to man, sulphur dioxide. It is now an acknowledged fact that Diwali fumes lead to a drastic reduction in the levels of vector-borne tropical diseases like malaria and dengue. Then, the sulphur dioxide will also lead to the control of pests ahead of the sowing season, as I described earlier. I am not sure the novel, low-sulphur “green” crackers will have the same effect. So effectively, these “green” crackers will be all emissions, and no benefits at all! It is silly, and almost certainly dangerous, to think that you can better what is the end-result of centuries of accumulated traditional knowledge with a few months of superficial tinkering in the lab.

The BJP’s deep-seated Hinduphobia and confusion

Harsh Vardhan’s misdirected propaganda about Diwali fireworks can be understood in the context of the Hinduphobia that is deeply established in the psyche of the BJP’s constituents, such as the RSS, even as they outwardly profess great pride in our ancient traditions. There appears to be a persistent messianic voice in the BJP/RSS, which argues that Hindu traditions and practices are outdated and need to be modernized. Take the example of how Union minister, Satyapal Singh gratuitously hectored an assembly of saints and seers about how immersing cremation ashes in rivers was causing pollution, and that they should make their followers adopt other means of disposal. For a man with a PhD in chemistry, the stupidity of his claim beggared belief. A simple Google search would have told him how wrong he was. The Ganga carries an estimated 500 million tonnes of sediment annually. Cremation of an adult yields about 2 kg of ashes, most of which is completely harmless calcium phosphate anyway. So, even if you cremated the equivalent of the entire population of India at once, and immersed all the ashes in the Ganga in one go, you wouldn’t add one per cent to its sediments. Yet, Singh so coolly talked down to an entirely assembly of revered Hindu figures based on such a grotesquely wrong hypothesis. Can you imagine him asking a gathering of Imams to adopt better practices during Id? The anti-cracker oath-administering Dev Fadnavis is not an isolated phenomenon – he is part of a pattern. It is to counterbalance such deep internalized shame that these confused “Hindu nationalists” often resort to outlandish things like claiming Stephen Hawking acquired all his ideas from the Vedas – indeed, Harsh Vardhan himself said something like that in one of his addresses, to a gathering of scientists, no less.

I have been surprised no end by how this topic has been debated for months in the highest judiciary, with not the slightest attempt being made to go beyond the superficial. How else does one account for the fact that the background causes of the air pollution that blights North India for several months were not properly debated, and the well-accepted scientific phenomenon, the Asian Brown Cloud was not once mentioned at any point. For if there was the slightest attempt to take this debate in the right direction, one of the first things that would have been acknowledged is that the haze that is being used to demonize Diwali celebrations is actually mostly comprised of particulates caused by the combustion of biomass (firewood etc.) – a direct consequence of population growth not being accompanied by economic development. If one has not acquired a reasonably proper background understanding of a problem one is trying to solve, what are the odds one will not end up making a greater mess than before, let alone come up with an effective solution for it?

On the morning of the day this piece was written, the worst air quality of the year was recorded in Delhi – before Diwali, and after a man was arrested because his children burst some crackers. It only heightened the farce that has been perpetrated on the Hindus, and highlighted the fact that the truly alarming thing about it all is the intellectual level of those at the highest decision-making levels in this country. And eight lakh workers in fireworks manufacturing units in Sivakasi, facing the real prospect of starvation now, will be perfectly justified in saying that their right to an honest livelihood was not protected by a callous and bungling State.

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Anil Suri has a PhD in chemistry from Durham University, UK. He is a materials scientist based in Aalborg, Denmark, whose research interests lie in carbon nanotubes and graphene. He occasionally writes on Indian history and culture, especially aspects that involve science.