The run-up to Deepavali this year saw a fierce debate on religion and tradition versus the environment and pollution. This after the Supreme Court imposed a ban on the sale of firecrackers in New Delhi and NCR in an attempt to curb pollution. With public opinion polarised on the issue, environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman, working with the Vettiver Collective in Chennai, answers some fundamental questions raised in the debate.
There are four questions which I am going to address here.
The first is - It is just a few days of celebration. How much harm can it cause?
Second - What about the air pollution during the rest of the year?
Third – This is a tradition that we have followed for millennia. This was never a problem when we were growing up. Why is it a problem now?
Fourth – What about the pollution caused by other festivals?
Here's my response.
1. It is just a few days of celebration. How much harm can it cause?
The intensity of the celebration (bursting firecrackers) depends on the number of people bursting, the duration of the celebration and the quantity and type of firecrackers they burst. This can be ameliorated or worsened by weather conditions, and whether you live in a congested area or an open neighbourhood. The unfettered bursting of firecrackers can send air quality plummeting as it did yesterday (Wednesday), when air quality index (AQI) was 15 times worse than satisfactory levels. As I have written, it is a scientific fact that AQI above 400 will harm even healthy people, and may send children and other vulnerable populations to the emergency ward. Even brief exposures to such high levels can cause extreme distress to such people. Our tradition does not teach us to harm others, and I'm sure people who are bursting firecrackers are not doing that to harm others or send children and the elderly to the hospital. They are doing that because they don't know, and are not told that there are healthier ways to celebrate. At such high levels, there is no escape from the killer dust, which will go deep into your bodies and harm you over a long term. The damage due to short exposures to intense pollution can be significant and prolonged. This is particularly so, when the remaining 365 days are also spent in unhealthy conditions, and you allude to that. This brings me to your second challenge.
2. Why is enough not being done about air pollution during the rest of the year? Why do people cry and shout only during Diwali?
You are right that enough is not being done about air pollution during the rest of the year. I work in a collective that lends support to communities in Ennore, a port near Chennai, where coal-fired thermal power plants and heavy vehicle movement has rendered air quality unhealthy throughout the year.
No matter how loudly we shout, we are unable to make ourselves heard. We also talk about pollution of the Ennore Creek with oily wastes from the Manali petrochemical refinery. Every day, the refinery and the industrial estate discharges tonnes of toxic, noxious oily wastes into the Ennore Creek and the Bay of Bengal. Fisherfolk have been shouting about it since 1990s. But they are not being heard. It is not because the fisherfolk are not loud enough. Rather it is because we are deaf or unwilling to listen. It was ironic then that when the oil tanker collision sent oily wastes into the Bay of Bengal, all of Chennai was self-righteously indignant.
You are right that after Deepavali the air (pollution) clears. When we think that air has returned to normal, air quality levels will still be high enough to harm us. What that should tell us is not that Deepavali pollution should be condoned, but that the pollution during the rest of the year needs to be curbed by tackling its causes – private vehicles, air pollution intensive electricity generation, poor construction practices and inadequate vegetative cover within the city.
Also, it is not only during Diwali that we shout. You will notice a similar spike in concern over air pollution in January around Bhogi, when the burning of old things (including tyres) and unfavourable meteorological conditions intensify air pollution.
In September, when the Velankanni Church celebrates the Feast of Our Lady, the beach in Chennai and all roads leading to Besant Nagar are just trashed by earnest devotees. Clearly the problem is not restricted to any one religion, and all religions and all rituals need to be re-evaluated in light of growing evidence that human lifestyles are harming the environment and humans who need air, water, and food to survive.
3. This is a tradition that we have followed for millennia. This was never a problem when we were growing up. Why are we making it a problem now?
This is incorrect. Deepavali is a festival of lights, not a festival of noise and smoke. You are right that bursting firecrackers was a part of the Deepavali ritual when we were growing up. But it was not always that way. Lighting lamps which was an important part of Deepavali is hardly done nowadays, and bursting firecrackers has become more common place. The difference between when we were growing up and now is two-fold:
a) There were a lot fewer people. In 1970, India's population was 550 million less than half of what it is now. Chennai had a population of 3 million as against a population of 5 million today – two million additional people live in the same land area.
b) Overall, there were fewer people, and disposable incomes were small. Today, the middle class has expanded and the disposable income has increased. Hence, more people bursting more crackers. The same thing that we did a few decades ago with little impact has now become deadly.
Traditions are not unchanging. Neither are the changes uniformly bad or good. Complaining about Deepavali's pollution is not an attack on Hindu tradition. It is a plea to change that tradition so that Deepavali can actually become a happy one. But Deepavalis of this loud and smoky kind are not happy for many, and particularly traumatic for animals.
We would not permit our children to entertain themselves by stoning a kitten or a puppy; rather, we may teach them to enjoy themselves by petting it or feeding it. Similarly, why can't we kindle the spirit of celebration by engaging in compassionate but equally fun engagements? Why can't Deepavali be a festival of lights – a gentle festival, where we invite friends, sing songs, eat good food?
4. What about pollution caused by festivals of other religions?
All our places of worship, and our rituals – irrespective of religion – have become anti-life. Christmas is a vulgar occasion of shopping and gifting things we never knew we needed to people who have no need for any more things. Increasingly, Christmas is less and less about Christ and more and more about shopping.
So, you're right that we should be questioning and challenging any practices that make one person's celebration into another person's pain. I can appreciate your angst at the use of loudspeakers for religious purposes. This is done by “followers” of all religions, and there is a prohibition on this beyond 10 p.m. We could do better.
Happy Smokeless, Noiseless Deepavali!