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Starting Small: Green Crackers, a shift towards cleaner air

The day after Diwali in Delhi never fails to remind me of those cinematic faded scenes from a movie based on colonial India set in one of the East Indian ports of Calcutta or Bombay. The street still sees the rickshaw pullers almost as if a British officer from the 1930s would climb out of one. Instead of the horses neighing, I see dogs feeling scattered and scared. Instead of the black and white hustle, I see nobody on the streets. Just the rickshaw pullers standing out on the streets while the Delhi government has shut schools, urged companies to have a work from home day. I cannot help but wonder how much of Delhi can actually work from home and make a living when the National Capital Region sees a daily rise of 300 migrants who come in search of work.

Air pollution in India is quite historic. Awadhendra Sharan’s book, Dust and Smoke: Air Pollution and Colonial Urbanism, India, c.1860 c.1940 discusses how smoke emitted from various industrial sources in colonial India has been a nuisance. He examines how the government then set up Smoke Nuisances Commissions as regulatory authorities to prosecute violators - how rural and urban spaces were mutually incompatible. The latter is true even now. While state governments try and find a way to work together despite recommendations by several commenters that the Union Government must intervene to solve Delhi’s poor AQI during the winter months - there is nationwide drop in Air Quality after Diwali. The main reason is bursting fire crackers.

This blog will discuss preventing the Air Quality drop in Indian cities by ending the circulation of spurious crackers in the market by replacing fire crackers with Green crackers. The issue of spurious crackers was noted by the Central Pollution Control Board in their reported Special Monitoring Data on Deepawali 2020. While green crackers is not an ingenious idea, it is a promising alternative to consider.

Green Crackers”, developed by NEERI (National Environmental Engineering Research Institute) is the safer and healthier alternative to conventional crackers. The scientists are confident “...that green crackers emit 30% less 2.5 particulate matter than the traditional ones.” The formulations have been developed without barium nitrate, a pollutant chemical used in atom bombs, flowerpots, and sparklers. It also eliminates aluminum, potassium nitrate or carbon, reducing its impact on the environment.

That said, it is important to acknowledge that the government needs to enforce greater compliance. The sale of green crackers need to be monitored by the government to prevent faulty formulations by errant manufactures. Only licensed private sellers and regulated government owned shops should be allowed to purchase and store a capped quantity of green crackers. To ensure production, manufacturers could receive levels of tax rebate on certain quantities produced. It also needs to ensure that green crackers are accessible to everyone price-wise.

A week before Diwali is not the right time to start talking about firecracker bans. State governments must have comprehensive plans to prevent the burning of firecrackers and shift the focus to green crackers, year long. Encouraging alternate forms of celebration by economic measures such as subsidies and price regulation will help control the air quality. The production, sale, storage and eventually the usage of firecrackers will cease.

It can be argued that green crackers are simply a band-aid solution and band-aids don’t fix bullet holes. There is truth in that. The shift to green crackers at this point is to reduce the environmental impact. Along with it, a concerted effort to educate and spread awareness on the serious health consequences need to be highlighted. A report in Lancet underlined that 1.7 million Indians have died due to air pollution and that the Indian economy lost Rs. 2,60,000 crore because of air pollution.

An influencer-led marketing campaign targeting parents to shed light on the grave effects of firecrackers (regardless of its eco-friendly label) on the health of their families might send out a popular message. Brands take advantage of the smog by marketing the air-purifiers heavily. Research suggests that air purifier sales spiked up by 25-30% post-Diwali. The government should also look into developing a sustained campaign to remind people that while green crackers are indeed safer, it would be better to completely eliminate crackers.

While celebration and festivities must halt, it is important to understand the severity of air pollution. It is a public health crisis and a significant economic leakage - that requires the year long focused approach convoluted with social nudging and providing newer alternatives.

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