Diwali cracker row: Celebrating self-flagellation

Diwali turns Delhi into a gas chamber, scientific data has proved this year on year. Last year's Diwali was the most dangerous in a decade.

ByAnand Ranganathan
Diwali cracker row: Celebrating self-flagellation
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Humans are particularly adept at savouring joy at the cost of others. We have rationalised this through a variety of means – race, sects, communes, cults, ideologies, religion, to name a few. With the passage of time and human progress, science has tried to minimise this so-called “cost to others” but the opposition is overwhelming and the change slow, particularly when what comes in the way is religion. A running democracy does try and mitigate the damage of tiptoeing theocracy but soon reaches its corrective limit because of an internal flaw – the desire to remain a democracy at whatever the cost. Appeasement, majoritarianism, vote banks, weak leadership are that cost. There really is no way out; all alternatives are much worse. We know this. Democracy is that open grave over which we dangle one foot; it is the silhouette of a shape we cannot see or feel. And the thing with silhouettes is, you don’t know if they are coming or going.

The recent decision of the Supreme Court of India to ban the sale of firecrackers in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) till after Diwali, has elicited much outrage. Many have come down heavily on the court, while many others have vowed to defy the order. The people of a weak democracy are enraged by an emboldened judiciary. The cracker ban has taken on a religious tinge, which, in our country, is a daily occurrence in any case. But first to the question of an emboldened judiciary.

The only way to run a weak democracy tending towards anarchy is through an emboldened judiciary. Politicians, because they want power at all cost, succumb easily to the internal flaws listed above, resulting in jaundiced decisions, cowardly decisions, or, worse, no decisions at all. An emboldened judiciary can correct this to some extent. Some call this judicial activism and are appalled by it. These are the very people who vote but are blah about vote banks. They want a corruption-free India but keep voting for corrupt politicians. They bemoan every ill that plagues our country but wait for our politicians to cure it.

How we love self-flagellation. We are fine with executive inactivism but not judicial activism. Our backs must be made of pavement stone.

So what crime did our Supreme Court commit? Simply this; that it heard a plea from three asthmatic children, to ban the bursting of firecrackers on Diwali, and decided to act on it. The grounds for the ban were health, but soon this morphed into an attack on a Hindu festival.

This author has written previously on Social Darwinism and the evil it has wrought on the human race and the terrible price it continues to extract from human societies, but the outrage on the cracker ban goes beyond Social Darwinism. This is a case of cutting off the nose to spite the face. And this is where cult, culture, and coercion come in. People, wanting to savour the momentary joy through the bursting of firecrackers, not only are they willing to do it at the cost of others, but also at their own cost and at the cost of their near and dear ones. This indeed is a special case of Social Darwinism, a little like Nietzsche-meets-Churchill, and these people could be thought of as belonging to a cult, not a religion, for it is beyond religion. Whipping others while making sure cat o’ nines land on your back as well. Diwali-cum-Muharram.

Diwali – a day of celebration, Muharram – of suffering. The proponents of firecrackers have coupled the two. Come let us celebrate while we suffer, while you suffer, and while everyone else suffers.

Anyone who is a resident of Delhi knows that Diwali turns the city into a gas chamber. Scientific data has proved this year on year; last year’s Diwali was the most dangerous in a decade. The most harmful of gases and fumes are let loose upon millions of Delhiites, by millions of Delhiites. They don’t die of it instantly like what happened one tragic night in Bhopal three decades ago, but they cough and wheeze and suffer, and reduce their lifespan a little because of it. Why? Because somewhere along the glorious timeline of our ancient civilisation, the bursting of firecrackers got hitched on to the simple lighting of a lamp and exchanging sweetmeats and doing up your home and refurbishing your wardrobe and keeping your windows open so Goddess Lakshmi could slip in and bless you and deposit wealth. Doubtless, the year this began the total population of India was what Delhi’s population is now, and so the grievance from this momentary waste of money and energy was minimal. But not now; not any more.

If you want to know what Delhi is like during Diwali, step into the Smoking Room at any Indian airport. Just the sight of it from a distance – dozen-odd fidgety, watery-eyed smokers rushing through their puffs, staring at you across glass panels that separate thick, spongy smoke from invisible air – is enough to make you quit.

Delhi on Diwali is that Smoking Room. The firecracker enthusiast is the smoker who enters the chamber, except that while in real life the smoker leaves his wife and child the saner side of the glass panel, the firecracker enthusiast drags them along, too. As his blood ships nicotine off to places otherwise difficult to reach with Kamla pasand, as he rejoices the numbing of anxiety and agitating feet, his family stands adjacent taking in his second-hand smoke as well as the second-hand smoke of a dozen others, present or absconded already. What is his wife’s and his child’s fault; why are they breathing in these fumes; why are they being subjected to a health-risk? Come, now. What’s 10 minutes of suffering in a life of 70 years? Surely, they wouldn’t mind.

Fireworks pose a health risk not just to those in near proximity, their adverse effect lasts way beyond till after the smog clears. An estimate suggests the Millennium fireworks celebrations of December 31, 1999 added 124 tons of lead to the air above Europe, 6 tons above Sydney, and 90 tons above the USA. The environmentally conscious Swedes ushered in 2000 by breathing in air that had 3 tons of lead and worse, 60 tons of chromium. What goes up comes down, and what comes down after a fireworks celebration are alarmingly harmful debris and toxic chemicals like arsenic, mercury, cadmium, and unreacted sulphur, besides ozone, a greenhouse gas and a secondary pollutant. An American study found fireworks (that have potassium perchlorate as their main ingredient) left a lake with perchlorate concentrations 1000 times higher than normal. It took up to 80 days for them to return to the acceptable levels. Perchlorate is a highly toxic water pollutant that can severely affect the functioning of the thyroid gland. Children are particularly at risk because of air and ground pollution caused by firecrackers.

When will we learn from what science tells us; when will we do a cost-benefit analysis of our religious and cultural practices? Pure luck that the ozone-layer depleting chlorofluorocarbons weren’t considered Holy Communion or prasadam, or they would never have been banned. We probably would have rationalised the resulting spate of skin cancers as a just punishment from God for our sins.

That progress entails cost to the environment is beyond doubt. We live in a world not only made possible by science but also made worse by it. However, rational and intelligent societies develop means and mechanisms through which the harm can be graded, its affect labelled, ranked, categorised, and then mitigated. Rational and intelligent societies factor in cost-benefit analysis before allowing or banning human inventions and interventions.

Take cars. Now it is not anyone’s grouse that cars that run on fossil fuel are harmful for the environment. So why don’t we ban them along with firecrackers, ask the saviours of joy. Well, because humans have factored in the cost-benefit analysis of having cars. Yes, they pollute, but they save time, they provide independence, comfort and safety. And it is not that humans are unconcerned about the pollution cars cause. Every five years there is a better fuel that comes along (it is another matter that we in India use fuels two generations older); every two years, there is new engine technology developed that causes less pollution. Indeed, in a few decades from now, vehicles that run on fossil fuels would probably be banned; only those running on clean fuel or renewables would be allowed. Meanwhile, in societies unlike ours, where public transport is excellent, petrol and diesel cars are already being phased out. It is only a matter of time. But until then, until the time Delhi has a safe, reliable, well-connected, comfortable, punctual, and ample public transport, cars are here to stay. Their benefit currently outweighs their cost to the environment and human health. This author has written previously on the concrete steps that need to be taken to address the problem of air pollution. Little has changed since.

To buttress their advocacy for bursting firecrackers on Diwali, the proponents next claim that Diwali pollution lasts only for three days, while Delhiites suffer for the rest of the year the pollution caused by other means.

Well, doesn’t stub-burning – fields set alight by farmers in Punjab and the north before crop rotation – last only for a week? Why, then, the need to ban it? Suffer for that week and forget about it afterwards; enjoy for the rest of the year pollution that is free from its stub-burning component; think of the poor farmers who cannot afford other means to make their farmland cultivable again, and for whom their land is their religion. But you don’t. You want stub-burning banned.

The rights of an individual, to run or ruin his life, are sacrosanct, but they cannot infringe on the rights of another individual. The singular purpose of a rational, kind, intelligent, conscientious society is to make sure of this. Anything else, and it is Social Darwinism. But we are so used to practicing it that we don’t even realise that we are practicing it. Putting oneself into someone else’s shoes is not something we as a people are good at. For us suffering is elastic; one can stretch it without it ever reaching breaking point. It is so ingrained in our psyche for both, the sufferer and the perpetrator, that it has been rationalised almost to perfection.

Should a society allow a parent to not have his or her child vaccinated? Should a society allow an under-age person to do drugs? Should a society allow thousands of children to work in factories, wrapping horrendously dangerous chemicals into firecrackers? Should a society allow millions to burst firecrackers and turn a city into a gas chamber? No, because these actions have repercussions that affect others for no fault of theirs. These actions destroy lives and not just a life.

Call me a misanthrope but no festival, of no religion, is worth celebrating if makes others suffer, destroys the environment, depletes precious resources – natural or man-made, increases carbon-footprint, and pushes humanity further into an uncertain future.

You want to burn your money on firecrackers, go ahead. Provided you are by your own, inside your house, behind closed doors, away from your near and dear ones. So light up a cigarette (PM2.5: 139 mcg/m3), a phuljhadi (PM2.5: 10,390 mcg/m3), a “snake (PM2.5: 64,500 mcg/m3), a hazaar ki ladi (PM2.5: 38,540 mcg/m3), and a chakri (PM2.5: 9490 mcg/m3) inside this Smoking Room. You want to call this a celebration, fair enough. It is your right, your money, your life. But don’t celebrate at the cost of others.

Celebrations that make others suffer are little more than a dance at a funeral. And Diwali, that most beautiful of festivals, is no funeral; it is a celebration of life itself.

The author can be contacted at anand.icgeb@gmail.com and on Twitter @ARanganathan72

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