My childhood experience:
Over the last week, there has been some heated discussion within my circle of friends and family. This has been around the habit of bursting crackers for Deepavali. As a kid, my fascination with crackers was at its peak. My brothers and I would eagerly wait for the cracker boxes to arrive a couple of days before the festival. The next few days would go into elaborate planning of what new places and methods we would try to burst the crackers. It was mostly fun for us and a nuisance to the neighbours.
At the time I was in Grade 9, things changed. I read an article on child labour and the crackers industry. I was so moved by the condition of these kids almost my age and younger that I made a strong resolve to not touch crackers again. Ever since, I have been diligently following that resolve.
Additionally, I have been impacted by the understanding of the science of climate change and the importance of individual contribution. This understanding has influenced some of my life choices as well. We are a one-vehicle family. I ride a motorbike which is well maintained with respect to emission regulations. I depend on public transport for all other family transport needs. While these choices arise out of a combination of conviction and convenience, they are also informed and conscious.
Returning to the ongoing debate, the last two days have been especially thought-provoking for me. I find it difficult to digest the behaviour of my fellow beings. I see my friends and students promoting the argument for bursting crackers using religious and cultural aspects of Hinduism. The second line of argument is that pollution due to crackers is acceptable because we are already polluting the Earth every day.
Fireworks and our culture:
Inspired by this introspection, I went on a fact-finding exercise and I share some insights with you here. I hope this will throw some light on the way you celebrate this wonderful festival in the years to come.
- The invention of gun powder is attributed to the Chinese, not Indians. This is the primary ingredient in any fireworks.
- Fireworks for entertainment was the contribution of Muslim Invasion to India when the sultanate brought these from China. Indian rulers modified this practice and used it for their entertainment and later for war as well.
- The use of fireworks for Deepavali is dated earliest to 1400 CE, and not before that.
- Manufacturing formulas describing pyrotechnic mixtures are found in kautukachintamani, a Sanskrit volume by Gajapati Prataparudradeva (1497-1539), a reputed royal author from Orissa.
- There is historical evidence that the Vijayanagara kingdom in the reign of Devaraya II used pyrotechnical shows during Mahanavami celebrations.
- The use of fireworks was limited to the elite/rich communities which could afford to sanction such shows.
- The availability of fireworks for the general public is as recent as 1940. This is when the Standard Fireworks factory at Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu started bulk-manufacturing affordable crackers.
Fireworks and pollution:
The fireworks during Deepavali is only a three-day affair. How can I compare this with the pollution contributed by other sources to the atmosphere every day?
As pollution data is not available for just the three-days of the year, I am going to use chemical composition as the factor of comparison. Let us look at the combination of chemicals emitted into the atmosphere over these three days v/s the chemicals thrown by automobiles generally. To the logical mind, this is a good ground for thinking.
The pollution caused by automobiles is standard and there are international norms to control and regulate such pollution. Most automobile emission is controlled in a sense and can be measured for non-compliance. The primary chemicals emitted are oxides of Carbon, Sulphur, and Nitrogen. Due to awareness and standardisation, there are regulations in place to measure and treat these emissions.
The pollution caused by crackers in these three days is uncontrolled and unregulated. The companies that manufacture these crackers do not have international or national guidance standards. There has been some intervention by the Supreme Court in recent years in bringing in norms.
Crackers are intended to combine three effects – sound, light, and heat. Aluminium powder, Sulphur, and Potassium Nitrate are the primary ingredients in any crackers. These are responsible for the explosion and sound. For colourful effects, a host of other chemicals are used, see table below.
In three days, a large and concentrated amount of these chemicals are dumped into the atmosphere. These are not part of the polluted air we breathe on a regular basis. All this is done in the name of culture and practice. Being an educated human being, I find it difficult to understand how one can justify this atrocity.
Additionally, children are the major participants in these cracker-bursting celebrations. They are exposed to a large amount of blinding lights, loud noise, and chemical-ridden air. Is this a healthy experience for them?
I am not against celebrations or personal choice. However, I am annoyed immensely by blind justification, religious connotations, and self-righteous defence. Our culture also promotes ‘live and let live’ not ‘burn and let others suffer’.
Deepavali is a beautiful festival, filled with lights, hope, and illumination. Therefore, I urge you all to celebrate this bright festival with some care and concern towards fellow beings. If my thoughts compel even a few readers to introspect, I will be happy and proud to have created a meaningful learning experience.
Reference for further reading: