Bursting or selling firecrackers in the Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR) as well as much of north India will be prohibited till December 1, the National Green Tribunal said on Monday, announcing a near-sweeping ban that stems from concerns that already critical levels of air pollution will add to the growing toll of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a 58-page order, NGT said the ban will apply to all cities or towns where the average air quality during November (as per last year’s data) was in “poor” category, or worse. The order refers to submissions by an amicus on the links between severe air pollution and Covid-19 infections as well as mortality.

In Delhi, where the air quality index remained in the “severe” category for the fifth consecutive day, state environment minister Gopal Rai announced that people not complying with the ban on firecrackers will face action under the Air Act which means a jail term of up to six years and a fine of up to ₹1 lakh.

The announcement was made after a meeting between the state government, and district and police officials to discuss standard operating procedures to implement the ban.

Firecrackers emit plumes of heavy metals into the air, which is already a toxic mix of ultra-fine PM2.5 and fine PM10 particles spewed by farm fires and local sources such as vehicles and construction dust.

The air is already past the point of what is fit for breathing, experts said, welcoming Monday’s ban.

“Air pollution in Delhi is at hazardous levels. This time, the period of hazardous air seems to have arrived even before Diwali. The relationship of air pollution with severity of pneumonia is well established. Therefore, it is expected that there will be an increase in positivity and severity of Covid 19. All efforts should be made to curb pollution,” said Dr GC Khilnani, chairman of PSRI Institute of Pulmonary and Critical care and former head of pulmonology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).

Across the country, in cities or towns where air quality is “moderate” , only green crackers can be sold — and burst for two hours during festivals. If nothing is specified by a state, the timing for firecrackers will be 8 to 10pm on Diwali and Gurupurab, and 6am to 8am on Chhath. On Christmas and New Year’s Eve, this can be between 11.55pm and 12.30am. In other places, ban/restrictions are optional but if there are more stringent measures by the state authorities, they will prevail, NGT said.

By HT’s estimates, seven states and Union territories around the country have completely banned crackers.

The NGT  order directed chief secretaries and police chiefs of all states and Union territories to issue and circulate appropriate orders and enforcement guidelines. It added that the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and state pollution control boards are to regularly monitor the air quality during the ban and upload all data on their websites.

An independent analysis by HT of CPCB’s publicly released AQI data for November 2019 showed that of the 110 cities for which AQI was released that month (which will serve as the basis for the ban), 42 had an average AQI that was “poor” or worse through the month.

CPCB collects AQI data from 387 cities across the country, of which only 110 were published in the agency’s daily AQI bulletins in November 2019. CPCB officials said that data of remaining cities is collected manually, and thus not included in the daily bulletin. This will be included in the final list of cities, they added.

“The assessment of where the ban on firecrackers will be imposed will have to be made by respective state pollution control boards based on NGT’s order. But generally, we understand that ban may be imposed in all of north India while peninsular; parts of northeast India may not have to impose the ban,” a senior CPCB official said, asking not to be named.

To be sure, some states have already banned the use of firecrackers this year. These include Odisha, Rajasthan, Chandigarh, Sikkim, Delhi, Bengal and Tripura. Two key NCR states, Haryana and Punjab have a partial ban in place, but will now need to follow the NGT direction.

The ban is not likely to be easy to enforce given religious sensitivities and economic compulsions. “Diwali is a special challenge this year given the twin crisis of Covid pandemic and winter pollution. Past experience has shown that enforcement of ban and restrictions on crackers need strong public support and awareness. It is therefore important to make people aware that we cannot afford to increase disease burden from short term toxic exposure when winter smog is also worsening the health risk,” said Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director, Centre for Science and Environment.

Similar bans in the past, particularly the one enforced by the Supreme Court in 2018, were widely flouted.

The Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturer’s Association, Sivakasi (TNFAM) claimed during the NGT hearing that there is no correlation between use of firecrackers and increase in the number of Covid cases. They cited data from Ayodhya, where people celebrated the beginning of the Ram Temple construction with fireworks but there was no increase in Covid 19 cases.

Santosh Harish, fellow at Centre for Policy Research, said, “The NGT order is a welcome move… Also, this idea of laying out a broader principle restricting firecrackers across the country is useful. Now, the responsibility is with state governments. However, instead of a last minute order, if such directions had been provided a few months earlier, it would have improved the implementation and likely reduced economic hardship for those that depend on the fireworks industry.”

Firecracker traders said the timing of the ban would impact their earnings, especially since the lockdown earlier in the year had caused hardships. “States like Maharashtra have announced that they won’t ban firecracker despite having a high number of cases in the state. Though we are worried about the number of Covid-19 cases and the pandemic threat, what about the economic hardship faced by small-time traders? ” asked Subhash Chandra Jain, a firecracker trader in old Delhi who has been in the business for around four decades.

Jain said that traders like him who deal in the business all year round will not face losses as huge as those who took loans to secure firecracker stocks and temporary licences. “The Delhi government officials held meetings with the fireworks traders and gave us the thumbs-up for green crackers. Now, they have imposed a ban. The government should have done its homework.”

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