India

India bans fireworks ahead of festival of lights amid Covid concerns

People play with fireworks during Diwali, the festival of lights, in Prayagraj, India, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. Hindus across the country are celebrating Diwali where people decorate their homes with light and burst fireworks.
People play with fireworks during Diwali, the festival of lights, in Prayagraj, India, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. Hindus across the country are celebrating Diwali where people decorate their homes with light and burst fireworks. AP - Rajesh Kumar Singh

India’s environmental court has outlawed fireworks in the capital Delhi and other cities ahead of Saturday's carnival of lights, Diwali, amid fears that rising air pollution and toxic fumes will push new Covid-19 cases far beyond the current 8.5 million mark.

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The unprecedented order of the National Green Tribunal came ahead of Diwali, one of the most popular annual Hindu festivals that sees millions light firecrackers at their homes or in public parks.

The judges said fireworks was an “aggravating risk to lives and health” and stipulated similar restrictions for other cities struggling with high air pollution.

Delhi ban 'absolute'

But it said the ban in Delhi must be “absolute” because of rapidly-worsening air quality and rising Covid-19 cases in the city of 20-million residents.

The city police suspended permits of fireworks retail traders following the order.

Government spokeswoman Reena Gupta said Delhi’s administration had also rejected the so-called “green firecrackers” because of the health crisis.

“And that is the reason why we said that this year at least -- because everybody’s lungs are so compromised because of the pollution and because of Covid, we cannot take a chance,” she said.

However, the tribunal, which has powers of a regular court, relaxed the rules for areas relatively less affected by pollution.

Green firecrackers can be sold in cities and towns where air quality is moderate or below, its 58-page order said, news agency ANI reported.

But it did not say if there was such a thing as environmentally-safe fireworks.

Environmentalists said the order was likely to impact the sale and use of fireworks more than 100 cities and towns, where air quality has deteriorated.

Northern India’s dirty air

Monday’s order came as a respite for the Indian capital where air quality was marked “severe” for the fifth straight day, increasing the risk of its 20 million residents to coronavirus infection.

Delhi’s air quality index hovered beyond 440 in the scale of 500 -- or more than four times higher than the level which is generally deemed as safe.

Government data showed large swathes of northern India were also in the grip of severe air pollution.

India air quality index, 9 November 2020 @ 4 PM.
India air quality index, 9 November 2020 @ 4 PM. © Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB)

Air quality deteriorates every year in the region largely because the farming community burns crop waste in open fields, adding to pollution from coal-fired power plants.

On Monday, visibility was less than 500 yards at places in Delhi because of the blinding smoke bellowing from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

“We have sold more air purifying units in the last week than in the entire year,” a city trader commented.

The national tribunal also ordered all Indian states to kick off campaigns to bring pollution within safe limits in view of the pandemic.

Delhi’s surging epidemic

Delhi state Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had already banned fireworks five days ahead of the Tribunal’s order in the city, which reported 7,745 new coronavirus cases on Sunday.

With more than 46,000 new Covid-19 infections reported in last week, Delhi has posted more cases than any other state during the period.

The city has reported 431,000 cases since January.

Health experts say air pollution would make people more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.

“This virus also attacks the same respiratory tracts which is already attacked by air pollution,” city physician Vivek Nangia told Indian TV.

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