Diwali: 'Religious sentiments' over safety norms?

Last Updated: Thu, Nov 10, 2016 11:12 hrs
Diwali 2016 to be more polluted than last two years, says survey

Every time someone sends me a Diwali greeting, invoking the lights of lamps and glow of prosperity and other trite imagery, it strikes me how ironic it is that we continue to call it the ‘festival of lights’. What it is, if one were to take into account the statistics released by environment watchdogs, hospitals, and animal rights activists, is an exercise in making life as dangerous as possible for ourselves and other creatures around us for several days.

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There was a time when the big objection to fireworks used to be the employment of children, with a pittance for remuneration and no safeguards in place, to pack firecrackers in factories. Now, all the big manufacturers claim they have ended child labour, though the odd expose by journalists shows otherwise.

However, there are other big problems with this celebration – the number of injuries to humans and animals, the environmental pollution, and the expenditure on fireworks continues to increase every year.

In other words, a country that counts itself as a global economic power and aspires to become a superpower in the near future, is home to hundreds of millions of people who willingly put themselves and others at risk, and claim their religious sentiments hinge on their freedom to do so.

Diwali, of course, is not the only occasion at which crackers are burst. There are elections, weddings, and funerals, in addition to sundry smaller festivals. Fireworks, which we believe must externalise our joy, have now become synonymous not with festivity but injury. Yet, we persist, and the law will not take a firm stance.

Some years ago, activists appealed to the Supreme Court to either ban fireworks or have displays at designated areas. Citing “religious sentiments”, the apex court did not rule in favour of the petition. Despite regulations by the Supreme Court and various state governments about the times at which crackers can be burst, and despite violations being punishable by heavy fines, the authorities are hesitant to enforce them.

Data from the Central Pollution Control Board said the levels of particulate matter (PM) 2.5 crossed 1200 µg/m³ in some parts of Delhi on Sunday evening, against an annual average of 122. For the record, the World Health Organization says an annual average of PM2.5 that crosses 35 is dangerous to health. This pollutant can severely damage the lungs of residents breathing in the air, and exacerbate the respiratory problems of those with existing medical conditions.

Large hospitals across the country have reported between 100 and 250 Diwali-related burn injuries this year, and this apart from 40-50 eye injuries from fireworks. Multiply that by the number of hospitals in the country, and the number is staggering.

Fires routinely break out over the Diwali weekend, thanks to a combination of substandard material used in fireworks and nonexistent safety precautions. To walk down the street is to risk being hit by a flying fragment from a cracker.

A study conducted over eight years at the Safdarjung Hospital, titled Firecracker injuries during Diwali festival: The epidemiology and impact of legislation in Delhi, by Tandon et al, found that the emergency burn care unit alone saw 1373 outpatients on Diwali, the day before, and the day after, between 2002 and 2010. This worked out to one severe injury in every 100,000 people in the city. Their ages ranged between 14 months and 88 years.

Every year, there are hundreds of cases of dogs being mutilated, both intentionally and accidentally, in every city. Even leaving the injuries caused by sadists aside, the trauma from the noise of crackers being burst is so severe that dogs run out of their homes, even jumping over walls, startled, and are not able to make their ways back.

To shrug off a ban on fireworks is to embrace disaster. No myth associated with Diwali holds up fireworks as essential to its celebration. How, then, are ‘religious sentiments’ being hurt? And even if they were, how much longer can we choose ‘sentiment’ over safety?

India is not the only country, and Diwali is not the only festival, where fireworks are used. On Guy Fawkes Day, Halloween, Bastille Day, and various New Years across the world, there are displays of fireworks. But these take place in designated areas, there are ambulances at hand, and the injuries are few.

Even if crackers are not going to be entirely phased out, surely it is time for the government to think about banning personal, unregulated use of fireworks?

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Read more at: http://www.sify.com/news/student-suicides-our-culture-of-expectation-is-to-blame-news-columns-qfclbTdhdabea.html
Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. 

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