Every year, I find myself wondering how a festival that claims to be a celebration of lamps turned into a nightmare of air and noise pollution—how, when the government decided to fight the coronavirus by lighting candles for good vibes like a rookie psychic, households managed to find fireworks at short notice in the middle of a nationwide lockdown.
Despite regulations about the days and hours when crackers can be burst—in a country of a billion people, most of whom enjoy making a racket and polluting the air, no state or central government wants to risk its popularity by banning fireworks outright, and all that the courts have done is to reduce the hours of this manic celebration—people regularly disobey, and fireworks last into the night, traumatising animals and asthmatics among others.
Now, there is more reason than ever for a blanket ban on fireworks.
With multiplexes and schools set to open across the country in about a week, one can be certain of a spike in the number of Covid-19 cases.
According to the statistics shared on Twitter by Shamika Ravi, who has been tracking the spread of the pandemic since it began, the fall in daily cases across India has stopped, and is now stable at around 45,000. The number of daily deaths has risen from 500 to 600. In the meanwhile, the Covid-19 death rate has been spiking across the world.
We must remember that those who have “recovered” from the infection have only left hospital. It takes months of therapy before many can function as before. Some find it extraordinarily hard to breathe despite therapy, while others have to deal with long-term effects, such as severe damage to their lungs.
We have a vulnerable population, with about 8.5 million cases. These include 125,000 deaths. 50,000 people catch the infection every day, which means that by the time Diwali approaches, we could have over 9 million people who are either ill or dealing with respiratory problems after recovery, people who would be severely affected by the air pollution.
There is another danger to allowing people to burst firecrackers. It becomes an excuse for social gatherings. The beginning of the festive season and the announcement of discounts at retail stores saw hordes of people rushing to shopping districts in their cities, and a viral video of a crowded Kumaran Silks store in Madras led to its being sealed for violating norms. But the shoppers in the video have been exposed already to each other and to infection, and we cannot be sure how many have fallen ill since.
The easing of norms should ideally be accompanied by increased vigilance on the part of the public. But we have a tendency to behave like schoolchildren waiting for the recess bell. If the government has decided to lift certain restrictions, we figure that must mean it is safe. No, it just means the economy can no longer sustain itself under lockdown.
The film industry across India has taken a severe beating. Film shoots have only just resumed. Highly-anticipated films that would have been box office hits have released directly on OTT platforms. The cinemas have been coping with huge losses, as have producers. As for retail, small businesses have been forced to shut down their operations, and even the big chains have been hit. The hospitality industry is in tatters.
The climb back to financial normalcy will be slow, and every day that the lockdown extends has an impact on businesses.
The education sector has suffered too. There has been a tussle over their charging the same fees for online classes as for live teaching. The awkward timing of the lockdown, right in the middle of final examinations for Classes 10 and 12, has also thrown everyone into uncertainty over admission into college. And we have not yet taken into consideration the psychological effects of months of isolation on children, and the hours of learning and play that have been missed. It cannot have been entirely healthy for children—or for that matter, adults at university—to spend several hours a day staring at bright screens either.
And therefore, the government has little choice but to relax the lockdown step by step. That does not mean it is safe to meet. It does not mean we can go back to the old normal.
The conversion of a festival of lights into a festival of noise and toxic fumes was the effect of a perverted notion of celebration. And now, it could be disastrous.
Yes, there will be pressure from fireworks manufacturers and the media will continue to inundate us with sob stories with puns in their headlines about how the prospects of sales seem “dim” and how families working in the fireworks industry are staring at a “bleak” future. However, governments should take into consideration the likely fallout of Diwali being celebrated in the usual manner and impose a blanket ban on fireworks.
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com