2019 has been the year of the environmental activism and simultaneously, environmental degradation. Such a contrast presents itself because of the greatest political and economic divide of the 21st century, where there are right-wing lovers/capitalists on one side and left-wing liberals/activists on the other. From Greta Thunberg’s school strikes having gained momentum globally to large scale losses in natural resources like the burning of Amazon and melting of the Okjökull glacier in Iceland, the scales of imbalance are tipping dangerously on the negative side.
If we take a micro look into our nation, the capital of India declared a public emergency warning following Diwali. Now, we cannot attribute its extreme air pollution to only firecrackers since one of the biggest causes is stubble burning from nearby areas. But what remains a mystery is how this has happened before, in the same year, but there has been no progress whatsoever. It is a disturbing fact that the political crown of our country has not solved a problem as severe as this.
Coming to our home base, we cannot deny that Sikkim has not had its share of environmental problems too. But we have persevered. From developing bans and laws to curb plastic pollution, dismissing chemical fertilizers and spreading awareness about the ecology, the state has found numerous ways to protect the environment.
Yet, in certain areas, we have failed as miserably. Dam projects that created havoc in the lands of indigenous people and not setting up a recycling plant have kept bringing us back to square one.
The most recent problem that plagued the state and left a bitter taste in people’s mouths is the excessive use of firecrackers after the ban on bursting it was lifted for 2 hours on the 27th of October.
There is no doubt that Diwali brings happiness and excitement to people’s lives and is an important festival for most people in Sikkim and the country at large. Out of the excitement at the festival, people begin to set off firecrackers. The excitement reaches a maddening crescendo when sometimes the nuisance of bursting crackers commences weeks before the arrival of Diwali and extends for a few days after the festivities. A pretty sight at night, but we cannot deny that they are composed of chemicals which when burnt causes environmental pollution. Not only does it harm the environment but also human health. The festival of lights has now become a festival of too many firecrackers and less of the what was originally intended.
In the Hindu tradition, Diwali or Tihar, in Nepali culture, is a festival that celebrates the victory of good over evil. However, on the eve of Diwali, we did not adhere to that, letting our mischief turn us away from logic.
People spend lavishly on new clothes, decorating their homes but the whole idea of “bringing home Laxmi” goes to waste when they buy and set off firecrackers. A majority of people spend a huge amount of money on them and what for? This culture not only impacts people’s finances but has a larger effect on the air we breathe in. It is responsible for an increase in the concentration of dust and pollutants in the air.
Apart from the festival bringing great joy to humans, it also honours animals – Kukur Tihar, Kaag Tihar is celebrated in many Nepali households. Yet the irony is that we disregard the same animals and birds when we light crackers. The sound disturbs and scares these living beings into serious conditions. Reports of many stray dogs having passed due to the anxiety they faced during Diwali should shame us. They are tortured by the noise pollution because of their sensitivity to sound – not only do animals go deaf, their heart rate accelerates and they develop extreme anxiety. How can we call them dumb, when we’re the ones who are willing to put innocent lives in jeopardy for a moment’s fun?
If we consider the ecological consequences of these firecrackers, the excessive smoke caused is dangerous for people who suffer from respiratory diseases, neurological problems, heart diseases and mental illnesses. They contain sulphur and carbon in high quantities, which as most of us are acquainted with, contributes to global warming.
Another thing we overlook is the noise pollution that accompanies the crackers and not to mention, they are also a safety hazard since they could potentially cause fires not just in urban spaces but forests too if any are lit near areas with significant foliage. Some studies show that firecrackers produce more noise than a normal human ear can tolerate.
As per some health studies, the impact of burning firecrackers is more on children than adults.
In a nutshell, the whole process of burning firecrackers has no positive effects on human life. It is time for us to choose whether we want the quality of our life and environment to improve or if we would continue to be inconsiderate. Neither will authority imposed ban nor court orders can curb this nuisance – it should be our civic duty and responsibility to actively contribute and participate in reducing this rather toxic culture. Our culture is based on singing and dancing – firecrackers is a colonial menace.
The Sikkim Government had imposed a ban on selling and burning of firecrackers in 2014 but that was lifted partially on October 25th 2019, for two hours (7 pm – 9 pm) but the capital, along with other districts in the state saw people breaking the rules, as if they did not exist in the first place.
The morning after the main day of celebrations, Gangtok’s famous and beloved MG Marg was in an ugly state – residuals of firecrackers and plastic were scattered all over the street (see the picture above). It was a disappointing sight since MG Marg is generally one of the cleanest areas in the town, where authorities have declared it as a litter and spit free zone.
Why were people allowed to litter the street if there are rules in place that state one could get fined heavily for it? What is the point of a ban on firecrackers if people can burst them anywhere they please, even on prohibited areas like MG Marg. These questions buzz in people’s head because some authoritative measure should have been taken place on that night and every night after because the acts seem to toe the line of public nuisance.
Strangely, people are extremely frustrated about the rules that limit the usage of such things and justify their actions by using “it is part of our tradition/culture”, but the concept of firecrackers is simply colonial.
For a brief yet dazzling light show that emits harmful chemicals in the air, people are willing to compromise their health and environment. It isn’t like there aren’t “green crackers” but that is simply a loophole for more problems.
A concerned citizen, Amar Pradhan has expressed his sadness over the bursting of firecrackers, stating that the last Diwali was more joyous and peaceful with a clear sky since the ban on the same was upheld but this time, the sky was clogged with smoke and caused anxiety to his pets. “This is disgraceful,” he says.
Chemical Composition of Firecrackers:
Firecrackers contain Nitrogen Dioxide, Sulphur, Nitrates, Magnesium and other harmful chemicals. Many studies have shown that release of minute particles, CO, NOx, hydrocarbons, SO2, and other chemicals in the air during fireworks displays have major impacts on pregnant women, children, asthma patients and heart patients too. Additionally, it can also cause problems related to the eye, throat, nose.
Besides health problems, burning firecrackers leaves roads and other public places dirty and full of papers, the residue of crackers and garbage. Sanitation workers have to put in extra effort to clean their designated localities and only creates more work for them.
Although firecrackers are a common practice, they will not have adverse long term effects if not dealt with seriously. A ban should remain a ban until our people understand that the law is to be taken seriously and even the authorities realize their part to play in it.
Still, even within the madness, there are always a few good citizens who come to the aid of the society when they are most needed. Bikash Thapa, Sidharth Sirohia and Arindham Sirohia, three responsible youths from Gangtok were seen helping the sanitation workers of GMC to sweep away the garbage at MG Marg. These everyday heroes volunteered to clean up the street on the morning of October 28th.
Bikash Thapa, is also the president of a social organization called Stars of Hope and spoke to Sikkim Chronicle about the huge amount of garbage on MG Marg. “The amount of garbage at MG Marg was so huge that it would have taken a lot of time or maybe more than a day for limited Sanitation Workers of GMC to clean it up properly, so we thought of helping them with the cleaning”.
“We are opposing the burning of firecrackers and have been organizing various awareness drives, campaigning throughout the state in order to make people aware of the harmful effects of burning them. We cannot directly stop people from this but we can only make them aware of it, so the people burst firecrackers and here we are to clean it up” said Bikash Thapa.
Although, when it comes to air pollution, literally, citizens of Sikkim can breathe easy. But, that doesn’t indicate that it will always stay the same.
So not all hope is lost. Apart from this small clean up, there have been active efforts being made by the communities in hilly areas where waste disposal has become a serious problem. Although areas like Sikkim and Darjeeling are relatively cleaner than other places in India, they aren’t bereft of the evils of pollution.
Clean up drives initiated by Integrated Mountain Initiative and Zero Waste Himalayas in the 12 mountain states in India had a huge cleanliness drive that brought in a large number of participants from all ages. Many areas in Sikkim saw young people picking up garbage and discussing issues of climate change with more energy than ever.
Development and industrialization are the main tenets of modernization and like every other state, we aspire to be a technologically forward one but it comes with a price. Our learned habit is that we take our environment for granted, believing that nature will somehow fix the problems man has created. The truth is far away from it.
The pollution levels currently may not be as daunting as Delhi’s but who is to say that won’t change? Wildfires could occur and erase acres of trees, set off a chain of events that disturb the ecological balance or excessive stubble burning could potentially clog the air and our lungs with it.
It was clear from these initiatives that people are invested into keeping surroundings as lush and clean as possible, but even with all the effort that goes into collecting waste, planting more trees or striking for climate change the mass hasn’t fixed the problem of recognizing that public spaces should be treated with the same grace that we treat private spaces.
How can we become a fully green state if the citizens do not adhere to transforming all parts of their lives that way? It is well and good to grow and eat organic fruits and vegetables, share stories about global warming but if we bend for a silly thing as firecrackers, what use is all of the vociferous activity regarding the environment? This isn’t a one-time problem and there is no one-time solution.
Governments cannot expect common people to stick to rules and laws but they could devise stricter implementation. Likewise, people cannot expect the government to fix all their problems. Both have to acknowledge each other’s faults and come to a point where they can function without pointing fingers at either when things go awry.
If we are to dedicate ourselves into becoming a fully green state, the first step has to come from realizing our mistakes and promising to solve it no matter what needs to be sacrificed. We need to uphold Article 21 of the Indian Constitution which states that the right to a clean and healthy environment is a basic fundamental right, under the right to life.