This Diwali was one of the quietest Diwalis I have celebrated in Mumbai. There was hardly any fireworks to lit the Diwali nights. The Diwali eve was eerily muted and there weren’t many exuberant kids breaking crackers in the streets. The collective shaming by corporates, blaming India’s pollution problems on some poor or middle-class children bursting some crackers for a day, has taken a toll on Diwali celebrations.
Celebrities, who are proud owners of smoke-spewing giant SUVs, yachts and private jets, who endorse luxury products, have been urging the poor and the middle class, who use public transport or walk to work, to stop bursting two-rupee crackers once in a year so that the environment can be saved. People, who queue up in KFCs, who endorse and use cosmetics which are tested on mute animals, are suddenly teary-eyed about the crows, pigeons, dogs and cats that will be scared of the Diwali crackers. Their contention is that the same cats, dogs, sparrows and crows that have learnt to live with the unnatural city lights, the roar of the jumbo jets, the ear-splitting horns, the drone of the traffic, screech of the tyres, the moan of the ambulance sirens, the cacophony of religious and political rallies are hypersensitive when it comes to the two-rupee Diwali cracker. Corporates who operate gigantic mines, refineries, factories etc find it important to lecture the man on the street about the virtues of having a silent Diwali.
With all these, one would assume the environment has been saved. Sadly, the environment condition remains as hazardous as ever. Of the 12 most polluted cities in the world, India has the dubious distinction of having 11. Delhi is a gas chamber and so are other cities in mainland India. Thanks to the sea, the peninsular India is somewhat saved. The pollution levels in these urban hellholes remain the same irrespective of some crackers are burst or not on the Diwali eve. There has been no study to prove that the air pollution in India is due to bursting of crackers during Diwali. The incidental increase in pollution during this time in North Indian cities is mainly due to stubble burning before Diwali. This is evident from the fact that the conductive regions in Pakistan’s Punjab also has a similar level of pollution despite not bursting any crackers.
Sometimes, it feels like as if a corporate trick is being played on the gullible public. We rarely hear such collective shaming when crackers are burst during IPL matches, celebrity weddings or New Year parties in the five-star hotels. It seems corporate India wants the middle class and the poor to spend the little excess money they get during Diwali, not on crackers and fireworks but shopping. Please note that there are no multinationals or giant corporate houses selling fireworks in India. Mostly, it is either made in small-town India by rural entrepreneurs or imported from China by small-scale traders. Had any of the biggies of Corporate India been in the firecracker business, we might have heard a different tone to this shrill music.
Diwali or such festivals are the only days for the common public to have some entertainment in their bleak lives. India is a harsh and heartless country for the poor. Festivals like Diwali, Holi, Ganesh Visarjan, Durga Puja, etc are the safety valves for the common man, who are otherwise oppressed and marginalised. These are the few days when the poor Indians, consisting of almost 80 per cent of the population, feel they live in a free country.
However, this class has no voice in the public space. They are soft targets. They are also a good market if they can be weaned from their conventional celebrations and made to follow the herd, by spending their money in the malls and white goods consumer shops. In the US and Europe, conventional Christmas celebrations were manipulated to make it a giant shopping exercise.
This narrative suits the government too. Tackling the stubble burning issue is politically explosive. The farmer votes can change political fortunes, at least for now. Tackling industrial pollution is detrimental to the coffers of the political parties. Implementing the strict environmental laws might not suit the stock markets. What better way to show your love for environment than to urge the common man to shun his two-rupee cracker.
Allowing the masses to celebrate Diwali in the conventional ways does not mean it has to be a free-for-all affair. The safety norms and designated places for lighting crackers should be implemented, just like how the pandals for Ganesha or Durga Puja are regulated.
While we, the people of India, have done our bit for the environment by reducing our fireworks, may we ask the government to do its bit? A decade ago, China had the dubious distinction of having the world’s most polluted cities (and Chinese aren’t famous for their Diwali celebrations). With strict implementations of the environment laws, they have somewhat saved their cities and handed over the dubious crown to India. One of the important innovations was the smog tower in the Xi’an city, Shaanxi province of China. A 100-metre high air purification tower is now improving the air quality in 10 square kilometres. More such towers are planned.
That is how we want our tax money to be used. We may even tolerate a huge flex board of some grinning politician adoring such a tower. Why not start with a few such smog towers in Delhi? And why not implement the pollution control norms more effectively and save our air, land and rivers? To all the celebrities and corporates, we thank you for your advice. Now would you walk your talk? Please stop endorsing fast food, cosmetics, fuel-guzzling cars, American sugar water, broiler chicken fries etc and join us in the fight to save our environment.