“Green” firecrackers, fake QR codes and CBI investigations


The about-face on a complete ban on all fireworks continues, even as state governments, high courts, activists, manufacturers and trade lobbies are entangled in competing interests – while Supreme Court upholds its order allowing people to burn “green” firecrackers.

No firecracker can be truly green because it’s about avoiding their emissions, not having different emissions. Second, it is absurd to expect any state or district to go through such a massive effort to identify and exclude from sale any product that consumers already have difficulty distinguishing from the “conventional” variety – and even less during a festival famous for its chaos.

The big picture is that manufacturers, traders and certification agencies abused the 2018 Supreme Court judgment that first mentioned green firecrackers, and the court has since taken the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI ).

To understand how we got here, it’s important to start from the flurry of firecracker directives.

The governments of Delhi, Rajasthan and Odisha have banned all firecrackers until January 2022 in a laudable effort to protect the health of their populations, especially during a respiratory illness pandemic. These bans have fueled hopes that the air over northern India in the winter of 2021 might not be better than it has been in previous years – rocked by the fact that the rains out season have also reduced farm fires to a minimum. Until there.

Haryana and Assam also announced bans, but they were timid, restricting only certain types of firecrackers and only in certain neighborhoods – followed by announcements that they would revise the bans. Rajasthan announced and withdrawn its ban within two weeks.

On October 29, the Calcutta High Court responded to a petition banning all firecrackers in West Bengal, citing public health and the lack of a mechanism to distinguish between green and non-green firecrackers. The directive followed an announcement by the state government allowing the use of green firecrackers for two hours a day.

The problem of differentiation is the crux of the matter. There is no way for a buyer to know if a firecracker is green unless the state can guarantee that all green firecrackers are duly certified, cannot be duplicated, and their sale will only be monitored. Until these mechanisms are in place, all firecrackers should be banned.

On the same day, however, the Supreme Court authorized the use of green firecrackers but called on states and Union territories to comply with its order – to ban the manufacture, sale or use of other firecrackers with higher emissions before Diwali. The court even warned chief state secretaries, police commissioners, district police superintendents and police officers that it would hold them personally responsible for any violation.

According to the Supreme Court, green firecrackers should by definition produce at least 30% less particles and toxic gases (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, etc.) than conventional firecrackers, and should not contain barium salts. , aluminum, strontium, lithium, arsenic, antimony, lead and certain other prohibited substances. And after appointing agencies to verify these attributes, the Supreme Court felt its job was done.

It would have been – without the manufacturing and trade lobbies that rushed to the Supreme Court with the Calcutta high court order. The Supreme Court then overturned the total ban on the latter on November 1, overturning a thoughtful leadership that had understood the main issues and their practical implications.

Now, with only a day or two left to Diwali, the fate of Delhi and Odisha’s comprehensive firecracker bans hangs in the balance – along with the health of around half a million people living on the Indo-Gangetic Plain.

In addition, the rains also seem to be easing; NASA satellite imagery indicated over 4,000 farm fires within 24 hours until November 1.

Now fires and fireworks – the two pollution freaks that contribute to North India’s winter pollution – are ready to strike. Exposure to air pollution kills nearly 1.7 million people of all ages in India each year, according to the 2020 State of Global Air report.

Not really green

A man celebrates Diwali with firecrackers, New Delhi, October 2017. Photo: PTI

There are two issues at stake here. The first is the definition itself.

Can a firecracker really be green? Sarath Guttikunda, director of UrbanEmissions, an independent group that broadcasts air quality forecasts for 640 districts, and Bhargav Krishna, a member of the Center for Policy Research, agreed that ‘green firecracker’ is an oxymoron – because everything what burns emits particles and gases and ultimately contributes to air pollution cannot be “green”.

That said, the Supreme Court assumed a different definition – that green firecrackers are less polluting rather than non-polluting. But here the manufacturers, traders and certification agencies flouted the court’s statement in letter and in spirit. The lawyers representing the petitioner in this case alleged that they continue to use banned substances in their products and wrongly label them as “green” to attract buyers.

If manufacturers are found guilty of continuing to use barium salts and other harmful substances in their firecrackers, they should be found in contempt of court and jailed. But that said, we come to the second question: on whose shoulders should the burden of implementation rest – the petitioner, the executive or the tribunal itself?

Only four certified crackers

The Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organization (PESO) is the government agency responsible for verifying and certifying firecrackers based on their emissions. So far, PESO has only identified firecracker brands as “green” – out of 300.

This is how Supreme Court lawyer Gopal Sankaranarayanan became a suspect for the first time. In December 2019, he reported that several fireworks shops in Hosur, near the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka border, were selling electric firecrackers, including the so-called “bombs”, “rockets” and lady (small explosives entwined in a garland), the kind that the Supreme Court had banned.

He purchased several of these offending items in their original packaging and found, upon closer inspection, that their ingredients contained many banned toxic substances. He attached his findings to his petition, informed the Supreme Court that manufacturers continued to use banned substances and called for an independent investigation.

“They continued to buy massive amounts of all the banned chemicals and store them in their factories, as if court orders didn’t exist,” Sankaranarayanan said.

Some manufacturers have also used another government agency, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), to qualify their products. But while the NEERI can verify and help regulate the content of firecrackers, it is not a designated certification body like PESO.

“Even if only one rocket goes into the night sky, or if you hear only one lady, you know the court orders have been violated, ”Sankaranarayanan said. “It’s the easiest way for governments to know and to regulate. “

In response to his submissions, the court asked the CBI to intervene and scheduled to hear the defendants after Diwali.

But the CBI has already found more evidence: according to Sankaranarayanan, investigators “visited the biggest manufacturers – Standard, Vinayaga and Sri Amman – and found that they had all placed orders for 30,000 kg of barium, even until 2021, ”Sankaranarayanan said. “Obviously, they used these chemicals recklessly, mislabeling them and misrepresenting them. [the firecrackers] to the public.”

When Sumaira Abdulali of the Awaaz Foundation and the Maharashtra State Pollution Control Board tested firecrackers in Maharashtra, they also found large quantities of boxes with fake QR codes. When a potential buyer scans a code on a box of firecrackers on their phone, a web page should display the contents of the firecrackers. The fake codes, however, loaded web pages that displayed fake information.

So, as the courts mull serious questions about life and livelihoods, firecracker makers are busy looking for loopholes and blind spots through which they can continue their business as usual.

Delhi air and people

A person walks a dog in a garden on a smoggy morning in New Delhi on December 23, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Anushree Fadnavis / Files

“Until November 4, air quality is expected to be in the ‘poor’ category and ‘could dip to’ very bad ‘on November 5 and 6 due to northwesterly winds and the burst crackers, “ANI news agency said citing IMD scientist VK Soni as said.

On November 3 at 2 p.m. it was 325 – already “very bad”.

According to the Air Quality and Weather Research and Prediction System, or SAFAR, of the Union Ministry of Earth Sciences, the share of crop residues burned up to the concentration of PM2.5 above Delhi was already 8% on November 1 and increasing.

For those of us living in northern India, it’s that time of year again: when the mercury begins its descent, the delicate orange-white arrogant the flowers release their scent into the air, and the festivities can begin. The season seems more special this year due to last year’s lockdown, during which we mostly stayed indoors with our fear of company.

But those of us who look at another graph, the Air Quality Index, also remember that our eyes are crying more every day, that our throats have seized up, that something we have been dreading for a long time. moment is upon us again.

In fact, for the leaders gathered during the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, here’s an idea: How about hosting COP27 or COP28 in New Delhi, in November or December? They will all learn firsthand what our unmissable “airpocalypse” smells, feels and tastes.

Jyoti Pande Lavakare is a journalist, author of the mourning memoir Breathing here is dangerous for health: the human cost of air pollution (Hachette 2020) and co-founder of the non-profit organization Care for Air.


Comments are closed.