The history of firecrackers offers clues to silence them

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The big bang started with the baozhu. Almost two hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Chinese – the ancestors of many human inventions – had committed original sin: they heated bamboo and discovered, to their astonishment, that the heat caused the material to explode – baozhu, aptly, means “bamboo explosion” – with a flash and a deafening noise. Since then, for over 2000 years now, India and other parts of the world have paid the price for relentless enchantment with the baozhuThe sophisticated and rowdy descendant of: the modern firecracker.

The price, of course, varies depending on the setting. Every year around Diwali – firecrackers worth around Rs 1,500 crore were produced in 2021 – Delhiwallahs, while taking a short break from bursting the deafening sutli bombs and its variants, look up and complain about their amber skies, watery eyes and itchy throats. Data from the Central Pollution Control Board indicated that the concentration of PM2.5 was four times the safety level in the Delhi-NCR region during the holiday season, with firecrackers and farm fires combining to split the ears and stop the nose. Meanwhile, the air quality index in the former capital, Calcutta, went from “bad” to “very poor” for the first time this season. The rest of India, too, is running out of steam. This is despite the Supreme Court’s ban on crackers harmful to public health and restrictive measures announced by a number of state governments.

Since 2.5 million Indians die each year from toxic air, the talk about firecrackers and air and noise pollution has, of course, remained centered on the now as opposed to so. Yet even a cursory examination of the history of firecrackers in India can offer fascinating insight into the genesis of civic transgression, institutional complicity, and – importantly – possible deterrents.

In his book, History of fireworks in India between 1400 and 1900, the historian PK Gode quotes ancient texts, including the 16th century Kautukacintamani, to assert that the arrival of the Chinese firecracker formula by Arab traders, its subsequent indigenization, as well as the discovery and use of gunpowder in Indian military techniques led to the popularization of fireworks in medieval India. The tales left by Duarte Barbosa, a Portuguese traveler, of a Gujarati wedding enlightened, literally, by purana pyrotechnics, writes Gode, testifies to the presence of firecrackers as a form of public spectacle. The collective enchantment with the sutli bomb’s ancestors were well established in Mughal India. Dara Shikoh’s wedding, writes Ira Mukhoty, featured an impressive fireworks display; Satish Chandra also notes that a princely sum of Rs 80,000 had been spent on atishbaazi alone at the wedding of a courtier’s daughter at the court of the Sultan of Bijapur.

What’s particularly interesting is the symbiotic relationship shared by crackers and mythology. The cultural assimilation of crackers has led to a bit of revisionism in mythology. Narendra Modi would be delighted to learn that “Rukmini Swayamvara”, a 16th century Marathi poem, had finally spotted phuljhuris and rockets on the night Krishna married Rukmini. At the turn of the 18th century, as gunpowder began to lose its advantage in the nascent military-industrial complex, it was the turn of mythology to save the business from firecrackers: a number of illustrated publications began to appear in print. this era, drawing a – tenuous? – link between Diwali and dodomas.

The attributes of modernity – not myth – contributed to the proliferation of Kalipotka and Co. Import restrictions, complemented by assured supplies to a burgeoning domestic industry – the first firecracker factory had been based in (where else but?) Calcutta – cheaper prices and increased purchasing power of the middle class had helped firecracker makers pocket, until recently, an annual turnover of over Rs 4,800 crore.

This profit leads to exponential losses in terms of human health and the environment, necessitating an attempt at civic redemption. And this is where the past can help the present.

The history of firecrackers reveals that the democratization of these products – the royal monopoly has given way to mass ownership – must be reversed. Hungary, Australia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and other countries have chosen to put firecrackers out of the reach of the population by imposing strict bans. This measure is difficult to replicate in India, not only because of the laxity of regulatory agencies, but also because the firecracker industry – the Supreme Court has taken note of this fact – employs, according to the Confederation of all Indian traders , thousands of people in various capacities. . Therefore, one way to silence crackers in this country would be taxes. The GST on firecrackers, reduced to 18 per cent from 28 per cent, must be increased again. However, the increase must be accompanied by an increase in prices – lower taxes, larger markets, competitive prices, etc. – for green crackers. Developed by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research-National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, green crackers, which are said to emit 30% less particles into the air and be relatively quiet in terms of noise, could be placed at a lower level of the GST hierarchy. . Incentives should also be introduced for manufacturers keen to explore greener pastures: for example, the Morani clan, which sees itself as India’s first firecracker family, have now moved to the niche market. technological razzmatazz with laser beams, music and lighting. The imponderables remain for those who have shallower pockets. Not all of the makers of Sivakasi, the country’s metaphorical powder keg, have failed to learn the trick to making the switch to making green crackers – this requires a strong interface between CSIR-NEERI and producers. The approval of licenses as well as the review of end products, the manufacturers say, is a time-consuming process. Then there are the loud protectors of “Hinduism”: This year a prominent BJP leader described the firecracker restrictions in Delhi as another example of Hinduism bulldozing.

Morons and crackers go back a long way. What’s inspiring is that women, as usual, seem to have found a way to break the charm of firecrackers. In the district of Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh, women, supported by a collective of farmers, writers and social workers, imagined replicas of recyclable firecrackers.

In doing so, they lit a diya whose flame must not be extinguished.

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