An Environmentally Friendly Firecracker? India Is Willing to Try.

An Environmentally Friendly Firecracker? India Is Willing to Try.


ROHTAK, India — Diwali is the Hindu festival of light, and during the height of the celebrations in India each autumn, much of that illumination is coming from barely controlled explosions: the firecrackers, sparklers and other fireworks that millions here love to ignite as night falls.

But beyond the light, it all adds fumes and smoke to India’s already toxic air. So changes are coming.

Facing expanding evidence that India’s air pollution has become a public health disaster, the government has dramatically rewritten rules on fireworks sales, stringently enforcing a Supreme Court ban on most pyrotechnics and allowing only a handful of “green crackers” to be sold nationwide.

The restrictions have become even tougher ahead of Diwali festivities this weekend, as the celebration coincides with the seasonal onslaught of the country’s worst pollution. To prepare, the authorities have raided illegal fireworks factories and arrested people accused of selling polluting crackers on the black market.

The country’s nearly billion-dollar fireworks industry has plunged into crisis mode. Losses to those businesses this season are expected to top $100 million.

In the marble-walled offices of his family’s fireworks plant, where metallic objects are dunked in explosive goo, Tarun Kalra rattled off evidence that the operation’s decades-old empire was nearing an end.

This year, revenue was down 90 percent. Countless fireworks stores serving New Delhi, India’s capital, had shuttered. Mr. Kalra recently let go of most of the staff at his fireworks factory, in the Delhi satellite city of Rohtak. He blamed new government restrictions intended to curb India’s air pollution, which ranks among the worst in the world.

“This industry is finished,” he said.

But some Indian officials insist that things will get better — and that India’s air must, as well.

This month, India’s health minister, Harsh Vardhan, unveiled a line of “green” firecrackers with some of the country’s top scientists. He announced that the new fireworks would “resolve the crisis of air pollution,” slash emissions by 30 percent, cut down on noise, and retail at the same price, or even cheaper, than banned models.

“Science has once again come to the rescue of the common man, and millions of jobs have been saved,” Mr. Vardhan said, addressing concerns about mass layoffs in the fireworks industry, the second largest manufacturer in the world behind China.

The approved designs, which sell for a couple of dollars, include pool-ball-sized crackers called “Flower Pots,” and a few types of sparklers packaged in boxes decorated with a cartoon of Rapunzel. They are made by cutting out barium nitrate, a chief polluter, and using materials like zeolites, minerals that help absorb nitrogen and sulfur emissions.

India’s culture of fireworks, which have featured in major Hindu festivals for generations, was already changing before officials stepped in.

Rohan Rangi, 17, a student in Rohtak, said he stopped using fireworks last year after his neighbor died from an asthma attack. During a severely polluted day, Mr. Rangi said the man ran outside, clutched his throat and could not stop crying before he collapsed.

Mr. Rangi felt that all fireworks should be banned. “A firecracker is a firecracker,” he said. “I will not be using the green ones, either.”

During the winter months, slower winds in New Delhi mean Parliament disappears into acrid fog, trees acquire an extra layer of soot, and television pundits introduce a new round of speeches about a health emergency.

This month, a report found that major causes of pollution in the capital and surrounding cities, a metropolis of more than 46 million people, were construction dust, vehicular emissions and burning of agricultural waste. During the region’s smoggiest stretches, air quality can deteriorate to levels that some groups say are equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, or around 30 times the World Health Organization’s safe limit.

The problem is not just confined to the New Delhi area. Urban centers like Mumbai, Bangalore and Patna are all struggling with filthy air, lending India the distinction of having 15 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, according to a recent study.

Still, the country’s leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have often remained silent about reports showing that millions of Indians have already died from living in poisonous environments.

The reasons behind that response are complicated.

Clean air has yet to catch on as a major electoral issue in India, where many of the nation’s 1.3 billion people are focused on affording food and shelter. Wealthier Indians often opt for air purifiers to buffer themselves, rather than pushing lawmakers for solutions. And severely penalizing farmers for burning dried-up rice stalks in preparation for new crops could jeopardize a key voting bank, something politicians are not keen to do.

When the government has stepped in, their solutions have sometimes bordered on parody. Last year, officials announced that the capital’s chaotic intersections would get their own air purifiers. Environmentalists said it was impossible to adequately scrub outdoor air in the middle of a congested city where cars are belching out exhaust.

V. Selvarajan, the founder of Green Circle, an environmental organization in New Delhi, said he did not think the green crackers were a publicity stunt. But he emphasized that much more needed to be done to stop year-round polluters like real estate developers, some of whom flout rules on construction in the name of development.

“Our air pollution has gone to critical levels,” he said. “We absolutely must rise to the occasion and do something. Everybody is breaking environmental protection laws.”

In Old Delhi, with its sandstone mosques and streets canopied with jumbled telephone lines, many fireworks sellers said the new eco-friendly designs were gimmicks, and that India was simply trying to show some kind of progress.

Up until this year, more than 100 shops in Old Delhi would apply for temporary licenses to sell fireworks for Diwali, but only several dozen have secured them city-wide this autumn. Employees at nine permanent stores said few people have applied so far this autumn because green crackers were unpopular and only a few designs were available.

“We used to sell nearly 100 items but now we only have two,” said Ramdass Madan, an employee at S.S. Sons Fireworks. “Our sales are 10 to 15 percent of previous years.”

Vendors said the new fireworks were more expensive to make, and that restrictions were ineffective because customers bought banned models from the black market.

In Rohtak, a few dozen miles northwest of New Delhi, there were many signs of a decaying industry.

At Srivijayalaxmi Fireworks, a skeleton crew balanced wooden trays on their heads, each one containing 200 sparklers. The workers dipped them into tubs with a murky, gray liquid, a newly approved mixture that was cleaner for the environment but shortened fireworks’ shelf lives. Finished stocks are transported to a government facility for testing.

Still, business has become so bad that Mr. Kalra, 55, planned to scrap fireworks altogether and begin manufacturing steel pipes. Another family that used to make fireworks in Rohtak recently shut down because they were not interested in the green fireworks, he said.

“I truly hope we can come up with a solution,” he said. “There is no country in the world that does not like fireworks. What is Diwali without them?”



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