India’s firecracker industry may have seen a glimmer of hope in the Supreme Court judges’ observation that the least the courts could do was not extinguish jobs. The extremely restrictive October 2018 order, based on the need to control air pollution, had threatened to choke the cottage industry and also stirred sentimental reactions as it seemed to restrict the joy of festivals in India, particularly Diwali. Celebrating weddings and festivals, including in temples, revolve around the bursting of firecrackers. An industry with thousands of poor rural workers, mainly in southern Tamil Nadu around Sivakasi town, is in the doldrums not only due to the order but also from cheaper Chinese imports. The restricted hours imposed had hardly worked and the order came too close to Diwali last year to make any great difference to pollution and noise levels.
The idea behind the court’s ruling was laudable. Green crackers based on release of water molecules, which wouldn’t add to the massive pollution of Indian cities, might be tried at the expense of toxic and loud firecrackers. But the industry needs a far longer lead time to effectively switch to less harmful chemicals in fireworks. There is also a pressing need to use safer chemicals as those like sulphur and potassium tend to take the lives of workers in accidents at firecracker factories, sheds or drying barns. No standards were set for firecrackers selling in a `20,000-crore market, and only now, after airing of environmental concerns, some research has been done. The court could show the way forward in using green and safe firecrackers rather than enforce restrictions and bans which hardly work in a country notorious for disobeying rules and regulations.