Banners declaring no “Chinese firecrackers” are a common sight in many temporary kiosks, which have mushroomed in the Diwali season. The Delhi government has also sprung up to action in cracking down on crackers of Chinese origin.
As the debate on firecrackers takes a nationalist turn to become Chinese vs. Indian, understanding the reason for the ban on so called Chinese firecrackers is essential. Are they more polluting than the Indian counterparts?
Ban on harmful substances
In 1992, the central government issued a notification to ban explosives containing a series of dangerous substances—sulphur or sulphurate mixed with potassium chlorate or chlorate of other elements. Storage and handling of these compounds is hazardous in the manufacturing process. They are sensitive to the slightest amount of friction and toxic to the skin. When coupled with potassium, they form explosives that have led to fires and deaths. The temple fire accident in Kollam, Kerala that killed over 100 people in April 2016 was caused due to fireworks made from these banned substances.
The unstable, explosive nature of chlorates and perchlorates makes crackers noisier and gives a “bigger bang for your buck”. Before the 1992 notification, firecracker manufacturers preferred potassium chlorates and perchlorates because they were cheaper. They cost one-third as compared to their substitutes, potassium nitrate or sodium nitrate mixtures.
In the early 90s, the ban on harmful substances was interpreted as a ban on “Chinese” crackers, which largely used chlorates and perchlorates. Subsequently, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry also prohibited the sale and possession of fireworks of foreign origin in September 2014. This was inherently a result of pressure from the lobby of Indian firework manufacturers, who were losing their margins due to increased imports and smuggling of fireworks, mainly but not exclusively from China.
This means that “Chinese” fireworks were not what were banned per se, making the current drive to keep out Chinese fireworks from markets misguided. Although smuggled and illegal Chinese fireworks may contain higher levels of banned substances and have a higher potential for air pollution, releasing higher quantities of oxides of sulphur and nitrogen, the same holds true for illegal Indian firecrackers as well.
China and its firecracker policy
China’s firecracker policy has come a long way. Its firework composition guidelines are as stringent as ours and even more severe in many cities. As per China’s Ministry of Public Security, more than 138 cities in China have banned fireworks while another 536 cities have imposed restrictions on their sale and usage. Stringent restrictions have been imposed on personal usage of fireworks in Shanghai and Beijing due to severe air pollution.
Community-driven fireworks display for visual and aesthetic appeal is the direction towards which most civic authorities are driving policy. This would mean that rather than each citizen/household personally purchasing and displaying firecrackers, the purchase, display and use of fireworks would be common across a community unit.
The current hullaballoo around Chinese crackers, therefore, serves as a diversion from the real issue at hand—the extensive use of firecrackers in Indian cities. All firecrackers, by their nature of being explosives, are polluting in nature. There are no two opinions on this. By hiding behind the ban on Chinese fireworks, we are moving further away from the real issue, which is restricting and restraining from the use of firecrackers.
Under the Explosives Rules 2008 notified by the Indian government, the sale of fireworks to the public requires a license to sell from the enforcement authority, which is the police department in any state. There are two kinds of licenses that are given for the retail sale of fireworks: a permanent one, for round-the-year sale of fireworks, issued for a period of five years and a temporary license not exceeding a period of one month.
There are very few retail units where fireworks are commercially available around the year. However, there are few conditions which need to be fulfilled by the applicant, before a permanent license for sale can be issued. These conditions include:
1. The shop must be located on a commercial street or in a commercial shopping centre, as notified by the city Master Plan.
2. Minimum floor area of the retail outlet required is 9 sq m and maximum floor area is 25 sq m.
3. No person below the age of 18 years and no person who is addicted to intoxication or of unsound mind shall be granted a license.
4. The shops shall only be located on the ground floor of a building completely separated from other parts of the building by substantial walls.
5. The shop shall not be situated: 1) in the sub-level or basement or mezzanine floor; 2) under the upper floor used for the purpose of dwelling and 3) under or nearby any staircase or lift.
6. The licensed premises must have an obstacle free point of entry and exit.
7. The shops should have doors opening outwards. Alternatively, the doors may be provided with rolling shutters, but the same must be provided with stoppers, which must be functional.
8. The road width in front of the shop must be a minimum of 12 metres, thus making it accessible for firefighting.
9. The shop shall be at a distance of minimum 15 metres from any shop or premises used for storage of similar explosive, flammable or hazardous materials.
10. The shops should have no electrical apparatus or battery or oil lamp or similar equipment capable of producing spark or ignition and all electrical wiring in the shop should be fixed and effectively sealed or conduit-ed or mechanically protected. The main switch or circuit breaker should be provided at the immediate accessible position outside the premises.
The bulk sale of fireworks comes from temporary stalls set up in marketplaces, neighbourhood shops and specific markets 10-15 days ahead of Diwali. These are issued temporary sale licenses, which are valid for one month. Extra conditions/alterations for temporary licenses include:
1. The shop must be located on a minimum of six metres wide clear motorable road (excluding obstructions like electric poles, kerbs, covered drains, pillars and raised pavements) with entry and exit facing the road, thus making it accessible for firefighting.
2. In case of a temporary shed, it should be of non-flammable material. It should be closed and secured so as to prevent unauthorised persons from having access thereto.
3. The sheds should be at a distance of at least three metres from each other and 50 metres from any protected works.
4. The sheds should not be facing each other.
5. No oil burning lamps, gas lamps or naked lights shall be used in the shed or within the safety distance of the sheds for the purpose of lighting. Any electrical light if used shall be fixed to the wall or ceiling and should not be suspended by flexible wire. Switches should be fixed rigidly near the ceiling and a master switch should be provided for each row of sheds.
6. Display of fireworks shall not be allowed within 50 metres of any sheds.
7. In one cluster not more than 50 shops shall be permitted.
a) shall not be permitted in such open space which serves as the only fall back area for nearby residential or commercial areas
b) shall not be close to any busy market.
c) shall be so located that these do not affect circulation of traffic, contingency evacuation, including movement of emergency vehicles and smooth movement of pedestrians
Decision on the above shall be on case-to-case basis, depending upon suitability of place from public security and safety point of view.
How many of these conditions are in practice and fulfilled by the retailers that we see on our streets? These rules, more often than not, remain restricted to the rulebook and licenses are issued with minimum verification.
|Most commonly encountered contraventions|
A temporary shed should be situated on a road at least six metres wide
Sheds often take up a large portion of the road surface at times, leaving very little of the carriageway open for free flowing traffic
A permanent licensed retailer should be on a road at least 12 metres wide, ensuring easy access to fire-fighting services
Violation of this rule is also rampant
Provision in the licensing rules allows small-scale sales of fireworks “for individuals selling only ‘amorces’ (flash bang caps for toy pistols) and sparklers up to 100 kilogram”. However, the 100 kg cap has no time period associated with it.
In addition to sparklers, many retailers also sell other categories of fireworks which they are not licensed to sell. The loophole results in hundreds of small retailers, including some local general stores, selling large amounts of fireworks without needing any license for it.
While it is true that the enforcing authorities, primarily police, may not have the necessary manpower to deal with the scale of firecracker sale in Indian cities, this only brings light to further complications in managing the scale of firecracker use in India.
The government has no idea about the quantum of firecracker sales, let alone statistics about the sales in kilograms and tonnes. The Delhi Police is unable to present data on total number of licenses (permanent and temporary) for firecracker sales issued in 2014 and 2015.
Judicial intervention in the past
In 2005, a bench of the Supreme Court (SC) consisting of CJI RC Lahoti and Justice Ashok Bhan heard one of the first cases regarding regulations of fireworks in India. While The Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules 2000 were already in place five years earlier, there was no mechanism in place for its implementation.
The issue, back then as now, was whether the existing norms were sufficient to regulate the environmental impact of fireworks. The petition called upon the SC to urge the government to move to chemical composition-based guidelines from the then prevalent noise-only guidelines.
In an affidavit filed on February 16, 2004, the Chief Controller of Explosives stated: “...it is impractical for the Government of India to fix norms regarding chemical composition and the size of the firecrackers ... owing to the shortage of infrastructure available with the Department of Explosives.” Shortage of infrastructure and manpower has been cited by the government regulatory body as the reason for not formulating chemical composition-based guidelines for fireworks manufacturing.
On July 18, 2004, the Supreme Court gave its verdict, overruling the state’s position on the issue and giving certain strong directives to the central and all state governments. Under Articles 142 and 143 of the Indian constitution, these directives are binding on the government of the day, and have to be complied with. The main directives are summarised as follows:
The SC feels that the method of evaluating fireworks on the basis of chemical composition is superior to their evaluation on the basis of noise levels, which is the status quo.
1. There should be two broad categories: sound and light-emitting crackers.
2. Sound-emitting crackers to be completely banned between 10 PM and 6 AM.
3. The competent authority under the Department of Explosives (which is PESO) should notify regulations regarding the recommended and permitted composition of each type of firecrackers.
4. Labelling and packaging of all fireworks in India has to include the chemical composition, categorisation and the expected effects on environment.
5. In case of manufacturing fireworks for export, the authority should only do so after obtaining an export order and the fireworks should conform to the noise standards of the recipient country. In addition, these should be packaged in a separate colour and must carry a declaration saying ‘Not for Sale in India’ or ‘For Export to only’.
6. The liability for improper packaging and labelling lies with the manufacturer, whose license may be cancelled for failure to comply with the regulations.
7. It is the state’s responsibility to ensure that the enforcing authorities are well trained and equipped for detecting violations and deterring noise pollution.
8. Additionally, the state, in association with Resident’s Welfare Associations, Service Clubs and Societies must create general awareness towards the hazardous effects of noise pollution.
In order to test noise levels, expensive technical equipment and skilled persons are required, which are currently not available with the Police force (Implementing Agency). Even when implemented, they are only targeting the end-users and the retailers. In comparison, composition-based guidelines fix the responsibility on manufacturers and are easier to implement.
The SC’s directives are more than 11 years old today, but they remain to be complied with. In 2008, more than eight years ago, the PESO released composition-based guidelines for four out of 40 categories of fireworks—atom bombs, Chinese crackers, garland crackers and maroons. There has been no other move since then.
The festival of Diwali can be observed without further worsening the air quality only when police, firecracker manufacturers and common people do their bit.
1. Step away from campaign against Chinese firecrackers and instead focus on illegal firecrackers containing banned chlorates and perchlorates, irrespective of make.
2. Strictly enforce licensing rules (listed above), reduce the number of temporary retail licenses and regulate the total city-level sales of fireworks.
3. Enforce labeling and packaging rules stringently, so that awareness about chemical composition, categorisation and the expected effects on environment can be spread.
4. Make changes in nature of manufacturing guidelines, orienting them towards controlling air pollution in addition to focus on noise (decibel limits). Make composition-based guidelines for all categories of fireworks, making them more stringent to regulate use of toxic chemical and heavy metals.
5. Reduce overall personal fireworks usage and promote community-based display of fireworks.
"It is not enough to quibble over marginal changes in Diwali peak pollution from year to year. This requires strong community sensitisation as well as judicious mix of regulatory controls to protect public health," says Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director at the Centre for Science and Environment.
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