Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, is marked by dazzling displays of fireworks — which are expected to bring “severe” air pollution to India’s capital this week.
Gufran Beig, project director of India’s System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), noted a gradual decline in firecracker use in recent years as “awareness of [the] ill effect of any kind of toxic firework” increases. But pollutant emissions from agricultural burning and fireworks may degrade the city’s air quality to “severe” this week, according to predictions from SAFAR, which is affiliated with India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences. The main day of Diwali celebrations falls on Thursday.
Calls for a green Diwali, both in India and in diaspora communities, have resulted in changes such as gifting plants to loved ones, avoiding plastic products and reusing old holiday decorations.
Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, from the ruling Aam Aadmi Party, announced in September that a complete ban on “the storage, sale and use of all types of firecrackers” will last until January. This measure, Kejriwal wrote in a tweet, could be lifesaving.
City authorities rolled out a similar moratorium on fireworks last year, amid concerns that unsafe levels of pollution might further the spread of the coronavirus. Other states adopted similar policies, encouraging the Indian public to cut back on fireworks. At the time, the South Asian country was reporting about 40,000 new cases a day.
Residents, however, flouted the firecracker ban. Sparklers lit up the Delhi night sky and crackles from explosive fireworks could be heard in many neighborhoods, according to local media. Noxious fumes and debris from the fireworks, coupled with existing poor air conditions, shrouded the city in haze during the following days, with the air quality index soaring to hazardous levels.
So far this year, police in Delhi have arrested 26 people and seized over 8,800 pounds of fireworks in a crackdown on rule-breakers, according to local media.
Even if Delhi residents abide by the no-firecracker mandate this Diwali, forecaster SAFAR still predicts “very poor” air quality due to heavy pollution carried by wind from the rural farming regions northwest of the capital.
For years, some 29 million inhabitants in the greater capital area have suffered extreme air conditions in the fall as villages set fire to straw in their freshly harvested rice fields to make room for wheat production, an outlawed practice that still persists.
Punjab and Haryana, agriculture-heavy states where billows of smoke rise from rice fields in the fall, containing high levels of fine and coarse particles, lie near Delhi’s borders. Agricultural fires contribute as much as half of all pollution in the capital on certain autumn days, studies have shown.
The Indian government has tried both carrot and stick policies to move farmers away from stubble burning: Some received about $32 for every acre of farmland left untorched, while others were thrown in jail for failing to pay burning-related fines.
Reports from a government commission on air management say that rice field burnings have fallen compared with last year. But Beig, with the pollution-tracking agency, pointed to this year’s prolonged monsoon season, which brought rain and favorable winds, as partially responsible for the rare breath of fresh air Delhi residents enjoyed in October.
One of the most polluted countries in the world, India is also a top carbon gas emitter. During a speech Tuesday at the COP26 climate summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2070, putting India behind countries such as China by a decade.