With a few days to go for Diwali, markets across India have started selling an oxymoron: green crackers, most of which are said to cause around 30% less pollution than an average cracker.
When they were introduced last year, Harsh Vardhan, Union minister of health, described them as “eco-friendly" crackers. It’s clear, though, that they aren’t. “All crackers that produce smoke are harmful," Randeep Guleria, chief of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (Aiims) in Delhi, told NDTV in an interview on 8 November. “Even green crackers at times produce noxious gases that can also cause acute effect as far as lungs are concerned."
Yet, even in the midst of a pandemic, as air pollution levels rise dangerously, particularly in the north, only some states have banned all crackers. Others are trying to find some acceptable middle ground, though experts say air pollution and covid-19 are proving to be a lethal mix.
Leading fireworks manufacturers and associations Lounge spoke to accept they are using barium nitrate, a chemical banned by the Supreme Court (SC) in 2018 after a public interest litigation (PIL) argued that it emits “poisonous" fumes that could “irritate the respiratory tract" and have “possible radioactive fallout". In March this year, the SC even ordered an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation into six companies for allegedly using banned chemicals and mislabelling crackers. There has been no hearing on the matter so far.
“Only about 20% of the products manufactured this year don’t have barium," says P. Ganesan, president of the Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers Association (Tanfama). “To maintain quality, we use barium nitrate. If we use alternative chemicals like potassium nitrate, it goes bust after one-two months." A.R. Bhaskar Raj, owner of Ramsons Fireworks, one of the major manufacturers in Tamil Nadu’s firecrackers hub Sivakasi, says nearly everyone in the industry uses barium. The green crackers don’t work without barium; attempts to do so, he says, were “a failure". “It works in the lab but isn’t commercially viable. If anyone is saying otherwise, that’s not true."
The process that marks the manufacture of what are known as green crackers seems to be riddled with half-truths, U-turns, lack of quality control and poor enforcement of SC orders. The cultural significance of Diwali, and the clout of the ₹6,000 crore firecracker industry, which employs hundreds of thousands, may have played a role.
But first, what is a “green cracker"? And how is it that nowhere in the world is a product like this available?
It all started in 2015, when three lawyers filed a petition in the SC on behalf of their children, aged 8-14 months, seeking a ban on firecrackers in Delhi. Since 2013, the petition said, Delhi had been the most polluted city in the world. Firecrackers used during Dussehra and Diwali dirtied the air further. Everyone suffered, but children had it worst.
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In 2017, the SC banned the use of antimony, lithium, mercury, arsenic and lead in firecrackers. The next year, it banned barium too. From 2019, the SC added, only “green" firecrackers, or those with lower rates of emission of particulate matter (PM 2.5 and PM 10), sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide, could be sold.
Barium is used widely in firecrackers as an oxidiser, and to emit a green light. According to manufacturers, nearly 75% of the traditional firecrackers use it. A ban on barium effectively made these illegal. Not surprisingly, Sivakasi saw months-long protests.
Eventually, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (Neeri) was tasked with facilitating the development of green crackers. The Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organization (PESO), under the Union commerce ministry, was to be in charge of inspecting and approving them. In March 2019, the legal counsel for PESO told the SC that Neeri and some fireworks manufacturers had developed two samples of “green crackers". The first: a “conventional" formula that used less barium nitrate. The second: a “new" formula that didn’t use any barium nitrate at all. After testing and observation, PESO said, the formulae were found to help reduce particulate matter by 25-30% compared to the traditional varieties. Memorandums of understanding (MoUs) had been signed with 200 manufacturers.
In an order on 5 March 2019, the Supreme Court gave the go-ahead for the manufacture of green crackers, with a caveat. As pointed out by “the learned counsel", the SC order said, “it should be with the condition that no Barium Nitrate or Potassium Nitrate as oxidisers is used". This should have effectively restricted the green cracker manufacture to the “new" formula.
But on 26 November 2019, the Union ministry of environment, forests and climate change told the SC it approved of the “improved" (or "conventional") barium formulation. “CSIR-NEERI has provided justification for inclusion of Barium," an SC order from the day quotes the ministry as saying—CSIR is the government’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. “The presence of [Barium] and its possible prevalence after use has been examined and NEERI’s submission is that a very substantial part of Barium is getting reduced and its presence in atmosphere will be much lesser..." NEERI’s formulations, it added, were “of immense value" and “can be adopted quickly".
The SC was unconvinced. Even if the crackers were mandated to meet the new standards, it wasn’t clear how quality control would be enforced, it said in its order that day. And its fears turned out to be true. In an order dated 3 March, the SC, acknowledging a complaint by Gopal Sankaranarayanan, one of the petitioners, ordered a CBI investigation against five manufacturers for continuing to sell crackers with banned chemicals and not labelling them correctly.
“We had gone to the markets and placed online orders to show the court that in spite of the cracker ban, everything was available," says Pooja Dhar, advocate-on-record for the petitioners. When it ordered the CBI investigation in March this year, the SC had scheduled the next hearing eight weeks later. “But with the covid-19 situation and courts operating virtually, nothing much is being done on our matter," says Dhar. According to the SC website, the tentative date for the next hearing is 2 December–three weeks after Diwali.
In the meantime, the fireworks industry has been adopting the reduced-barium variants for mass production. P. Ganesan, president of Tanfama and owner of Sony Fireworks in Sivakasi, says, “Around 600 out of 1,075 factories in Virudhunagar district (where Sivakasi is based) manufactured green firecrackers. By next year, we aim to train others to do the same."
Nearly 80% of the total products they manufacture today use the “improved" formula with barium, he says, adding that doing so isn’t violating any court orders. “We are only following Neeri’s formula."
For Ganesan, the bigger concern is the growing calls for a ban on sale of firecrackers across India. The traders, he said, had kept the cost of green crackers the same as the traditional ones. But many states, like Rajasthan, Odisha, Sikkim and Delhi, have banned firecrackers this Diwali owing to concerns about pollution and crowding during a pandemic. “We have lost 45% market share," he told The Deccan Herald on 6 November. “With a week to go for Deepavali, we do not know how many more states will come out with a ban on the sale."
Prakash Javadekar, Union minister of environment, forests and climate change, did not respond to Lounge’s emails. Neeri director Rakesh Kumar maintains their role was limited to the development of green crackers “as part of research for the ministry of environment, forests and climate change". “The approval of production is always given by PESO. NEERI is not authorised to approve or not approve any formulations for commercial production," he says on email. M.K. Jhala, joint chief controller of explosives at PESO, didn’t respond to calls and emails. It is unclear if PESO approved the manufacture of barium formulations of green crackers.
But a recent survey by Mumbai-based NGO Awaaz Foundation found barium in 12 out of 28 crackers sourced from shops in Mumbai. “We didn’t find any ‘green crackers’ in the market," Sumaira Abdulali told The Times Of India. “When requested, firecrackers that burst with the colour green were offered."
Doctors are worried. “I do understand that there’s an economic concern...but the health cost is far more. It’s important to have a policy and we should start moving towards a cracker-free Diwali as a long-term solution," Dr Guleria said in the interview to NDTV.
Perhaps the most telling response comes from Sankaranarayanan. Asked for a comment on his long battle against firecrackers, he texted, “No thanks. (I am) Quite exhausted with this annual farce."