Kolkata’s Aim for a Greener Diwali

Air and noise pollution are our daily concern and citizens are severely affected. Government has failed to implement regulations effectively, and the citizens also show no duty to address the issues.

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Air pollution in Kolkata

For the city of Kolkata, the aftermath of Durga Puja means only one thing: preparations for the festivities of Diwali, and Kali Puja, which is observed as Chhoti Diwali in the rest of the country. Along with the sweets, décor, new clothes and lights, fireworks are an essential part of the celebrations, especially looked forward by children and youngsters. While the festival of lights cannot be devoid of pretty flares and bright, colourful crackers, the concern of pollutants, both in terms of air and noise is a growing one among the minds of people. Every year, during this time, the noise demons return in the form of loud crackers, which are more noisy than light, causing severe distress and disturbance, especially among the elderly and patients.

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West Bengal maintains a list of banned firecrackers and strictly prohibits the sale of crackers that make noise beyond the permissible limit. While, in most other parts of the country, the noise limit is 125 decibels, the state’s permissible limit is 90 decibels. Despite the stricter curb on noise pollution levels, there are no significant checks on air pollutants, especially the metallic pollutants that are used in the fireworks. ‘The Supreme Court has directed to use low-emission green crackers formulated by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which cuts pollution by 30per cent, yet only illegal and toxic Chinese fireworks are freely available in the market’, said noted Environmental Activist Somendra Mohan Ghosh.

The police are keeping a close watch on the local fireworks sellers in the city along with a special eye on Nungi and Champahati—the two major wholesale fireworks markets located in the outskirts of Kolkata. While these two bazi bazaars (fireworks markets) have a few hundred traders, only 23 in Nungi, having permanent stores hold valid fireworks trading license, whereas none of the traders at Champahati have a license. ‘There is a great demand for explosive crackers. Hundreds of people from Kolkata come to buy them from our market on a daily basis. We haven’t really faced any police verification as such and neither have we heard of anyone’s stock or store being seized’, said Sukumar Naskar, a trader at Nungi who has been selling fireworks for the last 10 years.

The sale of illegal crackers is more prominent among the small-scale traders who set up shop in small temporary shacks and stalls during this time of the year.

Firecrackers shops

‘We are licensed dealers and have been doing business for 12 years now. Most of our stock comes from Chennai and whatever we sell here is completely legal; therefore, we have no problems with the police. Even the noise from the shells and other air-bound fireworks we sell fall under the permitted limits’, said Debashish Dutta, Manager of Dutta Traders—one of the largest fireworks dealers in Nungi. Incidentally, West Bengal allows crackers producing noise below 90 decibels at 5 meters from the source of the sound, thereby allowing a margin for some air-bound fireworks, whereas strict restrictions have been put on ground level crackers like chain crackers, chocolate bombs, dodomasandkali-patkas, for the noise, along with some others fireworks for being extremely risky or polluting. Along with the noise, fireworks burnt during this two-day-long festival also have severe detrimental effects on the city’s air quality.

Last year, post-Diwali, Kolkata air quality index had briefly sunk below Delhi’s to have become the worst-polluted air among metropolitan cities in India. Environmental activists and some departments of the municipal corporation are working to ensure such an incident is not repeated this year. Online campaigning and promotional videos by environmentalists, corporate CSRs and animal and pet-care organizations have managed to have some influence on the younger generations. Sales have dipped by a certain margin according to some traders at the local bazi markets. ‘Customers buy and burst fireworks all around the year for some reason or the other: Cricket matches, festivals, weddings and other occasions. However, we did use to have more traffic during this time of the year’, said Mridula Nashkar, owner of a fireworks store in Champahati. Temporary small-scale traders were also hit by the drop in sales. ‘While the demand for crackers has dropped, more and more people have been asking for sky lanterns since the past two to three years. We have, therefore, greatly increased our stock of lanterns’, said another local seller at Champahati.

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This year, according to a new Supreme Court directive, state pollution control boards can file FIRs against noise violators during Diwali and Kali Puja, on a large scale.

‘The board will impose provisions of the Environmental Protection Act on violators, keeping a close eye on multi-storeyed building societies. Fines can range between INR 5,000and 2,00,000 lakhs, along with imprisonment for up to five years’, said West Bengal Pollution Control Board Chairman Kalyan Rudra. The PCB also pointed out the role of the police to regulate bursting of fireworks between 8 pm and 10 pm, keeping to the guidelines set by the Supreme Court last year. Police sources said they are looking into the matter seriously as violators of the norm can be prosecuted under Section 18 of the Indian Penal Code attracting a fine of INR 200 and a month’s imprisonment.

The City’s police have also taken the initiative to carry out public campaigns and awareness programmes against the use of firecrackers. In addition to the restriction on fireworks, Commissioner Anuj Sharma also reiterated last year’s ban on disc jockeys and loud music during Kali Puja immersion processions.