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Think of Diwali and firecrackers start exploding in the mind – that is how strong the association of crackers is with the festival of lights.

Legend has it that on Diwali, the sound of firecrackers resounds through the universe, announcing the homecoming of Lord Rama after a long period of exile. Another legend says that people began exploding crackers to convey to the gods, their joy at being alive and well on earth.

Rediscovering a Smoke-less Diwali
Rediscovering a Smoke-less Diwali [Illustration by Sudheer Nath]
Now come back to the present when the uncontrolled celebration of the victory of good over evil itself seems to have become a source of pollution. For on the day after Diwali, the entire country looks like a planet devastated by a meteor.

The smoke from crackers is one, if one doesn’t take into account the deafening sounds of the victory of good over evil. The smoke hangs, suspended in the morning air, accompanied by an acrid, pungent smell that makes it impossible to breathe.

Millions of shreds of coloured paper that make up the body of the crackers, litter every nook and cranny. A reminder of the previous night’s revelries, they aren’t a pretty sight.

But I’m not the only one turning up my nose at the noise and smoke. The number of people who are keen to fashion newer, friendlier ways of celebration and enjoyment, is on the rise.

Children show the way

Last week, schoolchildren in Delhi took part in an environmental run organised by an NGO, Panchavati, and hosted by the Bluebells School, Delhi. Their aim was to tell shopkeepers: “We are no longer the buyers, you should no longer be the sellers.” They were referring to the buying and selling of firecrackers. And wonder of wonders, Delhi’s shopkeepers have reported a 25 per cent drop in cracker sales this year.

Normally, it is the children who start “reminding” their parents (as if they are allowed to forget) long before Diwali, about the pressing need to stock up on crackers. But since last year, many parents in Delhi and other cities have been surprised out of their skins to hear their children say that they would not spend on crackers.

For one, say the children, the crackers that they love are made by children their age or younger, in the factories of Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu, in conditions that pose a grave danger to their health. Secondly, crackers have a polluting effect.

The parents’ jaws have fallen collectively. For years they have been trying to talk about the hundreds or thousands of rupees that are blown up in seconds or about the injuries caused by firecracker accidents, but the children would not listen. This time, it is the children who are saying no to crackers, without being forced to do

This change of heart and mind has been brought about in discussions and debates in schools, where teachers and children together have discovered some dark facts about the Festival of Lights.

The government steps in

The government of Delhi, for instance, has carried on an effective campaign, ‘Say no to Crackers’. People have also been asked not to burst high-intensity crackers in the capital.

High-intensity crackers increase noise-levels six to ten times more than the acceptable limits, often causing irreparable harm to the ear-drum.

Group fun, great fun!

More than 400 years ago, Mughal emperor Akbar started organising mammoth firework displays during Diwali. They called it aatishbazi or a grand show of fireworks. It is said that the fireworks display at Akbar’s capital Agra, could be seen from the Qutab Minar in Delhi as well.

Maybe it is time for us to think of better ways to celebrate the victory of good over evil, by thinking of good ways to enjoy. For that governments need to think of stopping the exploitation of child workers by employers in fireworks factories instead of just banning high-intensity crackers. This is where the schoolchildren’s campaign last year proved to be so heartening.

How about fewer and collective displays where people can pool resources for a grand show? Just think of it, even if ten families pool in just ten crackers each, they can have a glorious Diwali with a hundred crackers to light up the sky.

Many residential areas do have community fireworks displays. They’re great fun to watch in an open park, very economical because each family only pays a very small amount as its share, and the pollution is less.

And for the individual bit of celebration, let’s light up those lamps, hang the lovely kandeels or paper lanterns and pull out the rangoli colours. And, as the saying goes, ‘Enjoy’!