Between gasps and bursts

That night, the levels of fine particulate matter in Delhi's air surpassed even Beijing's.

It was well past midnight. A loud explosion right under my bedroom balcony jolted me out of my sleep. The deafening noise along with toxic fumes billowing from the smoke triggered my dormant cough.

Another series of blasts that lasted for about 15 minutes followed. By now, I was wide awake seized by a violent bout of coughing. No, it was not a terrorist attack. It was Diwali. Intermittent cough and alternating bursting of firecrackers in the neighbourhood till about two the next morning kept me awake for a good part of the night. 

“Nation gasps for breath on Diwali night,” screamed a newspaper headline the next day. That night, the air in Delhi had levels of fine particulate matter surpassing even Beijing’s which is notorious for its smog filled skies the year around. The Central Pollution Control Board’s National Air Quality Index monitoring portal showed severe deterioration in air quality across eight states in the country. That night, the nation choked. Such high exposure to metal particles are associated with prevalence of lung cancer, pneumoconiosis and emphysema, warn doctors.

Months before the D- day, even as the clamour for a cracker-free Diwali grew, three infants petitioned the Supreme Court for a blanket ban on crackers. “Our lungs have not yet fully developed and we cannot take further pollution through bursting of crackers,” two six-month-olds, Arjun Gopal and Aarav Bhandari and 14-month-old Zoya Rao Bhasin pleaded before the court through their advocate fathers to seek several measures, that included among others, a total ban on the use of firecrackers during festivals, to mitigate pollution and exercise their right to clean air guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution.

The court turned down their appeal, however, reiterating their earlier ruling that banned bursting of crackers between 10 pm and 6 am. I repeat, no crackers between 10 pm and 6 am, but who listened or cared as much? This requires strong community sensitisation as well as a judicious mix of regulatory controls to protect public health, remarked an executive director with the Centre for Science and Environment.

Meanwhile, a friend offered a huge carton of firecrackers as Diwali gift. My husband politely turned down the offer with folded hands. My teenage son didn’t grudge it. And with good reason. He had had to endure bronchitis as a child and still remains cautious. He has learnt it the hard way that bad air quality hurts.

“This is an unreasonable request. If a citizen wants to burst crackers at his home, he can also come up and say I have the right to do so,” the Supreme Court bench noted on the issue of earmarking spaces to burst crackers. But when will we, as a society, learn that somebody else’s rights begin only from where ours end, I wonder.

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