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15 October, 2017 00:00 00 AM

The big bang story

The country’s apex court decided to impose a ban on crackers and in the process usher in a muted festival to the big bang Diwali story
Kumkum Chadha

Deepawali, the Indian festival of lights, has several components: there is a religious aspect focusing on lakshmi puja, where prayers are offered to the goddess of wealth; illuminations by way of lighting earthen oil lamps though now those are replaced by lights, LEDs and others; and of course exchanging gifts and sending sweets to friends, relatives and neighbours.
 But then there is another aspect considered integral to the festival and that is where the fun element comes in: it is gambling and bursting crackers. Gambling, the compulsives say, is a must and is done to please the Gods.
 The tradition is drawn from the divine: a story about the Gods that has passed down from generations. It is believed that Goddess Parvati played Dice with her husband Lord Shiva on Diwali and declared that gambling on Diwali would bring prosperity the year through irrespective of the wins or losses. There is also a belief that the more you lose in cards during Diwali, the more your earnings will multiply through the year: maybe a consolation but remains a compelling factor  for non gamblers to indulge in the vice: of course gamblers neither need any reason nor excuse because they will play anyway.  
 On Diwali gambling is a big thing. There are high stakes and often homes are converted into gambling dens. Therefore what is meant to be fun and games has turned into serious business in some quarters. There is also an absurd belief that if you don’t gamble on Diwali you would be born a donkey in your next birth, Hinduism being associated with the theory of rebirth.

The philosophic angle that is tagged to gambling is that it demonstrates how fickle material wealth is and how futile it is to chase it.
Gambling is one part of the Diwali story. The other equally crucial are crackers and celebrating the festival by bursting them in hundreds: literally. These are part and parcel of the festivals: loud and big bangs. In fact, for the entire week before the actual festival, loud sounds tear into silence of the night and continue even after the happy conclusion. So it would have been this year too had the Supreme Court not stepped in and for many acted a “spoiler”.   

The festival of lights is on October 19.
The country’s apex court decided to impose a ban on crackers and in the process usher in a muted festival to the big bang Diwali story.  The Supreme Court has imposed a temporary ban imposed on the sale of firecrackers. “Let’s try at least one Diwali without firecrackers,” said one judge as the court pronounced the order.

 The Supreme Court was only going by precedent given that the ban was also imposed last year, but only after the festival, when New Delhi was already enveloped in a haze of smog. The authorities were then forced to close schools and ban construction activities last year when the city was struggling with its worst ever air pollution. Recalling last year’s forced closure of schools, the Court said that then a “health emergency” situation had arisen.   
 The Court had then imposed a ban on sale of fire crackers but had relaxed it after a plea from firework manufacturers.

 The ban was partially lifted last month as Diwali approached, but it has been reimposed in connection with a public interest lawsuit on behalf of three children who are seeking the court’s intervention to clean up Delhi’s toxic air. The ban runs till November 1.

Supporters of the ban hope the preemptive measure will prevent pollution from reaching levels of last year, when air quality was nearly 20 times the safe limit set by the World Health Organization in the days following the festival. Many people became sick and the city chokes. It is against this backdrop that the apex Court decision has many takers who see this as a first step to usher in a “green and environment friendly Diwali”.

Year after year, city hospitals report an alarming increase in respiratory and asthma cases with hundreds of people finding it difficult to breathe. The onset of winter also becomes a contributory factor.

At one level the order is a welcome but at another, it has kicked up a storm.  The pro-cracker lobby is crying foul even though there is no prohibition on lighting celebratory firecrackers or their sale outside the National Capital Region in satellite cities including Gurgaon, Faridabad, Noida and Ghaziabad. Also people who have already bought firecrackers can use them but new ones cannot be sold. This remains a grey area because it will be difficult to assess the when of the buying: the sum total being that underhand dealings will be encouraged and the law implementing agencies including the cops could be in cahoots with shopkeepers and turn a blind eye to illegal sale.

The cracker battle has pitched the issue of pollution versus the livelihood of hundreds and thousands of workers. In India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu which is the fireworks manufacturing hub an estimated loss from this ban is expected to be over a 1,000 crore of rupees. Diwali, manufacturers rightfully say, is the time for profits and the court order is a death-knell for them. There are many who have grown up earning their livelihood on the cracker business and know no other means to survive.

With less than ten days to go, even a review of the order, if at all, will serve a limited purpose and do little to undo the damage of the ban order.
 The new dimension to this controversy is the communal angle that has come into focus of what till now was either a purely environmental issue or at best a question of livelihoods.

Two players in this were eminent people like a Governor and a writer who seemingly stoked the communal fire. The Governor felt that the Supreme Court order was “anti Hindu” given that it was ahead of Diwali. He took to twitter to express his outrage: "First, they targeted the 'Dahi handi' custom, now its fireworks, perhaps tomorrow… they will call for an end to Hindus cremating their dead," he tweeted.

 Writer Chetan Bhagat said that “banning crackers on Diwali is like banning Christmas trees on Christmas and goats on Bakr-Eid. Regulate. Don’t ban. Respect traditions”. Bhagat suggested that innovative solutions like improved public transport options are better ideas when it comes to controlling and combating air pollution. "Come up with innovations. Not bans," he tweeted. "turn (ing) off electricity in your house for a week and (not) use(ing) cars."
 Bhagat also said those wanting to reform festivals like Diwali, should "show the same passion in reforming other festivals full of blood and gore."
There were others  who said that the SC order was an insult to Hindu festivals. They also argued that fireworks on one day wouldn't do much harm to the environment. Long term solutions like tackling the city's massive vehicle fleet were the answer rather than knee jerk reactions like a ban because setting off firecrackers for a few hours will not diminish the city's air pollution problem. There were others who went as far as saying that every Hindu household in Delhi should make it a point to get firecrackers from outside NCR and light them outside the Supreme Court.

These are the times India lives in where passions run high and everything be it health, environment and even education is given a communal hue. Of course this has a lot to do with the fact that a party like the BJP is in power and makes no bones about its Hindu leanings. This has given a fillip to fringe elements to browbeat others and disrupt peace under the garb of religious sentiment. The fact that a simple court order can be misconstrued and divided on the basis of religion pitching one against the other portends that there are tough times ahead.  

The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent. She can be reached at: ([email protected])


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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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