What Is “Green Firecrackers”? Is There Such A Thing As An Environmentally Safe Firework?
- Firecrackers are made of highly toxic heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, chromium, aluminium, magnesium, nitrates, carbon, copper, potassium, sodium, zinc and manganese. These metals, released in the air when the firecracker explodes, can trigger an asthma attack, and cause severe headache and respiratory problems. They can also contribute to a chronic cough.
- A project led by the CSIR-NEERI has come up with green firecrackers, which will not contain, or have in reduced amounts, polluting chemicals such as aluminium, potassium nitrate and carbon. By doing so, the government claims, these fireworks will release 30 per cent less particulate matter (PM) 2.5 and PM 10 into the atmosphere. That means, emissions will come down by 15 to 30 per cent. Also, CSIR has developed flower pots/anaars that can reduce particulate matter by 40 per cent.
- The eco-friendly firecrackers are named Safe Water Releaser (SWAS), Safe Thermite Cracker (STAR) and Safe Minimal Aluminium (SAFAL). These will release water vapour into the air as a dust suppressant and dilute gaseous emissions.
- These will not contain the banned substance barium, which is used as an agent to get the colour green. Barium can cause burns, poisoning and deaths.
- The CSIR-CEERI in Pilani is testing e-crackers or electric fireworks, though preliminary response from manufacturers is that it won’t sound like the real thing, but like a recording of firecrackers played on a loudspeaker.
The chest puffs up in excitement as the ‘rocket’ explodes in a ball of iridescent sparkles. Happy Diwali/Deepavali! Greetings are exchanged almost in a daze, gasping for oxygen, eyes smarting, shrouded in a haze of smoke as more missiles fly up into the night sky, and the irreverent ‘atom bomb’ splits the ears—human and animal alike. And the incandescent ‘flower pot’ throws up another round of gaseous illumination. Who named that piece of irrepressible rudeness an ‘anaar’? The sweet pomegranate is known for its anti-oxidant properties, never for causing harm to the lungs—those air pumps working obediently, tirelessly from cradle to crib, unless obstructed by an anaar of 10 seconds of fame and flame.
How about an anaar—QR-coded, government-certified environment-friendly—manufactured with fewer harmful metals/chemicals and with reduced toxic emissions? Joking? Nah. This Diwali, the chest might cough a little easy—thanks to health-friendly ‘green firecrackers’ and a slew of initiatives from the Supreme Court and Indian scientists. These release 30 per cent less particulate matter (PM 2.5 and PM 10) and lethal gasses. Their success on debut can be ascertained only after Diwali, though.
The move follows last year’s Supreme Court intervention, spurring the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to direct its National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) in Nagpur to develop “green crackers”. A team at NEERI—comprising 24 scientists/researchers and helmed by Sadhana Rayulu—took nine months to develop the first prototypes, followed by tests to produce India’s first ‘green fireworks’. This Diwali, these would be tested by people.
The festival is around the corner, but there are not enough ‘green firecrackers’. Raghav Sharma, a seller in Delhi, says: “Sales are sluggish at the moment. Most people aren’t aware of green crackers…they look for cheaper varieties. A box of five environment-friendly anaars sells for around Rs 250.” He admits that prices spiked in recent years, but sales are down. “Items sell when there is demand and products are available. When we get an inventory, we sell. The margins are good.”
A licensed manufacturer, bound by an agreement of secrecy about details of a product’s composition, and trained by NEERI, can make these new firecrackers. Following emission tests, the Petroleum and Safety Organisation (PESO) gives a final manufacturing licence. Thus far, only 160 manufacturers are on board. The number is a whimper considering the size of India’s fireworks industry—worth Rs 20,000 crore (annual sales), but largely non-organised. That amount includes Rs 5,000 crore of Chinese products, market experts say, though possession and sale of imported fireworks are illegal.
Only a handful of companies are manufacturing ‘green firecrackers’. These include Standard Fireworks, Vinayaga Industries, Balaji Fireworks, and Coronation Fireworks. In firecracker-manufacturing hub Sivakasi, just a few got licences. The area has 1,070 factories, employing around 300,000 people, while another 500,000 are involved in ancillary businesses such as boxing of firecrackers. A PESO official feels that more makers will come forward once the top court gives its decision on barium nitrate. “They are waiting for more clarity.”
The ‘green crackers’ will reduce emissions by at least 30 per cent. Scientists say these will hardly help clean up the air.
The court had banned barium, which was common in anaars, chakras, rockets and phooljaris. “Almost all (the eco-friendly) products can be manufactured, but a few categories can come out only when the court gives its directions on barium (the chemical element used to produce the colour green). As we go ahead, we will have many variants and compositions developed by us and other six CSIR institutions,” says NEERI director Rakesh Kumar.
The response has been welcoming. The eco-friendly route, if adopted properly, can make Sivakasi a global producer, feels Ganesan Panjurajan, president of Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers Association. “The industry along with NEERI is doing its best to design improved formulations, even smokeless firecrackers.”
The hunt for fireworks emitting little or no smoke intensified over the past few years when Delhi and its neighbouring states were choked in a haze, primarily because of farmers burning paddy stalks to prepare their fields for the wheat crop around October-November. Plus, gases from Diwali fireworks, construction dust and vehicular exhaust exacerbated the crisis—so much so that the government had to bring punishing measures such as fines for stubble-burning and a traffic formula that allows cars with odd and even licence numbers to be on the roads on alternate days.
It’s that time of the year, again. Memories of that smoke shroud returns to haunt. The System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), which tracks pollution levels, put out the warning already. Delhi’s air quality has plummeted to “poor”. SAFAR director Dr Gufran Beig is hopeful that ‘green crackers’ will help reduce extreme pollution. He admits that the air can’t be cleaned overnight, but steady progress is happening.
His words are reassuring, but another senior scientist says the government is in denial (not acknowledging the problem’s enormity). So, scientists from top research institutions decided to keep their mouth shut. Yes, you read it right. There’s also a media gag for scientists from the India Meteorological Department, allowing only its director to pick a spokesperson.
Scientists warn that “we are heading for a bigger disaster”—and a ban here, or a ‘green cracker’ there will not help. According to one, there is no eco-friendly firecracker as it will produce gases anyway, may be a little less. They allege that the government turns a blind eye to the scientific scenario they present—a cold, data-driven picture—while bureaucrats take decisions without consulting the experts.
And that picture is plain and clear. The topography of landlocked northern India is such that when the smoke from the burning farmlands rise and travel, it hits the Himalayas and ricochets to the plains, thereby circulating in a circular motion. There were instances of the smoke travelling up to the Brahmaputra basin and the Bay of Bengal, floating with the season’s easterly. Had there been a sea nearby, it would have worked as a huge natural sink. But alas, our environment strategies are all at sea!