For many years in the late Eighties and early Nineties, I used to work at our family textile business. The factory was in Ankleshwar, an industrial estate about an hour's train-ride from my home in Surat. I would usually go to the factory in the afternoon, and return in the late evening. The business did not do that well and after Manmohan Singh liberalised India's economy starting in 1991 we could not compete, and shut it down a few years later.
The factory put polyester yarn through a process called ‘texturising’ which made the plasticky yarn more wearable. This was done at high speeds and required a large air conditioning plant with a cooling tower. One day, the giant pipe which was sending water up to the tower fell apart. Its layers of metal flaked away like papad and I couldn't understand why. That evening I stayed back in the factory until a little later. As I was going to the station around 6:30 p.m., my throat choked on a fume of something that was pure acid.
Another factory near ours was releasing something regularly at that time (possibly to avoid pollution inspectors) that was clearly dangerous enough to destroy metal, let alone the human lung. This is by no means a rare occurrence in industrial parts of India. In Udhna and Pandesara, a suburb of Surat where we ran some looms, I regularly saw dyeing and printing units discharge their brilliant colours directly outside, poisoning the ground water.
I am writing this after reading news of the Supreme Court banning the sale of firecrackers in Delhi during Diwali. As a regular visitor to Delhi I notice nothing different about its air quality, and if it is polluted it is as much or as little as other Indian cities. Certainly it is less so than in places like Ankleshwar, which is where the real problem lies.
And so I find the constant tinkering in Delhi, one day with traffic laws and now firecrackers, to be bewildering. How will one day's crackers change pollution levels? And why limit such genius solutions to just the capital when it is demonstrably true that the issue of air pollution and pollution in general is one that affects all of India?
Of course the other problem is that in the current atmosphere (also poisonous) of Hindu nationalism, this has been turned into another stick to beat Muslims with. A BJP governor has asked if HIndus will be refused cremation next. Would an Indian court dare ban the slaughter of goats, Chetan Bhagat has asked. Have the Muslims asked for a ban on crackers? Why drag them into it? The court itself has said that it was unfortunate that its order was given a communal twist but it should understand the environment it operates in.
It was reported that some 50 lakh kilos of crackers are in Delhi waiting to be sold and the ban will affect the livelihood of thousands of people who boost their modest incomes in the festive season. Also affected will be lakhs of children and adults who enjoy Diwali, as I do.
In a part of the world which is among the poorest in the world, we must ask ourselves whether curbing cultural activity is productive. Pakistan makes the same mistake through the ban of kite flying in Lahore for the spring festival of Basant. Judges often believe that the practice is 'un-Islamic' and therefore to be denied to the masses. The reason used for the ban is safety of birds and humans but the real intention is religious fervour.
Of course kite flying leads to injuries and sometimes, death, but so do many other things. We do not and we should not be thinking of banning something merely because it does not keep us safe. The ban on crackers probably does not come from such piety but some sort of desire to bring change through a single stroke. This is usually a misplaced sentiment and usually it does not result in success. Given the Indian Supreme Court's interest in things like love jihad and the national anthem (it would be instructive to see what matters the Supreme Courts of other large democracies like the United States take up and what they reject) we should not be surprised that it is trying its hand at improving the quality of air in the capital.
The problem of pollution and the larger problem of climate change are very serious matters. Their gravity is reduced in some way when we jerk our knee and offer a ceremonial but ultimately meaningless solution to them. However well meaning they may believe they are with these things, our courts should be more circumspect when issuing such orders.