NEW DELHI - "What's Diwali without fireworks?" asked a customer while buying firecrackers for his kids from a shop in New Delhi to celebrate India's biggest festival on Oct. 19.
Accompanied by his wife and two young children, he was reacting to the Indian Supreme Court's Monday order banning the sale of fireworks, including firecrackers, in the capital city and surrounding areas till the end of this month.
The court wants to assess if the ban would make any difference to pollution in the capital city where air quality deteriorates at alarming levels every year during Diwali, India's festival of lights. Last year, a thick smog enveloped the city even after the end of Diwali festivities.
"We were earlier planning to make these purchases [of firecrackers] a day or two before Diwali, but now with this ban coming into force we decided to do so today itself to fulfil our children's wishes," said the man's wife, both of whom did not want to be named.
The family was at a retail store that continued to sell fireworks hours after the court ordered the ban.
"So far, no police personnel came here asking us to stop the sale," said Vinod Goyal, who runs the store with his cousin brother Sameer, adding they would stop when they were asked to. "Our association [of local fireworks retailers] has decided to file an appeal against the ban and we will hopefully get some relief within this week," he added.
"We know that Delhi is under the grip of pollution, but only blaming firecrackers is not justified," added Sameer, pointing to other contributors to the problem such as stubble crop burning by neighboring Punjab and Haryana states and vehicular emissions.
Others say that the Supreme Court was sending out mixed messages. It had imposed a similar ban on the sale of fireworks some days after Diwali last year but partially lifted it on Sept. 12 this year before restoring it again on Oct. 9. "What was the point in lifting the ban last month then?" Sameer asked.
What's the solution?
Sellers said they would be affected in this crucial sale period in the run up to Diwali and complained that other pollutants were not banned. "Why there is no ban on sale of cigarettes? It is also injurious to health but continues to sell. Why only target fireworks?" said another trader who wanted to remain anonymous.
"Stopping the sale is not a solution. Are cars and trucks banned for causing pollution?" he said, adding authorities should encourage the manufacturing, sale and use of environmentally friendly, smoke-free fireworks as an alternative.
The Confederation of All India Traders pointed out that there was a ban on firecrackers' sale but not on their usage in the capital city and surrounding regions.
"[The] possibility of people buying crackers from other states and [setting them off] in Delhi ... cannot be ruled out," CAIT said in a statement. In such a scenario, it said, New Delhi traders would be in "a disadvantageous position" losing business to counterparts in other states.
Traders who have already purchased stock for Diwali will face "huge losses," the confederation said.
"Conducting business of firecrackers is a centuries old legitimate activity," it said, adding the government should file a review petition before the Supreme Court in relation to the ban.
Most of the sellers in New Delhi and other parts of the country procure supplies from manufacturers based in Sivakasi in southern Tamil Nadu state, the fireworks hub of India which accounts for around 90% of production. Fireworks remain in demand during the post-Diwali wedding season as well as the New Year.
Experts welcome ruling
Environment and health experts have, however, welcomed the Delhi ban. "We appreciate the Supreme Court decision," Sunil Dahiya, senior campaigner at Greenpeace India, said in a statement, adding this may give "some relief for the episodic air pollution levels in October."
Delhi's air quality was ranked worst in the world in a World Health Organization study in 2014. The University of Chicago's Air Quality Life-Index last month found that people in the Indian capital could live nine years longer if WHO standards were met.
The level of PM2.5, fine particulate matter with diameters equal to or smaller than 2.5 microns, reached 999, or 16 times the safe level in New Delhi last November, causing the government to declare an "emergency situation in the capital and close schools for three days. Such particulate matter can enter lungs and even the brain.
"I'm very happy that fireworks and crackers sale is banned," said Himani Sati, a mother of two based in New Delhi. "My younger one is just three months old, and this pollution is not good for development of her lungs."
According to the government-operated System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), the air quality in the Indian capital was at the "severe" level of 452 on Oct. 30, or Diwali last year, but deteriorated to over 500 the next day, before coming down to "very poor" level of 399 on Nov. 2.
At 4 p.m.on Wednesday, SAFAR showed Delhi's overall air quality as "poor" whereas it was "good" in Mumbai, India's financial hub and the capital of the western Maharashtra state.
In a report published in January, Greenpeace India said air pollution was not only restricted to Delhi, but a national problem killing 1.2 million Indians every year and costing the economy an estimated 3% of gross domestic product.