It’s a message that is being shared on almost all WhatsApp school mommy groups across Delhi. “Take a pledge that your children will not use firecrackers this year. The burning of crackers causes air pollution." Some ignore the plea, some take the pledge and, as the festival nears, many express their inability to prevent their children from buying crackers. Some even get aggressive, saying this festival demands that we burst crackers to tell the gods we are thinking about them. And on Twitter, some parents are complaining about their children being asked to say no to crackers and question why there are no demands to say no to animal slaughter on Eid.

In late October, the Supreme Court deferred to February the request by two eight-month-olds, Arjun Gopal and Aarav Bhandari, and 16-month-old Zoya Rao Bhasin, to ban firecrackers during Diwali. In September, “the toddlers", as they are referred to, had filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court (SC) through their advocate fathers, seeking measures to control air pollution in the Capital and exercise their right to clean air, guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution.

“Ask anyone around you. Does someone in their family suffer from an unexplained cough? Most people around this time of the year put down these coughs and niggles to viral infections but are they really that or is it just that the air around us is so polluted that we find it tough to breathe?" asks Gopal Sankaranarayanan, a practising advocate at the Supreme Court and one of the “next friend (next of kin)" who filed the petition on behalf of his son Arjun along with Saurabh Bhasin, a corporate lawyer and Amit Bhandari, another advocate. “The interim aspect of our petition was dealing with fireworks but the petition itself is much broader in nature, dealing with everything from crop burning, dust from reckless construction, vehicular pollution, etc.," says Bhandari.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air quality is represented by annual mean concentration of particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5, i.e. particles smaller than 10 or 2.5 microns). The 2014 WHO study found New Delhi had the dirtiest air, with an annual average of 153 micrograms of small particulates, known as PM2.5, per cubic metre. The WHO safe standards for PM2.5 are 10 µg/m3. Delhi on average is 200 µg/m3 annual mean. The fact that it’s 20 times over the standard is alarming in itself. During the winter months and Diwali, the seasonal spike goes up to 700-1,000 µg/m3, explain Sarath Guttikunda, founder director, and Puja Jawahar, director, UrbanEmissions.info, which tracks the quality of air in urban India.

It was in mid 2014 that Sankaranarayanan started researching the issue, but Bhasin says it had been on his mind for a long time. “I had friends who had decided to move out of Delhi to save their children’s lungs. I got involved in the petition only for the sake of my children’s health. The state machinery is doing nothing much to improve the air quality, and because they are not willing to take any step, we, the citizens, have to step in," he says. Currently, his daughter Zoya, along with her brother and mother, is in London—they are likely to stay there till the festive season ends.

In the last four decades, the fight to ban firecrackers has made little headway. In the 1980s and 1990s, a ban was sought because the manufacturers employed children in these factories. We still bought crackers. Then it was because of the noise pollution they caused. In 2005, the apex court limited the duration during which crackers could be burst on Diwali. We still burst them at midnight. Yet, a week ago, the Centre requested the Supreme Court to defer the “plea" by “the toddlers" because enough measures to control pollution were already in place.

“But this order to defer the plea until February is not a setback. We have already started gaining traction on the issue," says Sankaranarayanan who is also a co-founder and executive member of the governing body of the recently formed Care For Air, an independent, volunteer organization which consists of concerned citizens from the National Capital Region who want to raise awareness about clean air.

“Besides, we did get a reiteration of the 2005 order and since the state government is a party to this petition, they must ensure that the SC directive is followed. If they don’t comply, we will go back and say, ‘Look, contempt of court because you are not enforcing’," says Bhandari.

People don’t realize that the pollution caused by firecrackers has a lasting impact. “The spike in particulate matter goes up to almost 999 micrograms per cubic metre (beyond maximum) during peak hours on Diwali night and the effect stays for a few weeks at least," explains Sankaranarayanan.

The WHO report on air pollution in Delhi has been termed alarmist by some. Nevin Kishore, head of bronchology and senior consultant, respiratory medicine, Max Healthcare, Saket, Delhi, is among those who says that while asthma and related respiratory diseases see a spike in this period, the air quality is not so harmful all year round that people need to move out of the city. The problem is that while the figures are alarming, there is so little regular monitoring data that is available to the public, that people are often unaware of how bad the situation really is, say Guttikunda and Jawahar.

Theirs is not an alarmist reaction, add the fathers. “Perhaps the lungs of adults can survive this. For example, in the case of a smoker who stops smoking, there is chance that their lungs might recover. But children who suffer lung damage at a young age will find it hard to recover," says Bhasin, a view that is echoed by Bhandari, who says he too has been warned by the paediatrician that his son Aarav and two other children are at high risk.

“The situation is dire now. Unlike in Beijing and Shanghai, where the haze was visible, in Delhi we don’t see it all the time and don’t realize how precarious our situation is 365 days of a year," says Bhasin. In August, even Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar admitted to the need to address the issue of air pollution. “This is a crisis situation. It took Javadekar 18 months to respond. That’s the problem. The government does not have to get defensive about everything. Bad air is not a stain on them because it is not all their doing. In a populous country, there will be problems, and you have to deal with it. But you cannot deal with stuff if you remain in denial mode," says Sankaranarayanan.

It was this need to get the Central and Delhi governments to take note of the issue that the three sets of parents decided to take legal recourse, instead of just forming a non-profit with the aim of raising awareness about the issue. “In a way, we have approached the governments, because we made them come to court. We are making sure that when the SC questions them on their policy, regulation, the governments will have an answer," says Bhasin.

Also, as Sankaranarayanan points out, air pollution is not yet a political issue in this country. “Nobody will vote on this issue right now because they are not aware how dangerous it is. The day people in Delhi start walking around with masks on their faces, like millions of people in Beijing do, that will be the wake-up call," he says.

According to a report published in the Hindustan Times, 5 November was the day with the dirtiest air in the season till then. The four Delhi monitoring stations that record particulate matter carried a “severe" warning on the national air quality index. According to Gufran Beig, director of the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (Safar), this was because of the combined impact of cold weather conditions and the burning of agricultural waste.

Diwali is a few days away.

The aim is to create awareness about air pollution and prompt action. “We want the government to put a stringent pollution control mechanism in place. Advocacy is our larger aim," says Sankaranarayanan.

HOW TO GIVE

MAIN SPONSORS

Care For Air is supported by contributions from members.

BIGGEST NEED

Communities must demand action to improve the air we breathe.

A DONATION OF 10,000 CAN

Be used to distribute pollution masks in high-risk industries or to fund workshops to spread awareness.

VOLUNTEERS CAN HELP

Spread the message to say no to fireworks, draw the attention of municipal corporations to the dumping of ‘malba’ (construction waste) and help highlight the issue.

CONTACT

www.careforair.org and www.delhiair.org

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