Not Really A Cracker Of An Order, My Lords

The "middle path" may be okay for the likes of the Buddha or Confucius but it is not what an independent judiciary needs to follow in a country slowly being dragged to the brink by an aggressive majoritarianism and a pampered minoritarianism.

The first thing I did on reading about the Supreme Court order last week on firecrackers was to get on to Amazon and buy some face masks. Because Delhi can now expect an Auschwitz kind of experience this Diwali- thousands of kilos of firecrackers stored from last year ( unsold because of the interim ban last year) will now be dumped on its hapless citizens under the garb of “green” crackers. For the Court’s order is meaningless and unimplementable (at least in the short term); it is an exercise in idealistic ivory-towerism.

The order states that only “green” fireworks-i.e. those that do not contain aresenic, barium nitrate or aluminium, are of low decibels, and do not emit smoke, will be allowed. But the country does not manufacture any ” green” fire crackers at all; the cops have no way of distinguishing between the green and the dirty, they also possess no sound meters. So we shall be exposed to the same Sivakasi and Chinese stuff, no doubt labelled “green” or “eco-friendly”. Take the time limits imposed by the court: between 8.00 and 10.00 PM for Diwali and 11.55 PM and 12.15 AM for Christmas and New Year. How in God’s name can this ever be enforced by 30000 cops on 2 million Delhi households, each of them a potential arsonist or pyromaniac when it comes to Diwali? And then we have the suggestion that city administrations should organise ” community” fireworks displays at some central point. Really? What about the poor sods who live near these points?- will they not be exposed to excessive levels of toxic fumes and gases in these concentrated fireworks displays?

The Court also does not appear to have factored in the seasonality aspect, at least for north India: Diwali falls in November when all the meteorological conditions are tailor made for atmospheric pollution: falling temperatures, low wind speeds, winds from the north-west, wide spread stubble burning in the northern plains. These all collate to ensure that any smoke/smog that is generated during this period does not disperse and hangs like a toxic shroud over the cities and plains. This year the pollution levels have ALREADY reached levels that are seven times the safe limit, the number of patients reporting respiratory distress have already started rising- and Diwali has not arrived as yet! Surely the court could not have been unaware of this alarming context? Why then did it attempt to strike this unsustainable and inequitable balance between Article 21 of the Constitution( the right to environmental protection) and Article 25 (the right to profess one’s religion)? Why did it not ban the manufacture and sale of crackers altogether, instead of adopting the proverbial middle path to appease the religious hardliners? I find this timidity quite inexplicable. If it can assert the right of a few vociferous women to enter a temple (there was no ground swell of demand for this), how can it deny the rights of tens of millions to clean air to breathe? Is the former right more important than the latter? Pertinent questions, but the answers are more difficult.

Methinks the court really had no choice, given certain developments over the last couple of years, and perhaps therefore decided to adopt a realistic, rather than an idealistic, approach. I don’t know how to put this except to say that, having burnt its fingers more than once, it has decided that discretion may be the better part of valour.

It all began with the Jallikattu judgment last year: the ban on the bull runs aroused widespread protests all over Tamil Nadu, the order was defied everywhere till some kind of peace was brokered with a review petition. Then came the partial prohibition on sale (not bursting, mind you) of crackers in NCR region last year, mostly observed in the breach, and criticised roundly by all good Hindus. Recently we have had the Sabarimala imbroglio, the fuse being lit by the Supreme Court’s order allowing entry of women of all ages into the temple. This was surely the nadir of constitutional/ judicial collapse- the state government, inspite of deploying thousands of policemen, could not implement this judgment even partially- not one woman was able to enter the temple, thanks to endemic resistance by the “true” devotees and the priests. In between these high points of our Constitution in action, of course, we also had the protests over the film PADMAVATI . Of late another phenomenon has emerged: various BJP and RSS leaders delivering their own obiter dicta which sound almost like ultimatums to the judiciary- the Ram temple at Ayodhya must be built regardless of the judicial verdict; in fact let us not even wait for the SC pronouncement on the matter, let the govt. issue an ordinance. No one in either the govt. or the ruling party has condemned these statements.

There were/are a few common threads running through all the above instances, and no concerned observer of the great Indian circus could have failed to observe them: open and voluble defiance of the court’s orders, inability and unwillingness of various state governments to implement them, just about every political party coming out in opposition to the judicial orders on the grounds that they interfere with the practice of religion and culture, the demand for an ordinance to nullify the court orders. In fact of late it appears that the only common platform the political parties of the country, ruling and opposition, share is opposition to judicial pronouncements. This constant push back and friction is, in my opinion, beginning to take its toll. They are slowly eroding the writ and authority of the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, and perhaps beginning to have an influence on their decision making. The failure to completely ban crackers, at least during the winter months when pollution levels are at their maximum, may be the result of this constant psychological pressure. Which, if true, will be a pity- and extremely dangerous. The “middle path” may be okay for the likes of the Buddha or Confucius but it is not what an independent judiciary needs to follow in a country slowly being dragged to the brink by an aggressive majoritarianism and a pampered minoritarianism. We expect the higher judiciary to be consistent in its pronouncements. Sabarimala was an elitist infringement on religion, the firecrackers order is an abject capitulation to religion. Neither builds trust in the courts.

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls. He blogs at

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