The Supreme Court on Wednesday refused to reverse a ban on sale or use of firecrackers in West Bengal during the festive month of November, saying that preservation of life should be the top priority in a country faced with a pandemic.
A West Bengal-based firecracker dealers’ association filed an appeal before the top court challenging a Calcutta high court order of November 5 banning sale and use of firecrackers as a measure to curb the spread of Covid-19. The judgement likely means the end to potential legal challenges to cracker (sales and bursting) bans that the National Green Tribunal (NGT), and several states and Union territories have enforced. The main reason for the ban is to prevent an increase in Covid-19 cases, with research clearly linking fire crackers to air pollution (if only temporarily) and the latter to higher mortality from Covid-19.
Delhi, for instance, has been choking on pollutants from farm fires in Punjab and Haryana, and vehicular emissions, and was among the first states to ban fire crackers, which worsen air pollution significantly but temporarily. The ban in West Bengal will be effective till the end of this month and has affected the livelihoods of firecracker manufacturers as cracker sale hits peak in this month coinciding with festivals of Diwali, Kali Puja, Chhath Puja, and Jagaddhatri Puja. The high court order came on two public interest litigations (PIL).
Dealing with the appeal filed by Gautam Roy and Burrabazaar Fireworks Dealers Association, the apex court was of the view that the high court was right in its decision as it weighed the need of preserving life at a time of pandemic. “We are in a situation where preservation of life is the only priority. We have a great deal of deference to what the high court does as the judges there are conscious of the situation on ground,” said a bench of justices DY Chandrachud and Indira Banerjee.
At least seven states and Union territories have banned crackers with another five allowing their bursting only for a limited time. On Monday, the NGT ruled that no crackers would be allowed to be burst in cities where the air quality in November (based on last year’s average) was in “poor” category or worse. There are at least 42 cities that meet this criteria, according to HT’s analysis of 110 cities that are featured in the Central Pollution Control Board daily pollution bulletin. Most bans have come into effect and last till the end of November.
Senior advocate Siddharth Bhatnagar, appearing for the firework dealers informed the top court that the high court had no empirical data for denying permission for sale or use of crackers. He referred to a recent order passed by the NGT which allowed green crackers to be used for limited hours in places where air quality is moderate. He pointed out that last year the SC permitted crackers to be burst on festival days for two hours at designated places.
Interestingly, according to the NGT criteria, Kolkata’s air quality was in “poor” category last November, which means crackers are banned there this year.
The bench was particularly concerned about the health of the elderly who were more vulnerable to breathing problems caused by smoke released from crackers that could be life-threatening during the pandemic.
“We all have elderly people at our homes. If something contributes to preserving life of our elderly, let us join together in the interest of the community,” the bench of justices Chandrachud and Banerjee said.