Every year, on the morning after Diwali, Delhi wins the world bad air championship. Already stressed by the burden of stubble burning in neighbouring states, besides atmospheric effects, air quality plummets to the lowest among the world’s cities, and a pall is cast over the lives of the capital’s citizens. The effects are so palpably visible that arguing the matter has become a mere game of scoring debating points, like the debate over tobacco use, and restrictive action seems the only reasonable response. But should that action take the form of a blunt instrument like a ban, imposed by a court? On Monday, the Supreme Court put its weight behind the 2016 ban on the sale of fireworks in Delhi-NCR, which was imposed in response to an unusual plea filed by children affected by air pollution. It has suggested that the ban follows on naturally from numerous awareness campaigns run by government agencies and civil society organisations which urge citizens to “say no to crackers”. And yet, the ban is a problematic overstep.
A ban is an inefficient instrument. Aimed at restricting a celebration, the ban on firecrackers may alienate people who were otherwise receptive to the idea of giving up or cutting down on the fireworks. Besides, it would have the predictable effect of driving sales underground at inflated prices. No one would burst crackers in Delhi, precisely in the manner in which no one drinks in Gujarat. A Supreme Court ban which cannot be implemented in spirit would have the unfortunate effect of undermining the authority of the apex court in the eyes of the people. Besides, while the court has admitted that other factors like stubble burning contribute to the disastrous air quality of Delhi, the focus on fireworks makes its response seem unequal. Livelihoods will be harmed by the court’s order, which is precisely the argument used by farmers to oppose moves against stubble burning — it yields a better margin than clearing the fields manually after the combine harvesters have done their job.
Matters of policy and implementation are ideally left to the legislature and executive. The court has a moral obligation to step in if they are in complete dereliction of their duty to the people. Since governments and society itself have shown an inclination to stop polluting practices, the last resort has been unnecessarily invoked. Instead, the Supreme Court could have urged government to intensify its efforts to influence the public will, and the process could have played out under its cautionary eye. That would have been a better solution than to impose a ban which may be observed more in the breach.