It is said the top court is supreme because it is final, not because it is infallible, and yesterday the Supreme Court gave us good reason to believe this view is right. Its decision to re-impose a ban on the sale of firecrackers in Delhi and surrounding towns till November 1 is extreme, unjustified and, perhaps, inadequately thought through. Worse, it will offend tens of millions and pit them against this decision.
To begin with, the ban is on the sale of firecrackers, not their use. So those who already have firecrackers, or, presumably, are able to obtain them from outside Delhi would be free to let them off. This number may not be as small as the Supreme Court thinks. Many buy their crackers well in advance because they’re cheaper. With just 10 days to go, we have no idea how many have done this.
Equally importantly, the Supreme Court decision only applies to Delhi and nearby towns. The rest of India is exempt. But is that fair? Is it logical? Or is it whimsical? I suspect the explanation is the Court sits in Delhi and worries about the pollution around it. For now Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad are not of equal concern.
Third, has the court considered what this will do to the firecracker industry and, more importantly, to the livelihood of thousands of shopkeepers and traders, many of whom are small roadside vendors or corner shops? It could very well bankrupt and impoverish them.
The Court has been told that perhaps 50 lakh kg of firecrackers are in Delhi waiting to be sold. They now either have to be destroyed or, by some form of jugaad, released into the market. Like the black money demonetisation was supposed to extinguish but did not, these firecrackers could leak into the system. If that happens, it will be a slap on the Court’s face.
Now, the sole justification for all of this is the Court wants to assess the difference in air quality over Diwali when firecrackers are not sold. In other words, it’s an experiment.
This raises the moral question: Is the court right to experiment with Diwali? I don’t for a moment deny firecrackers create an environmental and health hazard. For those with asthma and other breathing problems, this can be very serious. Therefore, the case for controlling and restricting is undeniable. But the Supreme Court has gone further and attempted a ban.
For me, this is unwarranted and, even, arguably immoral. First, it will make Diwali joyless for tens of millions. For them it’s the most important religious festival and this is, consequently, not just cruel but irreligious. Second, it overturns generations, if not centuries, of tradition. Crackers on Diwali are as customary as the tree at Christmas or seviyan at Eid. Third, this verdict is bound to annoy millions more than it will please and that puts the court in a very invidious position. If it pushes reform ahead of the wishes of the people — even if, ultimately, it turns out to be correct — the Court must be prepared for resistance and obloquy.
Finally, the problem of firecrackers in Delhi has been around for decades. That’s ample time for the Court to have devised a more thoughtful response than a last minute arbitrary ban. It could have imposed a stricter timeframe, reducing the 10 pm limit to 9 or even 8 pm. It could have asked the government to stage firework displays in a handful of strategic locations, broadcast by TV channels, so people can do without their own. London does this on New Year’s Eve. Finally, it could have asked the government to pay for those who suffer from firecracker displays to leave the city for 48 hours and add the cost as an additional tax on firecrackers.
Instead, the court opted for a ban. So, hereafter, will it stop the sale of mithai because kids overeat and that’s not good for them? Will it stop alcohol on New Year’s Eve because people drink too much and that’s bad for them? When courts act as moral authorities it could be the thin end of a very damaging wedge.