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Days before Diwali, India’s most celebrated festival, when oil lamps sparkle at the doorstep of every home, the north Indian plains are shrouded in a blanket of smog, pollutants thickening the air.

Adding to it is a cloud of anxiety over the fear of firecracker burning on Diwali day (Nov. 14), a popular practice followed across the country that covers Indian cities in a toxic haze for several days. Despite state measures to restrict the bursting of crackers, many people break the rules.

This year, there is considerably more at stake. The air quality index (AQI) in the National Capital Region and neighbouring areas has slipped into the “severe” category in the past week, tipping over the 400-mark. At 50, AQI is healthy/good, while AQI 51 to 100 is considered acceptable/moderate. Recent research links worse health outcomes from COVID-19 to increased air pollution, just as cases are up by 13 per cent in New Delhi, according to the Indian Medical Association. India currently has 8.7 million cases and the world’s second highest caseload.

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Because of growing concerns, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) this week banned the use of firecrackers until Nov. 30 in districts with poor air quality, including the National Capital Region.

“Though air quality worsens every year around Diwali by 23 times, the situation is more grave this year," says environmentalist Vimlendu Jha. "We have witnessed unprecedented levels of stubble (crop residue) burning in the farms of Punjab and Haryana states, and added to that is the pandemic. It’s a double whammy. We should have thought of banning firecrackers much more in advance. Diwali is a festival of light, not of poison and toxicity.”

It isn’t a short-term problem. The smog, which poses a string of health risks, lingers well into February. India leads the world in pollution-related deaths, according to the Global Alliance on Health and Air Pollution, with the country recording the highest annual average of fine particulate matter concentration exposure last year. Yet several states have been hesitant to impose a complete ban on crackers, opting for partial bans (where “green” crackers, said to be 30-per-cent less toxic, are allowed for two hours) because of commercial and political pressure. The NGT later banned lenient measures in vulnerable districts with high pollution levels.

Given the increased health risk from the pandemic, environmental and health activists are puzzled over the divided stand. “Do we want an ‘Incredible India’ or ‘Unbreathable India’? We need one united voice saying, ‘No crackers anywhere,’ ” says Pune-based special educator and environmental activist Anuja Bali Karthikeyan, a member of the action group Warrior Moms that advocates for the right to clean air for children through changes in policy and enforcement. Ms. Bali saw the effects of pollution up close when she had to move out of the National Capital Region after her younger child developed respiratory issues.

Environmentalist Bhavreen Kandhari, a fellow Warrior Mom, has noticed how the joyous occasion of Diwali has become an increasingly tense affair. She calls it “Diwali phobia.” She isn’t alone: Many urban families, especially those with young children, have made it an annual ritual to escape from the big city to smaller, greener towns till the firecracker fumes dissipate.

To make matters more complicated, the controversy over a cracker ban on the day of Diwali has turned into a communal issue, with many Hindus interpreting it as an attack on their faith and freedom to celebrate the festival.

Indeed, to treat the issue as a health emergency as serious as a pandemic, the ban should be declared for the whole year, Ms. Kandhari says, not just on Diwali. “Green” crackers, which are only marginally less polluting, should be banned as well, she says.

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“Year after year, the same story is repeated, like a soap opera. As a mother, I am angry. My child’s lifespan is automatically reduced by a decade because of where we live. We have plenty of laws but little enforcement. This year, we are trying to encourage people to report violations by creating awareness on social media on how to do it,” says Ms. Kandhari, who is based in New Delhi. The Delhi government has activated an app for it too.

There is also a budding movement to reinvent the idea of Diwali, to create a “new normal” by several social enterprises that are making biodegradable lamps, incense sticks made from discarded temple flowers, and crackers that are actually seeds. “The act of bursting crackers has generations of memories attached to it, so we decided to turn it into a more meaningful, nurturing activity,” says Tanmay Joshi, member of Gram Art Project, a collective based in rural Madhya Pradesh.

The result is seven types of “crackers” that look exactly like the real thing but are made using waste material, with live seeds embedded in each piece. Instead of bursting into toxic fumes, when you sow them, the “crackers” will grow into cucumber, dill, coriander and other plants.

There are other encouraging signs: A newly constituted Commission for Air Quality Management has released a set of 10 immediate measures. Clean fuel policies and restrictions on construction and heavy vehicular movement adopted in the past few years are positive measures, says Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director, research and advocacy, Centre For Science and Environment. But we have a long way to go.

“Even during the pandemic, most people are indifferent to the issue of pollution, so there is a huge behavioural challenge. This year, particularly, we have to deepen public awareness. We can’t afford to add to the disease burden,” she warns.

Many fear it may already be too late. Like many doctors, Arvind Kumar, chest surgeon and chairman at the Center for Chest Surgery, is alarmed at the rising number of COVID-19 cases linked to pollution and the slow public health response to it.

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“Diwali has become the annual pollution festival. Pollution and the COVID-19 virus are a very deadly cocktail," he says. "Even teenagers have smokers' lungs – black instead of pink. Every year, air pollution kills more people than COVID-19 has killed till now. But never have we seen global efforts against air pollution as we have seen against the COVID-19 pandemic, probably because it’s a slow killer and doesn’t kill directly.” He said he hopes this year proves to be a wake-up call.

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