India’s environmental court has ordered a ban on firecrackers during the country’s biggest annual festival in cities battling hazardously poor air quality, citing a link between pollution and a coronavirus surge.
The National Green Tribunal said on Monday the role of pollution in the COVID-19 crisis meant that the ban was needed ahead of Diwali celebrations on Saturday.
Traditionally, millions of firecrackers are set off during Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Light, but the practice has been blamed for worsening air pollution – especially in northern India which suffers serious smog every winter.
The tribunal, whose powers are similar to a regular court, said pollution caused by fireworks was an “aggravating risk to lives and health”. It said a general ban in all cities with rising air pollution should last until November 30.
India has the second-highest number of coronavirus infections in the world, at 8.5 million cases, and experts have raised concerns about air pollution worsening the symptoms of respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19.
The capital New Delhi and the states of Rajasthan, Haryana, Maharashtra and West Bengal have already halted or restricted the sale and use of firecrackers.
The tribunal said the ban in Delhi, where air quality remained classified in the “severe” category for the fifth day – must be “absolute” because of the pollution crisis and rising COVID-19 cases.
State authorities in the rest of the country are considering allowing one-hour windows on Saturday for setting off firecrackers.
Pollution in New Delhi had almost disappeared earlier this year when the government imposed a nationwide lockdown to stop the coronavirus. But the curbs have been lifted and the pollution, as well as the virus, are back with a vengeance.
Delhi on Sunday reported 7,750 coronavirus cases in a day, a record since the start of the pandemic, with hospitals reporting that intensive care beds are running out.
Pollution levels have been at “severe” on the government index for almost a week.
Delhi’s overall air quality index (AQI), which includes the concentration of PM2.5 particles as well as bigger pollutants, has stayed above 400, on a scale of zero to 500, for five consecutive days, government data showed.
The tiny PM2.5 particles can cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, including lung cancer, and pose a particular risk for people with COVID-19.
RV Asokan, honorary secretary-general of the Indian Medical Association, which represents 350,000 doctors, told Reuters the air pollution made people more susceptible to coronavirus infection.
“The PM2.5 particles break the nasal passage barrier, weaken the inner lining of lungs, facilitating the spread of the coronavirus infection,” Asokan said.
New Delhi is caught in a perfect pollution storm because of its position in the bowl of a plain, the burning of crop stubble in states around the city, and its industries that flout norms on pollution.
Firecracker makers immediately demanded that the government pay them compensation for the ban.
The southern district of Sivakasi, which supplies about 90 percent of India’s firecrackers and employs more than 250,000 people, has been hit particularly hard by restrictions in recent years.
Factory owners say they have already lost 30 percent of their business this year because of the coronavirus.