Deepavali: Festival of Lights

Yesterday, in Delhi, India, air pollutant levels scaled to 999 micrograms per cubic metre (BBC, 2018), close to 40 times that of the World Health Organisation’s recommended standards (WHO, 2018). The culprit? Fireworks that were ignited to celebrate Diwali (also known as Deepavali depending on the region).

Diwali fireworks worsen the smog in India

Image retrieved from flickr

This has been the case for the past few years – dangerously high levels of air pollution would plague the city of Delhi for days after Diwali celebrations.

While speaking to my Indian friend to find out more about Deepavali, she mentioned that her friends would post photographs of themselves setting off fireworks on social media, then including the hashtag #airpollution.

Why do people light fireworks knowing that they would have to deal with breathing smog for the next few days and potentially cause detrimental health effects to themselves?

This has a lot to do with traditions and customs. Many Indians think of fireworks as the most significant part of Diwali celebrations. For decades, fireworks have been a mainstay of Diwali celebrations. Some even feel that Diwali without fireworks is like Christmas sans Christmas trees.

This year’s Diwali air pollution in Delhi was this bad even after the Indian government imposed a ban on conventional fireworks, allowing only “green” fireworks to be sold (Dasgupta, 2018). The ban barely made a difference as mainstream fireworks were still easily obtainable via black markets (Hizbullah, 2018). Stronger and more effective regulations need to be put in place to have a real effect on pollution levels.

Luckily, this is not a problem in Singapore, where the festival of lights is celebrated with led light-ups instead of fireworks.

This year’s Deepavali lights in Little India

Photo by Roshni Sharma

In Singapore, Deepavali is celebrated mainly through song and dance and feasting with family and friends. Oil lamps are lit and placed around the house and a traditional Indian art, the Rangoli, is created to decorate the house. The Rangoli is a floor decoration made from rice, flour or powder that has been dyed (Lee, 2018).

Rangolis are a custom at Indian celebrations

Image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons

However, the bright hues in commercial Rangoli powder are achieved by using chemicals like mercury, lead, and bromides (The Hands India, 2018). These chemicals can have harmful health and environmental impacts. Given how fine the powder is, it can easily end up in water bodies, polluting water sources. Traditional methods of using natural materials like turmeric as dyes are thus recommended over commercial Rangoli powder.

Compared to India’s Diwali celebrations which result in serious air pollution, Deepavali in Singapore is much more sustainable. However, devotees in Singapore can further improve the sustainability factor of Deepavali by choosing Rangolis made from natural dyes.

 

References:

BBC (8 Nov 2018). Toxic smog returns to Delhi after Diwali

Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-46134304

Dasgupta, N. (23 Oct 2018). Indian activists smolder over “green” Diwali firecrackers

Retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-pollution-fireworks/indian-activists-smolder-over-green-diwali-firecrackers-idUSKCN1MX0H6

Hizbullah, Md. (6 Nov 2018). Fireworks ban up in smoke across NCR as makers defy Supreme Court order

Retrieved from: https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/fireworks-ban-up-in-smoke-across-ncr-as-makers-defy-sc-order-sell-crackers-behind-closed-doors-1383533-2018-11-06

Lee, G. (21 Apr 2018). Bukit Batok East residents create giant Rangoli artwork of coloured salt to ring in Tamil new year

Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/bukit-batok-east-residents-create-giant-rangoli-artwork-of-coloured-salt-to-ring-in-tamil

The Hans India. (3 Jan 2018). Chemical colours glitter in rangolis in front yard

Retrieved from: http://www.thehansindia.com/posts/index/Amaravati-Tab/2018-01-03/Chemical-colours-glitter-in-rangolis-in-front-yard/349581

WHO (2 May 2018). Ambient (outdoor) air quality and health

Retrieved from: http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/ambient-(outdoor)-air-quality-and-health

4 thoughts on “Deepavali: Festival of Lights

  1. Komal

    Hey Si Hui!
    Although I do care for the environment, I also agree that fireworks are usually the most important part of Diwali celebrations! I have been celebrating Diwali in Singapore all my life and what we do is very similar to what you mentioned. Since Singapore has strict regulations on fireworks, we end up lighting up those tiny sparklers and bursting party poppers. However, this year was the first ever time I ignited huge fireworks as we celebrated Diwali with our friends in Malaysia, where there are no regulations on fireworks. Honestly speaking, I never felt SOO much thrill lighting up tiny cones that will burst into different colors! At that point in time, everyone (from young to old) just came together to see and ignite fireworks. I have never experienced such togetherness and enthusiasm before. However, when we are driving back to Singapore at 2am that morning, I was shocked to see that the poor visibility on Malaysian roads as a result of fireworks was as bad as the haze period in Singapore! After this year’s Diwali, I can understand why people would not want to give up lighting up fireworks on festive occasions but at the same time, I also understand the detrimental impacts of igniting fireworks on health and environment. I am not sure about Delhi, but in parts of India where my relatives live, there have been increased restrictions on the time period when fireworks can be ignited in order to reduce noise pollution, etc. Nonetheless, I believe that it’s time when we start to change our culture of celebrating using fireworks not only during Diwali but also on other festive occasions such as National Day, New Year and many others.
    Komal

    Reply
    1. Si Hui Post author

      Hi Komal,

      Personally, I have never ignited large fireworks but I can imagine the thrill you described and why people are so obsessed with them. Part of the fun also has to do with how fireworks bring people, young and old, together. However, I think that is something that people need to give up in exchange for better air quality and thus better health.

      One possible solution to the problem of fireworks during Diwali could be for the Indian government to control the use of fireworks like in Singapore, where fireworks are released at a particular spot by a licensed organization for all to enjoy. This would allow everyone to still enjoy viewing fireworks on Diwali while greatly reducing the air pollutants generated.

      Cheers,
      Si Hui

      Reply
  2. leavingfootprints

    Hi Si Hui!

    Thanks for the informative post! I have never known about the problem of air pollution due to fireworks because fireworks to me are beautiful and such happy memories. In Singapore, I think we experience the effects of air pollution as a result of fireworks to a much smaller extent because the use of fireworks in Singapore is regulated. Do you think that other countries such as India would be willing to adopt Singapore’s way of celebrating Diwali (by using colourful lights instead of fireworks)? Personally, given the fact that fireworks are such an integral part of the celebration in these countries as you have mentioned, I would expect public resentment or outcry if the Indian government were to adopt methods similar to Singapore. It is also harder to regulate the black market in India. What do you think?

    Cheers,
    Joy

    Reply
    1. Si Hui Post author

      Hi Joy!

      I think that as much as they may be unwilling to give up the privilege of being able to ignite fireworks, the use of fireworks should still be regulated. Giving up the enjoyment derived from setting fireworks is definitely a worthy trade-off for better air quality and better health. Like I mentioned in my reply to Komal’s comment, what the Indian government could do is something like what Singapore has done, by allowing only certain official organisations to ignite fireworks for all to enjoy. In this way, people can still enjoy fireworks, just that it is in a different form of enjoyment while the amount of fireworks ignited is greatly reduced.

      With regards to the issue of black markets, strong enforcement measures are definitely needed to keep the regulations in check. While it may be difficult to have a complete control over the use of fireworks, I believe that having regulations coupled with good enforcement measures would be able to keep the numbers low at least.

      Hope this answers your questions!

      Cheers,
      Si Hui

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *