City City Bang Bang, Columns

Diwali & the limits of regulation?

There is a Diwali picture that one received on WhatsApp that showed the sky above the Golden Temple spectacularly lit up by an array of lanterns floating gracefully above the imposing structure. Soon, as with other WhatsApp forwards, one was told that the picture was fake. Someone had photoshopped the lanterns on to the Golden temple. Someone with imagination and a great sense for the meaning of festivals. The power of the ‘fake’ is that it allows us to imagine a possibility that we may not otherwise be able to entertain, and in doing so frees us from certain constraints that we might have otherwise imposed on ourselves.

The question of allowing or banning firecrackers on Diwali is a contentious one. The courts have stepped in this year and banned the sale of firecrackers; an action that has improved the pollution situation a little without having made a big difference. There has been some relief from the kind of toxic overhang that the morning after Diwali produced, but neither those that supported the action nor those that opposed it are satisfied.

There are those that argue that Diwali has always meant the bursting of crackers, and that culture must not be sacrificed at the altar of personal comfort and convenience. Growing up, one remembers how important crackers were to the Diwali experience and how much pleasure was generated as a result of these fiery noisy beasts. A cracker-less Diwali feels strange, even to those that might otherwise welcome the idea. In a larger sense, any public celebration of festival, by definition, generates inconvenience and discomfort. Public celebrations mean crowds, noise, traffic, disturbance; being overly touchy about personal comfort would eventually lead to living a sterile cultural universe.

And yet, the problems caused by crackers are real and significant. It is not just a question of discomfort or inconvenience- the pollution caused by crackers has reached a stage where it has become a genuine health hazard. While air pollution might be a complex issue, with many causes, Diwali night is a significant and very visible trigger for respiratory problems. And this is not an abstract statistical conjecture, but a concrete reality experienced by all of us. The good news is that in this case, change has been forthcoming on its own. The campaign in schools against firecrackers has shown some results, and the awareness of the health problems caused by pollution is rising rapidly. It is clear that the levels of contamination generated are not sustainable, and with growing environmental and health consciousness, in the years to come, this cultural practice will need to be modified significantly.

But are court bans the way to go? Such heavy-handed intrusions into the cultural domain sets off other kinds of anxieties, apart from the more significant reality that these are not particularly effective. Banning the sale of crackers in a particular region is a neither-here-nor-there move, and while this year, because of the late announcement, it did restrict the availability of crackers, by next year Indian ingenuity would almost certainly have founds ways around it. The desire to adopt silver-bullet solutions for complex problems is a doomed quest, and change in the case of any embedded cultural practice is likely to be slow.

This is where the reality imagined by the Golden Temple picture may show us another way. What if Diwali could be celebrated differently, without losing everything that it represents? Festivals evolve all the time, and we find new ways of expressing ourselves. The difference is that these changes are voluntary and embraced in the spirit of getting more, not less out of these festivals. Karwa Chauth has famously transformed from a festival marking sacrifice to one celebrating consumption. Weddings have lost the droning sombreness that were once their hallmark and pulsate with energy over an extended period of revelry. Dry colours are much more in vogue at Holi. The character of Navratri has changed completely- earlier, like Diwali, it was a neighbourhood affair- garba carried out in a small community with local talent and participants. Today, it is a mass event, with choreography and professional talent- the festival has moved from the gullies and streets to maidans and stadia. But in all these cases, the changes have been viewed from a positive festival-affirming perspective, not from a disdainful, this-uncouth-practice-must-go perch.

Viewed this way, it is possible to make newer ways of celebrating Diwali more exciting and desirable, rather than mandated and necessary. Crackers after all, are a sign of a deeper feeling, and perhaps there are other ways of expressing these. What is looked for is scale, the sense of awed spectacle, a certain visibility of impact- everything that markets and technology are well geared to delivered. Spectacular public fireworks displays along with massive melas, that invite people out of their homes and on to public spaces, new kinds of fireworks that are high on aesthetics and low on smoke and noise, the use of technology to generate sound and light of a non-polluting kind, the options are many.  In this case, what is needed is a marketing, rather than a regulatory perspective. That does not mean regulation will not play a role, but that its focus should be on ensuring a certain level of product quality with defined health and safety standards.

Change is important as is respect, particularly when it comes to culture.  The idea that it can be bent to one’s will, however justified one might feel in one’s quest, is an illusion. Seemingly muscular actions might be satisfying at a symbolic level, but they rarely bring about sustainable change. Sometimes, it might be better to work with tradition, and to find a way of expressing its intent differently, rather than fight it. It might be better to look for better, more exciting and health-friendly alternatives to Diwali crackers than trying to ban them. Even then, change will be slow, but it might feel less painful.

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