Diwali has several origin theories, some rooted in the Ramayana and others in the Mahabharata. But our favourite is the one about Lord Krishna killing the demon king Narakasura. It turns out that after terrorising the populace and challenging Krishna to a duel, the king more than met his match in the young man with the Sudarshan Chakra. It was an ‘Off with his head!’ situation with the Chakra that annihilated Narakasura, and legend has it that once the king was killed, the dark skies enveloping his kingdom disappeared and clear sunlight streamed in.
This also explains why we mark Diwali as the festival of lights. Even today, the festival is observed all over the country with ceremonial lighting of lamps and diyas. But what’s with the crackers?
There’s another story that features Lord Rama and the genesis of Diwali. It turns out that after he defeated Lord Ravan and brought back his consort Sita to Ayodhya, the kingdom welcomed his arrival with conch shells, trumpets, drums and dholaks. Must have been a tremendous cacophony, but we bet it was sweet music compared to the racket we modern humans have been making with firecrackers. Ours is a modern-day interpretation of the ‘Let’s welcome the triumphant King!’ jamboree – but we are taking it to unprecedented levels of pollution that is harming the ecology and the living creatures in it.
Sample this: as per records from the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) for Diwali 2015, the highest decibel levels hovered at 90dB (humans can take up to 35db, animals about a half of that) and the levels of particulate matter in the air shot up to 116 microgrammes per cubic metres, where the permissible levels are pegged at 60. So not only is Diwali a hugely disturbing affair with loud bangs and whistles, it is also a major pollutant that causes respiratory distress, heart attacks and migraines, among other health issues.
Just imagine the havoc this noise and air pollution wreaks on pregnant women, senior citizens and children, and animals and birds all over the country! We are so sensitive about viruses spread by mosquitoes, the garbage left unpicked by the civic authorities, the lack of infrastructure…but when will we ponder over this horrendous pollution that we are causing in the name of celebration?
And that’s just the wreckage we can see: another hidden evil is the employment of child labour in the country’s fireworks industry. Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi contends that the fireworks industry in Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu, employs about one lakh child labourers annually! Though this figure was hotly contested by the authorities, it is true that children as young as five years old are employed in firework factories for meagre pay, unsanitary working conditions and lack of safety gear. Many of them develop respiratory disorders and skin infections due to their exposure to gun powder, while older children get caught in a web of substance abuse and alcoholism.
A report filed by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights in 2013, many children working in these factories suffer from mental disorders as well. The lack of safety norms has also resulted in about 250 deaths annually, and many of these are children.
Time to go back to a simpler, quieter, more dignified Diwali celebration, don’t you think?