November 17, 2020The Printpublic policy

A sensible policy towards firecrackers is possible

An abrupt nationwide ban on firecrackers is a bad idea. It creates noise, smoke and fire, not light. There is a better way.

The Print This is from my weekly column in The Print (2018-2021)

As I write this, there is a continuous stream of firecrackers outside the window of my Bengaluru apartment: relatively subdued in my immediate vicinity compared to previous years, but nevertheless quite vigorous. It is just as well that the Karnataka state government reversed its decision to ban firecrackers — albeit permitting only green” ones — because it is unlikely that people would have refrained from celebrating Diwali the usual way, and the already overworked police force would have the unhappy task of enforcing a very unpopular rule.

There is little doubt that firecrackers, green or otherwise, add to atmospheric pollution. They are also a known fire hazard. They terrify animals, and as a dog owner, I have an acute sense of what a harrowing experience it is for them. All of this is true, but it does not follow that a nationwide ban on firecrackers is the answer. Indeed, a blanket ban across India could be counterproductive in other ways, because the unpopularity of the policy energises socially conservative and reactionary politics, shrinking the envelope of freedom and rule-of-law.

The controversy over firecracker policy highlights four bad policymaking habits in India: nationalising, judicialising, moralising, and rushing policies.

New Delhi is not India

Over-centralisation of political power in the Union government, the disproportionate influence of New Delhi in public discourse and pervasiveness of social media turns almost every issue into a national one. The capital’s polluted air is on the minds of media persons, policymakers, politicians and judges, which makes it easy for them to be persuaded that banning firecrackers is obviously necessary. They easily miss the fact that India is a vast country and there are many areas where the air is not as polluted, the space not as populated and the preference for firecrackers not as intense as the national capital. They also miss the fact that a lot of people are dependent on the firecracker industry, and their interests and livelihoods are also legitimate considerations. One-size-fits-all is generally a bad idea for a diverse and plural nation like India, and especially so if the ‘one size’ is that of New Delhi.

That is why it is just as well that state governments are making these decisions. It would be even better if they devolve these decisions to municipalities and panchayats.

Courts are not well placed to make policy

Even if the Union government is not involved in nationalising this particular issue, there is the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and, consequently, the Supreme Court. This also judicialises the issue. Why is judicialisation not a good thing? Because it is blunt and hard to reverse.

Judges seldom take into consideration the economic consequences of their decisions, and unlike politicians and civil servants, they are not publicly accountable for them. It also creates uncertainties, and grey areas feed corruption and strengthen the unscrupulous. The NGT declares where firecrackers are permitted and where not. The Supreme Court has the final say. A few judges are making decisions that thousands of sarpanches, hundreds of mayors and 32-odd chief ministers ought to have made. Worse, elected officials cannot exercise their own policy judgement once the court has given its verdict.

Moralising the matter does not help

The third bad habit is the tendency to moralise policy issues. Lighting firecrackers is not an immoral act, no more than driving a car or taking a flight is. It is best to deal with pollution as a practical issue. It is undesirable because it has negative consequences for air quality and our living environment. The role of public policy would be to minimise pollution. This is best done by changing the incentives of polluters, not passing moral judgements on them. Yet in the popular opposition to Diwali firecrackers, I sense a growing element of moralising, of judging people who make, sell, and light them.

Converting a debate on policy into one of morality turns it into a battle between right and wrong, destroys the middle ground and transforms its politics.

Policies should not be shock treatments

The fourth bad policy habit is the most palpable one: abrupt, drastic decisions that are effective immediately. It is positively undemocratic and unjust to announce a ban on firecrackers a few days before Diwali. There is no time for anyone to make adjustments — manufacturers and dealers are left staring at huge losses and children who had been looking forward to the festival face disappointment. We see this sort of abrupt, nearly whimsical decisions made by government authorities more often than not, and those who do not accept them have to approach the courts, thereby judicialising the matter. It is entirely possible to make clear decisions well in advance, announce an adequate transition time table and help those adversely affected for no fault of their own.

The rest of my The Print columns are here

What would a reasonable firecracker policy look like? First, leave decisions to states and local governments. Second, announce a two to three-year timetable for the transition to less polluting types of firecrackers; with states like Tamil Nadu that produce firecrackers helping the industry make the transition. Third, promote moderation and responsible use of firecrackers, using a mix of public education, taxation and restrictions. If we get rid of our bad policy habits, it is possible in most places in India to both celebrate Diwali with firecrackers and be responsible towards the environment.

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