November 11, 2023The AcornPublic Policy

Leave firecracker policies to the state and local governments

A national ban on firecrackers is not necessary

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The Supreme Court has done well to refuse a blanket ban on all firecrackers in India. Its recent order reminding states to prohibit the manufacture and sale of joined firecrackers and those containing barium is a prudent one. Yet in the absence of a sensible firecracker policy, it is likely that approaching the Supreme Court for a ban will become an annual pre-Diwali ritual.

How should India govern firecrackers?

The goal of policy ought to be to allow people to enjoy Diwali with firecrackers if they so wish while reducing the damage to the environment. Yes, this is possible.

For that we must avoid our usual bad policy reflexes: do not nationalise, judicialise, moralise and surprise. A one-size-fits all solution, especially if dictated by judges, is likely to have unintended consequences when applied across a highly diverse country. Once a policy question is turned into a moral one, we get into a battle between right and wrong, with no middle ground. The politics become emotional and polarised making pragmatic solutions impossible. So, what do we do?

First, leave firecracker regulation to state governments, municipalities and gram panchayats. Air quality, firecracker use, weather conditions, human geography, social norms and biosphere contexts vary vastly across the country. Firecrackers in polluted Delhi have a very different impact from say one in a seaside village in South Goa. It makes little sense to prohibit South Goans from enjoying themselves by setting off a few firecrackers because Delhiites tend to go overboard in an already overpolluted city. While the Delhi government is justified in taking drastic action, the Goan village panchayat has different considerations — fire safety, street dogs and noise, for instance — and a lot more leeway in terms of air pollution.

Similarly Tamil Nadu, a state where over half a million people depend on the Rs 6,000 crore firecracker industry for their livelihoods, should retain its autonomy to balance its economic and environmental issues. Instead of lining up before the Supreme Court, civil society groups and think tanks could help state governments, municipal corporations and village panchayats by drafting jurisdiction-specific model firecracker regulations.

Second, the regulations have to give time for transition. The Supreme Court’s 2018 decision to ban certain types of firecrackers was abrupt, and for that reason almost certainly violated. A better way would have been to set a three-year timetable so that manufacturers, distributors and users have time to adapt. It will also give state authorities enough time to set up effective enforcement mechanisms. Just like it is a bad idea to slam the brakes of a fast-moving locomotive, banning firecrackers or imposing new regulations days before Diwali will result in backlash.

Third, instead of seeking a magic bullet, a number of policy levers should be used to change how Indians produce, sell and use firecrackers. These include public education, taxation, restrictions and licensing. Unlike bans, these levers are flexible and can be ratcheted up and down in response to the situation. We often underestimate the power of public education, awareness and cultural norms. Taxes can be an effective instrument to shape economic behaviour. In 2017, traders in Kolkata reported a 40% drop in firecracker sales after GST effectively doubled the tax rate. States and municipalities cannot change GST rates, but can make firecrackers more expensive by increasing license fees or imposing surcharges on retailers. They can also impose restrictions limiting the times, places and types of crackers that can be used. Cities with severe environmental problems can consider user licensing. Science journalist Michael Le Page advocates banning sale to private individuals and restricting their use to licensed displays. That way, those who enjoy fireworks can still see spectacular shows while minimising the harm done.’’

A common objection to using such policy levers is that the authorities do not have the administrative capacity to implement and enforce them. This is a reasonable argument except that the test of a policy lies in how much of an improvement it is over the status quo. If we can achieve 10% reduction in firecracker use year on year, we halve the problem in six years. State governments and local authorities in many parts of the country have the capacity to use these levers, even if their mileage may vary. With the help and cooperation of local civil society organisations, it is not difficult to put in place regulations and norms of firecracker use. If, that is, we get over our fascination with legal remedies and instead focus on the grunt work of democratic engagement with local governments.

To read about more things like this, you can check out my published raw notes and my massive archives.

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