India's courts take the fun out of a Hindu holiday

THERE is a buzz in the air of India’s capital, and not just because Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, is barely a week away. Along with a shopping rush and a welcome dip in temperature, the season augurs a surge in levels of PM2.5, tiny particles of dust that lodge deep in the lungs and cause such diseases as asthma, pulmonary fibrosis and cancer.

Recent mornings in the world’s most polluted megacity have already seen measures of toxic dust exceed ten times the World Health Organisation’s recommended maximum. They could spike far higher during Diwali, when pyromaniac revellers ignite lakhs and crores (ie, a lot) of sparklers and rockets. Last year’s choking festive smog hung for days, with the level of PM2.5 pushing well beyond 30 times what humans can safely breathe. Small wonder: held at arm’s length, a popular firework known as a “garland” generates more than 1,000 times more poisonous smoke than the WHO maximum; the even stinkier “snake tablet” is 2,560 times over the limit.

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On October 9th India’s Supreme Court banned the sale of fireworks in the capital. Considering that one study reckons that eight Delhi-wallahs die every day as a direct result of pollution, and another that they would live an average of nine years longer if their city met the WHO’s standards for air quality, one might expect the court order to be met with general relief. But that would be to underestimate the acrimonious polarisation of Indian society.

Fireworks vendors are certainly unhappy. Diwali should be a bonanza, but they will now have to ship unsold stocks out of the city, or pay police heftier-than-usual bribes to sell them under the counter. Libertarians are also angry: Indian courts are as notorious for overreaching as for underperforming. The ban is on the sale but not the use of fireworks, and so is useless for protecting public health, the critics say. Anyhow, they add, such things should be decided by legislators, not judges.

The greatest rancour has come from Hindu nationalists, whose orange-tinted spectacles perceive every issue as the thin end of the wedge of an Islamic conspiracy. On social media, one widely shared trope compared the court’s haste to condemn Hindu traditions with an alleged reluctance to denounce Muslim ones, such as animal sacrifice. “Can I just ask on cracker ban?” tweeted Chetan Bhagat, a popular novelist, “Why only guts to do this for Hindu festivals?” Soon they’ll be banning Hindu cremations too, chimed the governor of Tripura state, in eastern India.

Yet even as some assailed the court for attacking an ancient tradition, others noted that fireworks were introduced to India from China merely a few centuries ago, a millennium or two after Hindus started celebrating Diwali with lamps and candles. Much as others might abhor animal sacrifice, came another riposte, it cannot be called a menace to public health. “Even your lungs follow a religion?” teased one tweet in response to Mr Bhagat.

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