With less than a week to go for Deepavali, the boom of firecrackers has started pulsating across the city. Though pollution and fire safety hazards have become a recurrent concern in an urban landscape, they come into sharp focus during the festival.

Since most firecracker shops are temporary, licensing is one way of monitoring their adherence to fire safety norms. Out of 80 shops set up on Bunder Street in Parrys, a wholesale market for firecrackers, only 16 had got licences as on Friday.

While most of the licensed shops do have water stored in huge earthenware pots outside, attention to fire safety is largely symbolic. The crammed back-to-back shops, packed in a lane less than 20 feet wide, would transform into one of the busiest shopping stretches in the city this week. Much would, however, depend on the customer response considering that the price of firecrackers has increased between 30 to 60 per cent this year.

There is also a growing awareness of the need to celebrate Deepavali in environment-friendly ways. V. Akhilandeshwari, mother of a seven-year-old, says, “Since schools have undertaken a major drive to promote awareness against the use of crackers for environmental, health and safety reasons, children themselves are not insisting on being gifted noisy firecrackers.”

Across the city, as many as 1,153 persons had applied for licence to set up firecracker shops. The police issued licence on Saturday to all, except 72, who were directed to improve safety measures.

Citing a Madras High Court order, Commissioner of Police T. Rajendran said that firecrackers should not be sold or stored on roads, pavements and public places during the festival season. Any person violating the condition would be prosecuted. He also asked the public to avoid bursting ‘Atom Bombs' and ‘Rocket' variety of firecrackers, particularly within a one-km radius of hospitals and nursing homes.

Both ambient air quality and noise pollution levels in the city show a significant change during Deepavali. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board has set up noise monitoring equipment at five locations – Nungambakkam, Ayanavaram, Triplicane, Sowcarpet and T. Nagar.

A study on ‘Temporal variation in ambient air quality during Diwali festival in India' shows that particulate matter, SO2, and NO2 levels increase two to six times in metropolitan cities during the festival. While average noise levels in Chennai range between 69.4 dB and 81.9 dB, studies show that noise levels rise by nearly 15 per cent during the festival.

The acceptable decibel level for humans is 60 dB. An increase by even 10 decibels means double the noise volume and intensity.

Deepavali time also means more work for the hospitals. Doctors say most of the victims come with burns in their eyes, skin, hands or faces. In some cases, the ear is also affected. Typically, the victims are males in the 10-30 age group.

Director of Government Eye Hospital K. Vasantha says that in the last two years, around 35 persons lost sight in one eye because of firecracker injuries. “Flower pots and atom bombs cause the maximum number of injuries,” she said.

According to ophthalmologist Mohan Rajan, negligence on the part of parents and failure to follow protocols while bursting crackers is the reason for most injuries.

While the conflicting interests of health and safety on one hand and tradition on the other will play out during this year's Deepavali as well, Sumaira Abdulali, an anti-pollution activist and convener of the Mumbai-based NGO Awaaz Foundation, says the use of firecrackers in urban areas has gotten out of hand.

According to her, since most firecrackers contain poisonous substances, we are choosing to poison ourselves once every year through indiscriminate use. Ms.Abdulali says cities must move towards a system in which firecrackers can be used only in designated areas at a specific time.

“The government must organise public shows which everyone can enjoy, similar to what is practised in western cities. Only licensed show organisers must have access to a wide variety of firecrackers,” she adds.

What they say

R. Nataraj, Director, Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services: Flying squads formed to inspect firecracker shops in the city have found some irregularities at a few outlets in south Chennai and informed the city police. Action will be taken against dealers who fail to fulfil the safety requirements immediately. We have also identified cracker shops that have started business only by sending a petition to the local police. The details of those shops have been passed on to the police.

Sait Mohammed, president, Chennai Firecrackers Marketers’ Welfare Association: Every year we have a problem with the issue of licences. There are a lot of issues on which more clarity is required, such as the material to be used to build sheds. The licences should be issued well ahead of Deepavali. This year, the licences are being issued only from Friday. We expect business to pick up over the next few days and it will be brisk until November 6.

(With inputs from Ajai Sreevatsan, Vasudha Venugopal, Petlee Peter, R.Sujatha and K.Lakshmi)

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