Crackers, firecrackers: India

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This is a collection of articles archived for the excellence of their content.



Nandini Rathi’s summation

Nandini Rathi/ A brief and crackling history of fireworks in India/ The Indian Express / November 10, 2023

Crackers and fireworks up to nineteenth century India were probably quite expensive and hence commissioned mainly by the rulers for personal and citizen entertainment or by the economically well-to-do of the community.

“The use of fireworks in the celebration of Diwali, which is so common in India now, must have come into existence after about 1400 AD, when gunpowder came to be used in Indian warfare,” stated late historian P K Gode in his account, “ History of Fireworks in India between 1400 and 1900,” published in 1950.

Gunpowder — the accidental tenth or eleventh century invention of medieval Chinese alchemists — was early on dubbed as “devil’s distillate,”

Fireworks in medieval Indian celebrations

One of the earliest notes of pyrotechnical shows in India is made by Abdur Razzaq, the ambassador of the Timurid Sultan Shahrukh to the court of the Vijayanagar king Devaraya II in 1443. Describing the events of the Mahanavami festival, Razzaq wrote, “One cannot without entering into great detail mention all the various kinds of pyrotechny and squibs and various other arrangements which were exhibited”.

Italian traveler Ludovico di Varthema who visited India in this period, made a similar observation while describing the city of Vijaynagar and its elephants: “But if at any time they (elephants) are bent on flight it is impossible to restrain them; for this race of people are great masters of making fireworks and these animals have a great dread of fire…”

Fireworks and pyrotechnic shows existed as a form of royal entertainment in many medieval Indian kingdoms during festivals, events and special occasions like weddings. Manufacturing formulas for fireworks describing pyrotechnic mixtures are found within Kautukachintamani, a Sanskrit volume by Gajapati Prataparudradeva (1497-1539), a reputed royal author from Orissa. Gode mused on the possibility that Chinese pyrotechnic formulas were brought to India around 1400 AD and then modified with the use of Indian substitutes for the Chinese ones not available in India.

It is notable that Ibrahim Adil Shah, the Sultan of Bijapur, circa 1609 AD gave a lavish dowry in the wedding of his courtier’s daughter to the son to Nizam Shahi general Malik Ambar, “with Rs. 80,000 being spent on fireworks alone,” states late historian Satish Chandra in his well-known volume Medieval India: From the Sultanate to the Mughals. While rulers were primarily the organising sponsors of these shows, it is clear that other citizens also had access to fireworks.

Duarte Barbosa, a writer and officer of Portuguese India who wrote some of the earliest pieces of travel literature, described a Brahmin wedding in Gujarat from his travels (circa 1518) where the bride and bridegroom “are entertained by the people with dancing and songs, firing of bombs and rockets in plenty, for their pleasure.” His description, according to Gode, also suggested that the fireworks had been manufactured in India and were available in plenty in Gujarat at the time.

Elaborate description of fireworks in mythological works from this period also bring in imaginations of pyrotechnic exuberance, familiar to the writers of this period, around these epic events. For example, a popular sixteenth century Marathi poem by the saint Eknath called Rukmini Swayamvara, describing Rukmini’s wedding with Krishna, mentions a range of fireworks, from rockets to the equivalent of the modern phooljhadi.

By the eighteenth century, fireworks began to become de rigueur in grand scale Diwali entertainments organised by rulers. Peshwayanchi Bakhar, a Maratha chronicle text, mentions a recounted account of Diwali celebration in the Kotah (modern Kota, Rajasthan). Mahadji Scindia in it describes to Peshwa Savai Madhavarao: “The Divali festival is celebrated for 4 days at Kota, when lacs of lamps are lighted. The Raja of Kota during these 4 days gives a display of fire-works outside the premises of his capital. It is called … “Lanka of fire-works”.

Mahadji then went on to describe an image of Ravana at the centre, surrounded by rakshasas, mon[k]eys and a big image of Hanuman prepared in Gunpowder, which upon being lit actually illustrated the scene of Lanka dahan via Hanuman’s tail via pyrotechnics. After hearing this, the Peshwa gave orders for a similar display of fireworks for his entertainment. The resultant grand performance, as per the chronicle, was “witnessed by the people of Poona in large numbers”.

A historical account in Marathi by Rai Bahadur D.B. Parasnis translating to English fireworks in India mentions the arrival of a skilled English pyrotechnician in India circa 1790 AD, who first impressed the British in Calcutta with his performance and was then sent by them to Asaf-ud-Daullah, the Nawab of Oudh, whom he regaled with a spectacular, continuous display in the sky of colorful fireflowers, fishes, serpents and stars. In one display, a mosque arose in the sky.

Thus, by the late Peshwa period… many references to Diwali along with accompanying description of fireworks or atishbazi began surfacing in various publications. Often these makers of fireworks were also the manufacturers of gunpowder,

Fireworks in modern India

In the colonial era, it is likely that like most indigenous industries, India’s fireworks production and development also took a setback, with imports from Europe and China appearing in the Indian market.

The first fireworks factory in India was set up in Kolkata in the nineteenth century. After Independence, Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu emerged as India’s Firecracker hub, benefitting from the restrictions of imports of firecrackers.



Accidents in Indian firecracker factories, 2018-21
From: February 13, 2021: The Times of India

See graphic:

Accidents in Indian firecracker factories, 2018-21

Banned ingredients

Lithium, antimony , mercury , arsenic, lead

AmitAnand Choudhary, Fireworks to lose sparkle as SC bars use of 5 substances, August 1, 2017: The Times of India

The Supreme Court has banned fireworks manufacturers from using five substances that stoke air and noise pollution, an order that is likely to mean firecrackers with subdued sound and light effects this Diwali. The substances barred are lithium, antimony , mercury , arsenic and lead.

Lithium is a metal used to impart red colour to fireworks, while antimony is used to create glitter effects.Lead oxide provides a special crackling effect which, if inhaled, in high concentration could cause damage to the nervous system.

A bench of Justice Madan B Lokur and Justice Deepak Gupta on Monday banned the use of the substances in the manufacture of firecrackers after senior officers of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the Petroleum and Explosive Safety Organisation (PESO) briefed the court about their impact.

The court also directed CPCB and PESO to lay down standards with regard to the chemical composition of firecrackers.

“It appears that no standards have been laid down by the CPCB with regard to air pollution by firecrack ers. Dr A B Akolkar, member secretary of CPCB, says it will take some time to arrive at the standards and it will be done by September 15, at the latest. In the meanwhile, we direct that no firecrackers manufactured by the respondents (companies) shall contain antimony , lithium, mercury, arsenic and lead in any form whatsoever. It is the responsibility of the PESO to ensure compliance,“ the bench said.

The role of Diwali fireworks in stoking pollution is a hotly debated issue. It has been pointed out that Diwali is a one-day affair celebrated once every year and questions are raised on whether such restrictions can have lasting effects on curbing pollution. On the other hand, fireworks are also a frequent part of weddings and, sometimes, even birthday celebrations.

Ban on sales

2015-17: SC's ‘approach on the issue has varied’

AmitAnand Choudhary, Lack of credible study prompts SC flip-flops, October 10, 2017: The Times of India

 The petition seeking a ban on firecrackers in NCR has been pending in the Supreme Court since 2015 but the court's approach on the issue has varied as its first order banned sale following which the order was modified to allow limited sale and finally a ban re-imposed just ahead of Diwali.

The twists and turns on the part of the apex court were mainly because there is no credible and reliable study by any Indian agency on the extent bursting of firecrackers affects the environment and private agencies have reported contradictory findings. The court, which had in 2015 turned down a plea to ban firecrackers during Diwali, intervened in the light of pollution levels after Diwali in 2016 and suspended all licences of sellers of firecrackers.

The data remain inconclusive with a study by IIT, Kanpur, finding that levels of pollution can be higher than on Diwaliboth before and after the festival is celebrated.

“The capital was smogged into an environmental emergency of unseen proportions,“ the court had said while justifying its interim order to ban firecrackers. It had also directed Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to file a report within three months on the harmful effects of materials used in fireworks. The court had said that it would review its interim order after going through the report.

But CPCB failed to comply with the order and told the court that firecrackers did not come in its jurisdiction and the task be entrusted to another government agencyPetroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO). As the government agencies did not produce any credible and empirical study on the issue, the court was virtually forced to modify its ban order and allow sale of firecrackers on September 12.

“What is necessary now is to correlate air pollution with the sale and bursting of fireworks in Delhi and NCR.There is no doubt that the air we breathe gets polluted with the bursting of fireworks. The extent of air pollution caused by bursting of fireworks is not clear in the absence of empirical data ­ it could be severe or it could be marginal, but it is there,“ the bench had said.

“It is astonishing that CPCB has not conducted the study and prepared a report as directed. Apart from the fact that the CPCB has not conducted any study , even otherwise, no standards have been laid down by CPCB which could give any indication of the acceptable and permissible limit of constituent metals or chemicals used in fireworks and released in the air, beyond which their presence would be harmful or dangerous,“ the court had noted.

It had appointed a high level committee consisting of representatives from CPCB, National Physical Laboratory, Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences, IIT Kanpur, Fire Development and Research Centre, National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and scientists from the state pollution control boards to conduct a study on adverse health impact on people due to bursting of fireworks during Dussehra and Diwali.

2016, ’17: SC bans sale in NCR in October

AmitAnand Choudhary, SC drops a bomb, bans cracker sales, October 10, 2017: The Times of India

Attempt To Curb Diwali Pollution In Delhi-NCR

The Supreme Court reimposed on Monday a ban on sale of firecrackers in the national capital region ahead of Diwali, set to be celebrated on October 19, in view of concerns over pollution caused by smoke and chemicals released into the air.

The order, however, does not prohibit bursting of crackers -which means that people with last year's stock can use firecrackers. But the ban on sale is clearly intended to drastically reduce the use of firecrackers in Delhi and surrounding areas. The ban will be in force till October 31.

A bench of Justices A K Sikri, A M Sapre and Ashok Bhushan restored SC's Novem ber 2016 order banning sale of crackers in NCR and put this September's order -which allowed limited sale but banned imports from other states -in abeyance till October-end.

The SC had passed last ye ar's order after Diwali in view of the high level of pollution, saying the city was “smogged“ into an environmental emergency of unseen proportions. The ban continued till September 12 when the court modified its order and allowed limited sale of firecrackers but banned import from other states.

While the court had in its September order said there was a need for a balanced and graded approach to controlling pollution rather than radical steps, the proceedings took a different turn on Monday . The bench noted there were several factors contributing to a pollution crisis in the city and the extent of the adverse impact of bursting of firecrackers needs to be ascertained.

“We are of the view that the order suspending the licences should be given one chance to test itself in order to find out as to whether there would be positive effect of this suspension, particularly during the Diwali period. Insofar as adverse effects of burning of crackers during Diwali are concerned, those have been witnessed year after year. The air quality deteriorates abysmally and alarmingly and the city chokes. It leads to closing the schools and the authorities are compelled to take various measures on emergent basis, when faced with health emergency situation,“ the bench said.

“This very situation had occurred on the very next morning after Diwali in the year 2016. It resulted in passing the order dated November 11, 2016.This order prevailed during the year but the impact and effect of this order remains to be tested on Diwali days. Going by these considerations, we are of the opinion that the judgement dated September 12, 2017 passed by this court should be made effective only from November 1,“ it said.

Holding that there is “virtually a consensus“ in society that crackers should not be burnt in Diwali with govern ments, NGOs and others carrying a campaign against them, the court said, “Irony is that when causes are brought in the court, there is resistance from certain quarters.“

Delhi police spokesperson, Dependra Pathak, meanwhile, appealed to people to adhere to the rules. “We will start prosecuting violators as soon as possible,“ said Pathak.

The court had previously held that there was no conclusive proof that extremely poor quality of air in Delhi last winter, which pushed SC to pass a ban order, was the result only of bursting of fireworks around Diwali.

The ban hit the livelihood of 8 lakh persons

January 5, 2018: The Times of India

About 840 firework factories in Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu have shut due to the uncertainty created by the ban on crackers, DMK member Tiruchi Siva said in the Rajya Sabha on Thursday. Raising the issue during the zero hour, the lawmakers said this was affecting the livelihood of eight lakh people as he argued that fireworks were the not the only reason for pollution.

Noise pollution

Lower than vehicle horns

Mohammad Ibrar, Oct 9, 2019: The Times of India

Noise levels of vehicle horns and firecrackers
From: Mohammad Ibrar, Oct 9, 2019: The Times of India

Honking of vehicles is a bigger noise polluter than firecrackers with decibel levels going up to 100. In comparison, crackers emit up to 90 decibels noise.

This was revealed by a study conducted in February and March for around 30 days by Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology (IIIT), Delhi. It was found that honking noise, especially from two-wheelers, is far more problematic as it continuously occurs for hours daily.

The researchers measured noise pollution on eight prominent roads and 12 intersections of the city. They found that roads with a metro line or station are far noisier as concrete reflects sound.

Pravesh Biyani, assistant professor with Electronic and Communication (ECE) department of IIIT, which conducted the study, said that they used a customised instrument to measure the noise for 60 continuous hours over several days.

“We removed the honking noise from other noises that you generally hear on the roads. Since I work on speech source separation field, we used that to identify honking from a mixture of sounds. It was found that on a given day, the decibel levels of honking reached up to 100 decibels. Twowheelers are the biggest culprits for noise pollution because their numbers are higher than cars,” Biyani said.

The research stated that if honking is reduced in vehicles, it could help reduce noise pollution by a huge amount. “However, we need to take other steps, especially on roads that have an overhead metro station or line. At Govindpuri station, we found the decibel level reaching 100,” said Biyani.

“There is a need to put noise absorbers on metro pillars and stations as well as road dividers. We found that concrete is not a good noise absorber and, in fact, reflects sound. Because of this, the decibel levels were a little higher on roads with a metro station,” Biyani said, adding that IIIT will release their research data with decibel data sets and videos of roads soon. “We want to put our results in public to assist other researchers,” he said.

Continuous noise can be damaging to the ear. “Hair cells in the ear get damaged severely if one is exposed to loud noises for a long period,” said Dr Ravi Meher, professor at Maulana Azad Medical College. “The damage depends on the intensity of the sound. If the noise is in the range of 80-90 decibels, then it can damage ears within eight hours. If the sound increases to 100 decibels, then one can get affected in less than six hours,” he added.

A team of student researchers at IIT-Delhi had showcased a study done by them during Industry Day on September 21. “Natural products like jute, husk and cotton can be effective noise absorbers,” said a research poster on display.

See also

Sivakasi, Virudhunagar

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