Year before last we were in the Dwarka sub-city of Delhi during Deepawali. For several months before the festival there began a movement against fire crackers and “bombs” of different kinds which caused both atmospheric and noise pollution. The highest court of the land pronounced a judgement against this annual ritual of denying the citizens their right to clean air and a night’s undisturbed sleep.

The government began a publicity blitzkrieg to “sensitize” the people against the ill effects of this tradition of bursting crackers. Senior doctors of highly reputed hospitals came live on television channels to tell us how seriously did pollution threaten the health of the citizens of Delhi, and the need to tackle the situation on a war footing.

There were big debates on the TV channels where learned panelists entertained the viewers by their usual erudition or the lack of it. The doctors, scientists and the activists gave graphic details of the dangers of air and noise pollution in Delhi – to which the Deepawali crackers were major contributors, especially as they combined with the fumes generated by the burning of agricultural wastes in Haryana and Punjab to make the capital’s air poisonous.

Not surprisingly, some highly religious persons with deep knowledge of the shastras countered the pro-change group. They argued that it was an age-old Hindu tradition to light fire-crackers and noise and smoke-emitting contraptions on the day of Deepawali, and that they did not think that one night of smoke and noise was too bad for anyone’s health – whatever the western educated doctors might say! They also wondered why only the Hindus – and not the followers of other religions – were being told to shun their traditions.

The environmental activists and the doctors or experts on the panels perhaps treasured their lives and hence could not muster the courage to ask the purebred, fire-brand Hindus whether they would like the equally traditional practices of burning widows and ‘wiches’, sacrificing human beings to propitiate goddess Kali for gaining occult powers, oppressing the so-called lower castes, female feticide and many other such traditions to be either reinstated or allowed to go on.

No one even asked the pundits as to why this festival was called Deepawali and not Shabdawali or Dhumrawali if sound and smoke were so integral to it.

Anyhow, there was much ado about nothing and, on the evening of the festival, as soon as the sun dipped behind the horizon it seemed that the Indian army had unleashed the most fearsome attack on our enemies with the deadliest of weapons in its arsenal. Even after fastening all the doors and windows, there was no escape from the toxic smoke that burnt our eyes and choked our lungs. The city’s sky was covered by the huge smoke generated by hundreds of thousands of crackers.

Tradition and stupidity won, sanity and science took a beating. That was two years ago.

This time around we have been highly skeptical of the reports that there has been a total ban on high decibel fire-crackers and that licences to sell any fire cracker have been made very difficult to obtain.

The Delhi government and many private organisations have been advising the people about the health hazards of burning crackers and encouraging them to celebrate the festival in its real spirit by using lights rather than sound and smoke. We appreciated these efforts but, once bitten twice shy, we couldn’t be sure about their effect on the people.

We, therefore, awaited the Deepawali evening with both apprehension and expectation. Apprehension that this year would be no different, if not worse; and expectation that good sense might prevail after all the right noises created to make the people aware about the need to change.

I must say a great surprise awaited us. As evening descended, the sub-city came alive with lights of all varieties and colours. The buildings were bedecked with colourful but soft lights, and sparkling dots of mini lamps of different hues lit up almost all the balconies of the town. There was hardly any sound of bursting of crackers, and the sight of all these lights against the dark sky was unbelievably beautiful. In fact, we went to our roof top to have a look.

Dwarka on Deepawali Night

As evening merged into night, some noise of bursting crackers could be heard, but mostly from far away. The sound of the noise-crackers burst by the children of Dwarka were much muted. Even the number of flower pots and rockets was much lower than the previous years . These, of course, created smoke and polluted the air but this was within tolerable limits. We were at least spared the dreaded nightmare of ear-splitting cracker bursts that was the norm in the past.
Kalipuja was being celebrated on this day, and we drove to the Kali temple to participate in it. It was around 11 o’clock at night. The streets were quiet and the township was flooded with lights all around. When we returned in the early morning everything was quiet. It was the first time in many years that we dared to go out on a Deepawali night in Delhi and returned home for a good night’s rest.

Media reports tell us that the overall level of pollution in Delhi worsened on this Deepawali day too. There are also news stories of people bursting crackers with noise levels far beyond that approved by the authorities, and that smoke from flower pots and other crackers engulfed many parts of Delhi.

However, in my own experience, in this battle between the so-called tradition and the need to make the city livable, our Dwarka has almost unanimously voted for the latter. I have absolutely no doubt that the huge efforts by the government, the school authorities and many non-governmental organisations has borne fruit at least in Dwarka. This Deepawali was truly Deepawali – the wonderful festival of lights – for this mostly residential township of some 1.1 million people.

Dwarka has shown the way. Let the rest of Delhi show that they also care for the environment as much as Dwarkaites do.