Written by Meenakshi Sinha.

In its recent judgement, the Supreme Court of India issued orders banning the sale of firecrackers within the Delhi-National Capital Region. The ban was issued around the festival of Diwali or Deepawali, widely celebrated in northern India, during which the firecrackers are customarily burst as part of the festivities. However, owing to the rising levels of air pollution within the Delhi-NCR, the bursting of firecrackers is criticised for contributing to the degradation of air quality.  Consequently, government authorities have time and again introduced measures or issued diktats to check environmental degradation within the Delhi-NCR.

For example, the Delhi government implemented the odd-even vehicle rule in 2015 to restrict vehicular pollution; the National Green Tribunal imposed a ban on the burning of paddy straw, etc. These measures undertaken by the government have met with selective successes and failures, and have been controversial. Be that as it may,  the highest court of India stepping in to regulate or rather prohibiting an activity that affects the livelihood of many –  which ideally is the domain of the legislature – has ignited a debate around judicial activism and judicial overreach.

Did the Supreme Court in its ban of the sale of firecrackers  selectively penalise a section of traders more than the other sections of citizens?

The Supreme Court judgement was hailed in certain quarters as upholding the right to life of many, as in the right to cleaner environment. Others criticised the judgement as an instance of judicial overreach and even questioned if it is at all the prerogative of the courts to experiment with measures that can have a plausible positive or negative impact on environmental conditions.  It is well past the festival of Diwali now, and as things stand, there is little evidence to suggest that the court imposed ban did anything to improve the air quality of Delhi or NCR substantially. The capital city of India continues to be enveloped in one of the worst smogs that it has ever seen. The ban was on sale of, rather than the bursting of, firecrackers; and from did not deter the bursting of firecrackers during the festive season.  This article explores if urban middle-class environmental activism has become grounds for rectifying differential standards of citizenship.

I define differential standards of citizenship as if interests of specific groups of the population are prioritised over others in the ‘larger public interest’, a phrase popularly used to justify such bans. Did the Supreme Court in its ban of the sale of firecrackers  selectively penalise a section of traders more than the other sections of citizens? The banning of the sale of firecrackers by the Supreme Court can be seen as regulating the commercial activities of certain groups through means of legal power.

In proscribing the sale of firecrackers within the Delhi-NCR, the Supreme Court had posited its judgement as trying to balance ‘the vital interests of the vast majority of citizens against the commercial interests of a few’. While the interests of the vast majority of the citizens of Delhi, presumably in the form of clean air and a better environment, were projected as their right to life, the commercial interests of a few traders, such as that of the right to livelihood, did not receive any recognition by the court,. The debate then is if the court leveraged the interests of a certain groups of citizens over other groups of citizens by using the language of rights. Is it not the case where the court granted rightful claims to citizenship to the vast majority of citizens of Delhi, but at the same time denied the traders of their rights of citizenship?

The second glaring question which arises from this judgement of the Supreme Court is why did the court not restrict or regulate the bursting of firecrackers, instead of merely imposing a ban on their sale. The restrictions on the bursting of firecrackers would have placed the burden equally on all citizens of Delhi, and not just the traders. If there would have been restrictions on the bursting of firecrackers, the traders would have seen a decline in the sale of crackers, but the wider citizenry of Delhi would have also shared the onus for ensuring a cleaner environment within the vicinity of Delhi-NCR. Why was it easy for the court to raise a finger against a small section of the traders and not penalise the vast majority of citizens of Delhi who managed to procure their share of firecrackers from elsewhere for the festivities?

The court order banning the sale of firecrackers reflects a class bias that has percolated into middle-class environmental activism. This bias intends to provide solutions to problems of urban ecological degradation through selective targeting of the economic activities of vulnerable groups. They do so without critically reflecting on their own practices of consumption.

Meenakshi Sinha recently her Ph.D. at the King’s India Institute at King’s College London. Her project was titled, ‘Political Economy of Land Acquisition for Urban Infrastructure Projects in India: A Comparative Study of State Intervention in Karnataka and Kerala’. Image Credit: CC by Diwali/Wikimedia Commons.

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