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~By Inderjit Badhwar

A few years ago, I wrote a cover story for India Legal which attracted widespread attention—both critical and laudatory. To use my own words, judges must often have to rush in where angels have feared to tread. Especially in dealing with matters of immense social, religious, ethnic and cultural sensitivity. When legislators and administrators, fearing a popular backlash, a violent repercussion or a political recoil, back off from making tough decisions or enacting laws that will be politically unpopular, the courts have the obligation to step in to advance society’s movement towards achieving goals which the march of civilisation has come to accept as self-evident, universal truths—kindness, fair play, equal rights, the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

These ethical compulsions, our cultural evolution as a species—propelled by religious and spiritual doctrines, revelations, philosophical treatises, reasoned discourse, the voices of peripatetic preachers—mark what is often referred to as the Ascent of Man. It is an obstacle course in which the impediments—religious sanction, superstition, bigotry, racial rage, violent conquest—are removed, sometimes by the terrible weapons of war, sometimes by non-violent, passive resistance, preachers, movements, the ballot, legislation, the courts. And we move on.

I was referring, then, to the Himachal Pradesh High Court. In October 2014, India had taken a great step in moving on when Justices Rajiv Sharma and Sureshwar Thakur gavelled a new prohibition: The high court banned the ritual Hindu sacrifice of animals and birds in temples, saying they “cannot be permitted to be killed in a barbaric manner to appease Gods”. There were no ifs and buts.

Opponents of that order, and they were a sizeable number, screamed that Hinduism was in danger because of that decision. The landmark judicial pronouncement was in response to writ petition CWP No. 5076/2012 seeking the ban on the grounds of boundless cruelty to other living creatures. Their adversaries argued that any such prohibition would curtail the right to practise, propagate and manage religion and religious affairs as guaranteed by Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution.

In October 2014, India took a great step in moving on when the Himachal Pradesh High Court banned the ritual Hindu sacrifice of animals and birds in temples, saying they “cannot be permitted to be killed in a barbaric manner to appease Gods”.

A similar ruckus has been raised over the Supreme Court’s recent order banning the sale of Diwali firecrackers in Delhi. Apart from the gripes of the economically-affected traders, the  move has set in motion a sentiment that the prohibition is an insult to the Hindu religion because this magnificent Hindu festival of lights has been celebrated all over the country for eons. Actually, Diwali is my favourite day of good cheer. I have always celebrated it with verve and, I might add, firecrackers. I enjoy the puja, the home aarti. But there comes a time to realise that you can’t have your prasadam and eat it too. If we want to continue to enjoy the religious ambience of Diwali, then we must recognise that in today’s polluted India, we cannot allow Diwali to become a pollution proliferator.

The proscription, as I see it, is not about religion—nobody is stopping the puja or the rituals with diyas—but about developing a social conscience to demonstrate that India’s spectacular festival can be made to showcase this nation’s determination to fight environmental pollution and global warming. I am not for a moment suggesting that the ban of fireworks sales in Delhi will solve this monumental global catastrophe. But symbolically, it will be a trend-setter, a role model. Realistically, it will save thousands of children and elderly people from being admitted to hospitals with lung diseases which are gravely exacerbated—with long-term consequences—by the pollutants and poisons from Diwali crackers.

To argue that protecting our children’s lungs from pollutants somehow insults the right to practice religion defies logic. Photo: UNI
To argue that protecting our children’s lungs from pollutants somehow insults the right to practice religion defies logic. Photo: UNI

This has nothing to do with Hinduism or with religion. I would gladly support similar restraints on any religion whose practice interferes with public health or degrades the environment or causes civic disruption. This has to do with a very nicely defined paradigm: pollution and its consequences. Period.

Let me quote from a recent report and documents circulated for public awareness by the government’s own Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB): “The festival of Diwali symbolizes the victory of light over dark, good over evil and knowledge over darkness. Diwali, a contraction of the word ‘Deepavali’ meaning a row of lights in Sanskrit, is often celebrated with food, cracker bursting, parties and, of course, colourful lights hanging everywhere. There is noise and smoke. The brighter the sparkles, louder the noise, the greater the thrill. Fireworks are burst because it is believed that it drives away evil spirits. Today, Deepavali is an amalgamation of gloom, darkness, despair, health problems, environment degradation and murk. Bursting of fire crackers creates significant pollution.”

To argue that the ban on cracker sales is a piecemeal measure and what-about-the-other-polluters-like-diesel-cars et cetera is to miss the point. You have to make a dramatic beginning somewhere and what better place than the most polluted city in the world?

These are not the words of the Supreme Court or the petitioners who sought the ban on fireworks on behalf of children suffering from lung ailments, but those of a responsible central agency functioning under a BJP government. The report says there is a misconception that pollution from Diwali crackers is only a once-in-a-year event and so there is no need to worry. Actually, it adds to the pollution level—Delhi is the most polluted city in the world—and its toxic health impact remains for several days. The report adds: “The noise triggers annoyance, aggression, hypertension, high stress levels, hearing loss and sleep disturbance. Fireworks are mainly composed of toxic chemicals like lead. In the olden days, Diwali signified bringing of light and happiness around but presently burning of firecrackers is the highlight of Diwali and for most of the people, Diwali is just a synonym to a night full of crackers barium, chromium, and chemicals and gases like carbon monoxide, nitrogen and sulphur oxides which are harmful to humans, animals, plants and overall environment.”

Over the years, the CPCB has been monitoring the ambient air and noise levels during Diwali. The noise levels are way above prescribed decibel limits day and night. In fact, the CPCB report refers to a PIL—Writ Petition (Civil) No. 728/2015—filed two years ago on behalf of three toddlers, Arjun Gopal, Aarav Bhandari and Zoya Rao Bhasin, aged between 6 and 14 months, seeking immediate steps to curb Delhi’s fatal air pollution, including a ban on firecrackers during Diwali. The Supreme Court directed the government to give wide publicity to the ill effects of fireworks and encourage restraint or responsible use and to encourage teachers to tell students not to buy and use fireworks. Specifically, the Court ordered:

  • The Union Governments and all state Governments will give wide publicity to the ill effects of fireworks and advise people to be cautious accordingly.
  • Teachers, lecturers, professors, of schools and colleges to educate students about the ill effects of the fireworks and to restrict usage; impose strict timing restrictions. Resident Welfare Associations to hold community fireworks for a brief period of 30 minutes on a single day.

Believe it or not, as early as October 1999, the CPCB, under the Environmental (Protection) Act, issued notifications banning sale or use of firecrackers generating noise levels exceeding 125 dB (AI) or 145 dB (C) pk at a four-metre distance from the point of bursting. It prohibited crackers at any time in silence zones. Observing that the “Right to Sleep” is a fundamental right, the Government of India has banned firecrackers between 10 pm and 6 am on Diwali.

The CPCB, no doubt, has tried its very best. Taking heart from the Supreme Court directions of 2015, the Board undertook a wide publicity campaign to tame the November 2015 Diwali. It issued pamphlets, and media ads about the health hazards of crackers, demonstrating to parents that not only children but also animals and birds share in the suffering.

Children and elderly people suffer the most as a result of toxic air during and after Diwali celebrations. Photo: Anil Shakya
Children and elderly people suffer the most as a result of toxic air during and after Diwali celebrations. Photo: Anil Shakya

The CPCB was particularly active in the southern zone. In reaching out to the student population, the Board held an event at Don Bosco School where the principal, Father Anand, and environmentalist Dr HKS Swamy along with teachers and pupils took a pledge: “We will fight pollution, we will celebrate the festival of lights by lighting only earthen lamps without crackers and contribute to safer and healthier future.”

The students were also advised to “implement the objectives of Prime Minister Modi’s Swachh Bharat Mission so as to keep the surroundings, home and school clean. They were instructed to make judicious use of paper and other resources, avoid use of plastics, switch over to organic and renewable material like jute.”

There comes a time to realise that you can’t have your prasadam and eat it too. If we want to continue to enjoy the religious ambience of Diwali, then we must recognise that we cannot allow it to become a pollution proliferator.

If Don Bosco could make a start in 2015, there is no reason the nation’s capital should be left behind. Obviously, the Supreme Court’s 2015 admonitions were not enough. Its recent order represents a continuity of effort. To argue that this is a piecemeal measure and what-about-the-other-polluters-like-diesel-cars et cetera is to miss the point. You have to make a dramatic beginning somewhere, and what better place than the most polluted city in the world which, by the way, also switched to CNG buses several years ago only because of the Supreme Court’s environmental activism and prodding.

For those who still argue that protecting our children’s and senior citizens’ lungs as well as the environment from pollutants somehow insults the right to practise the Hindu religion, I can only quote from the Himachal Pradesh High Court judgment with which I started this essay.

The Himachal Court opined that Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India protect religious beliefs, opinions and practices but not superstitions. “A religion has to be seen as a whole and thereafter, it can be seen whether a particular practice is core/central to the religion. It can be a hybrid also. In the instant case, offerings in the temples can be made by offering flowers, fruits, coconut, etc. According to us, there are compelling reasons and grounds to prohibit this practice. A democratic polity is required to be preferred to a system in which each one’s conscience is a law unto itself. The State has also the obligation under constitutional mandate to promote the health, safety and general welfare of the citizens and animals.

“The stand of the State Government in the reply is that this practice is prevalent from time immemorial and the people have a deep-rooted faith and belief in animal sacrifice. The Court has directed the State Government to propose a regulation to arrest this evil. The State Government instead of filing an affidavit giving therein measures required to curb this practice has chosen to file the reply (citing the Vedas, and Upanishadas and Puranas)…. We are in a modern era. The rituals, which may be prevalent in the early period of civilization have lost their relevance and the old rituals are required to be substituted by new rituals which are based on reasoning and scientific temper. Superstitions have no faith in the modern era of reasoning.

“These practices have outlived and have no place in the 21st century. The animal sacrifice of any species, may be a goat or sheep or a buffalo, cannot be, in our considered view, treated as integral/central theme and essential part of religion. It may be religion’s practice but definitely not an essential and integral part of religion. Hindu Religion, in no manner, would be affected if the animal sacrifice is taken out from it.

“We have to progress…. The essentials of any religion are eternal. The non-essentials are relevant for some time. The animal/bird sacrifice cannot be treated as eternal. We should experience religion. We have to stand up against the social evils, with which the society at times is beset with. Social reforms are required to be made…. The new Mantra is salvation of the people, by the people. Hindus have to fulfill the Vedantic ideas but by substituting old rituals by new rituals based on reasoning.

“The animals have basic rights and we have to recognize and protect them. The animals and birds breathe like us. They are also a creation of God. They have also a right to live in harmony with human beings and nature. No deity and Devta would ever ask for the blood.

“All Devtas and deities are kind-hearted…. The practice of animal/bird sacrifice is abhorrent and dastardly. The welfare of animals and birds is a part of moral development of humanity. Animals/birds also require suitable environment, diet and protection from pain, sufferings, injury and disease. It is man’s special responsibility towards the animals and birds being fellow creatures. We must respect the animals. They should be protected from the danger of unnecessary stress and strains.”

Then surely, are we not obligated to protect our elderly, our children, ourselves, and the new generation from the toxic rituals which would poison our environment?

Inderjit Badhwar is Editor-in-Chief, India Legal.
He can be reached editor@indialegallive.com

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