As a child growing up in the rural Maharashtra in the late 80s and 90s , I heard exotic colloquial phrases used by elders around me almost constantly. More than a few were colourful enough not to risk reproduction here, but a relatively mild one comes to mind while opening the fire cracker controversy. When translated it meant “everybody wants Bhagat Singh to be their neighbour’s child”, which meant- people like martyrs, just not in their own family.
In the 21st century this thought process has taken an aggressive turn where on occasions,people are making the ludicrous demand that their neighbour’s kid be a martyr. Nowhere this tendency is as obvious as in the environment protection movement.
Before we begin the argument on whether fire crackers be banned in earnest, allow me to trace my way back all the way to 1963 (some 15 years before I was born) and to another environment protection controversy. It will serve as a good example of how when it comes to sacrifices, environmentalists are often guilty of “neighbour’s son as martyr” and also how mankind’s hubris of playing God often has disastrous consequences.
Briefly the facts- A scientist named Paul Muler discovered DDT which was found to be effective against mosquitos when sprayed. It was used aggressively to control malaria and had great success. By 1970 WHO announced that malaria has been eradicated from 37 countries. However, 7 years prior to that a marine biologist (suffering from terminal cancer) Rachel Carson wrote a book called “Silent Spring” that claimed DDT caused various ailments and had detrimental effect on wild life as well as human beings. The book was well received and the pressure caused EPA to ban DDT in 1970. Developing countries were told they would stop receiving donations if they continued DDT use. Malaria made a powerful return. Some estimates peg deaths due to Malaria since 1970 to now to between 20 and 50 million. To put this in perspective, Hitler’s infamous concentration camps had 6 million victims.
There are many sides to this story and the scope of this article prohibits me from going in details. However two points to ponder if you don’t mind me playing armchair psycho-analyst. 1. Ms. Carson was a best-selling author already when she wrote Silent Spring. Would malaria, a disease often caused by conditions typically found in people of lower income have any resonance with her? For an urban, well to do woman the threat of malaria even in 50s would be about as real as the threat of a STD to a celibate monk. 2. The underlying theme of Silent Spring was DDT as a carcinogen, without any disrespect to Ms. Carson and her life’s work, do we really think the thinking of a terminal cancer patient on this topic would have remained objective all the time?
It is on the first question I raised above that I would like to, at lengths, arrive on my discussion about the firecracker ban efforts being made. These efforts are on round the year but intensify during this time when the nation is celebrating Diwali. Recently, 3 lawyers on behalf of their infant children lodged a PIL (that SC eventually dismissed) for banning fire crackers, citing clean air as a fundamental right. I refuse to use the newspaper version of “infants lodging the PIL thought their parents”. It is stupid and it assumes facts not in evidence. At worst, as the late George Carlin would say it was a sophisticated form of child abuse.
Without getting into too much stereotyping, most of the people who oppose firecracker ban are from the upper socio-economic strata of the society. I do not know of any mill worker’s association or a rickshaw driver’s union opposing firecrackers as yet. Let us also be clear the most of the people who oppose fire crackers have stopped bursting those years ago. So in their personal lives the ban on crackers is already in place. Now under the guise of protection of their fundamental right to clean air, they are moving on the territory of other people’s fundamental right of choice. The question to ponder is which one of these rights supersede the other?
To have any resonance, the ban fire cracker lobby must also turn an uncritical and unforgiving eye on automobile and air travel and lifestyle. Because only then we are discussing an area where an additional restriction would also mean a change in their lifestyle, a fair demand to make of those making a similar demand on other people’s lives. We cause pollution directly through use of electricity, fuels and transportation. In each area the economically well to do people would be ahead of their lesser fortunate counterparts.
1. Single passenger car travel- Anecdotally, this is the most popular means of transportation to and from work in urban areas. It is a double whammy since we cause both pollution and deplete fossil fuel resources which in itself is limited for the world. How will the ban lobby feel if they are not allowed to travel in car unless accompanied minimum by 2 other people?
2. Parking lots in the gyms and health clubs- Remember the joke about if you can’t drink and drive why bars have parking lots? Well, in gyms and health clubs the joke is on all those living around those gyms since people would sit in their expensive sedans, turn the a/c on full crank and drive to the gym so that they can ride the stationary bikes for 30 minutes. Aren’t the people who live in the surrounding areas paying a cost for your health consciousness? Can we support a zoning regulation that would prohibit builders from selling parking place to gyms?
3. Air-conditioners- We use them in cars, in offices and in a lot of homes. It is scientifically proven that cooling agents such as HCFC deplete the layer of Ozone in the atmosphere. Even more alarming , due to booming demand for air conditioners in countries such as India and China, the output demand for HCFS is upped by 25 to 25 % in developing countries and that is setting back ozone recovery by as much as 25 years. HCFC is banned in US since 2010, but developing countries would be allowed to use it till 2040. Or to put it in other words- relatively affluent people in developing countries will be allowed to damage the ozone layer in environment till 2040. Why can’t we at least start by banning a/c in cars during the months from say Sept to January to start with? Will the ban fire cracker lobby go along with me on this?
4. Recreational travel- Since I am a marathoner, allow me to quote an example from my own field. Each year marathons like TCS NYC marathon and the fabled Boston marathon attracts people from all over the globe to compete. Now here is the flip side- a single transatlantic flight has the same carbon footprint as a automobile constantly running for 5 years. Aeroplanes cause greater damage to ozone layer than the road transportation vehicles. And yet nobody questions if air travel should be allowed for recreational purposes at all or not. In fact it would be interesting to see how much pollution is caused by tourism since the underlying theme of all tourism is asking people to travel when not needed.
5. Beef eating- Studies after studies have shown, growing meat (beef in particular but generally any meat ) leaves a far bigger carbon footprint on the earth than veg food of equal weight. To grow one pound of beef, for example, requires seven pounds of veg feed. Compared to wheat and potatoes, beef requires 160 times more land and produces 11 times more greenhouse gas emissions. Ironically, the same people who demand ban on firecrackers are also the most vocal opponents of beef ban on the grounds of personal liberties. Will we be willing to impose a nationwide ban on beef for the harmful impact it has on the surroundings.
Each of the above examples meet the basic criteria used in the firecracker ban argument of those not using something have a stake in those using it if environment is involved. In fact since firecrackers are burst only on occasions but usage of cars, a/cs, planes and consumption of beef goes on year round, the positive impact of these moves would be far greater than banning firecrackers.
So we stop driving to work unless we car pool, we deal with dust and pollution present in air for about seven months a year since a/c is not allowed , we do not travel unless we have to and we go veggie. Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it folks? Now imagine you are the kid of a factory worker. You have to work incredibly hard all year round and live in conditions that many of us would find unliveable. Now imagine the kid looking forward to 4 days if fun blowing stuff up (I mean what boy does not like watching explosions folks?) and we go and tell him “sorry kid, no can do. My kid has a right to clean air and your right of having fun in an otherwise dreary, hard scrabbled existence must be taken away”. I like to think that before we tell this to that kid, we need to tell our own kids to walk to the schools every day, not ask for pleasure rides in our cars and accept that exotic locations like Alps and Kenya are only for watching over television. Travelling over there will cause too much pollution.
And that precisely is the root cause of the ban fire crackers movement and its hollow rhetoric. Most of the people who demand firecrackers to be banned are not protesting because of the effect it has on environment, they are protesting because they don’t like firecrackers. It is a blatant attempt to legislate your tastes under the guise of fundamental rights. As HBO talk show host Bill Maher says “this is lazy liberalism where scolding (for doing things) other people replaces actually doing something”.
Giving up travelling by cars, not going to malls and not travelling abroad will demand a fundamental change in our own selves. Unfortunately today’s lazy liberal only wants to see others making that kind of change.
Mahatma Gandhi who said be the change you wish to see, would not have approved.
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