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Ban on Fireworks: A case of narrative fallacy

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Tripti Mathur Mehra is a civil servant and serves as FA&CAO in Indian Railways.

A writ petition was filed in the Apex Court in October 2015 by the country’s three youngest petitioners aged between 14 months and six years seeking relief against the use of fireworks, prevention of harmful crop burning, dumping of malba (garbage) and other steps for environment purification stating that the highest court of the land was “duty bound” to take interim steps in effectuating the people’s right to clean, healthy and breathable air under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

The demand for total ban on bursting firecrackers was rejected; however, SC ordered the government to give the wide publicity on print and other media about its ill effects and also asked the teaching community to actively spread awareness among the students. The court also reiterated that orders already issued in the July 2005 noise pollution case are to be adhered by the public and authorities.

The judgement of 2005 was lucid and quite exhaustive. One very important and positive observation made by the Court in its 2005 judgement was, “We are happy to note the way the people of the country and especially the younger generation has responded to the interim orders made from time to time by this Court. News reports came to our notice wherein certain schools were stated to have organized special lectures for children pointing out the adverse effects of noise pollution created by firecrackers just before the schools closed for the Diwali festival. As a result of these efforts, the children decided not to burst firecrackers during Diwali Festival. Some volunteered and took a vow to burst only firecrackers that do not create intolerable noise and confine their fun and frolic to the hours of the day. Such a response from young boys and girls who are our future and the educational institutions on whom lies the responsibility of shaping the future of this country is most welcome.”

Within a period of one year, in 2016, the same applicants asked for interim relief under the original petition citing emergent health conditions after Diwali night. This time, surprisingly, the Supreme Court granted interim relief [pdf] to applicants and ordered a ban on sale of firecrackers until further orders.

“Interim relief” is granted in a case where status quo is to be maintained till the final decision of the case takes place. This help is generally in the form of resources like money to pay a bill, or it can be an order that someone cannot proceed with an action until the case is heard. How Supreme Court fit this particular pollution related case in this definition is really intriguing. Shockingly, there is no mention of the 2005 case in this order which looks like a report of an environmental agency rather than a decision based on principles of natural justice. It is quite evident that SC decided to take the easier path and banned the sale of fireworks as a practical and simple alternative without analyzing the issue holistically. This order also resonates because of its sensational nature and its narrative appeals to us in a humane way.

The story took a different turn when manufacturers of fireworks affected by the decision came back seeking modifications in the order of 2016, demanding their right to work. This time Court in its order of 12th September 2017 lifted the ban and changed the narrative saying that burning of fire crackers is the major cause but not the only cause of pollution. Continuing the ban on sale of firecrackers would amount to a radical step while a graded and balanced approach was needed.

Interestingly, the court extensively referred to the judgement of 2005, along with new study from prestigious institutes like IIT Kanpur. These reports/studies pointed out that there are several sources of PM2.5 but the bursting of fire crackers is not one of them. There was also a mention of the National Green Tribunal’s decision that was taken a day before the SC interim relief order of 2016 in which seven reasons were recorded as contributors of pollution in NCR and Delhi. Clearly, the malaise of pollution is not restricted to the bursting of firecrackers only.

The story does not end here; the original applicants again sought revision of the order of September 2017 and this time, on 9th October the court re-imposed the ban stating that in order to test the efficacy of our order of 2016, we need to see its effects, which can only be seen with the ban imposed during Diwali time, so let’s give the ban a chance.  The court while delivering its order stated that our decision is based on the convincing and passionate reason brought to the notice of the court by the counsel of the original applicants that testing of the ban was required to determine its effectiveness.

It is crystal clear that the matter of fundamental right in the Apex Court has become an entangled case due to the flip-flops of the highest court of the land. The reason for these state of affairs is because even the court has gotten stuck in the fallacy of over-simplification (more description of this fallacy is available in chapter 6 of “The Black Swan”).

We like to summarize issues, and in so doing, we reduce their dimensions to simplify them. This limits our information and makes us better at explanation but not at understanding the real ground truths. This fallacy is associated to our predilection for compact and sensational stories over deep truths because deep understanding is costly to obtain and also costly to store. Overall, it is the shallowness of thought that impels us to adopt short cuts rather than logically thinking through issues in a thorough and reasoned way.

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Tripti Mathur Mehra is a civil servant and serves as FA&CAO in Indian Railways.
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