Hit hard by cracker ban in Delhi, traders ask: ‘What do we do with all our stock?’

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Stock worth lakhs, ordered this year or left over from previous years, have become worthless for traders who deal in firecrackers in the capital. The Delhi government, which had earlier banned sale, purchase and use of firecrackers ahead of Diwali, has now extended the ban for the entire festival season till the end of the year in a bid to curb pollution.

Each year in Delhi-NCR, a combination of dipping temperatures, low wind speed, and paddy stubble burning sends the air quality on a downward spiral. Add to this cocktail particulate matter and toxic smoke released because of firecrackers on Diwali, and the air in the region shoots up to the severely polluted category.

The ban, government officials believe, will help mitigate the effects which can last a couple of days, or even weeks.

While the ban till Diwali was announced on September 15, it was extended on September 28. The government had banned crackers in 2020 as well but the announcement was made only in the beginning of November, a week before Diwali. Though the announcement has been made earlier this year, traders said they will still suffer.

At Sadar Bazar, an entire line of stores along Qutab Road would have begun preparing for cracker sales by now, but the ban has kept firecrackers away from the busy market this year.

H S Chhabra, who runs a store selling gas stove equipment and applies for a temporary licence for firecracker sales every year, said nine traders at Sadar Bazar had applied for temporary licences this year. “Orders for stock from Sivakasi are usually placed well in advance, a few months ahead of Diwali,” he said.

While some traders had already placed orders this year, others are unsure of what they can do with stock pending from the last few years. “Green firecrackers from the last two years are still left, stock worth around Rs 8 lakh to Rs 10 lakh. We were hoping to sell that this year and at least get rid of existing stock. If they are left unused for a few years, the firecrackers begin to lose their sound and light impact,” said Gurpreet Singh, who runs a toy store in Sadar Bazaar and had applied for a temporary licence this year before the ban.

“Most of the stock is stored in ‘magazines’ or godowns outside Delhi, in places like Panipat,” added Chhabra.

The stock is brought into the city only once the licence is issued. While some traders might try to sell the stock outside Delhi, most are anticipating that other states might also ban sale and use this year, like the Rajasthan government recently did.

“Has sale of other substances injurious to health also stopped? What’s the connection between Covid and crackers?” asked Chhabra. As licences are issued for a brief period, customers would sometimes stock up for other occasions as well, others said.

What data shows

Data on air quality after Diwali shows that the effect of pollution caused during the festival is felt more in the 48 hours following it. Between 2016 and 2020, the most polluted day in a five-day time period was either the day post Diwali or the day after that.

According to experts, while low temperature helps in the accumulation of pollutants, high wind speed can help disperse these — a rarity in winters. The influx of pollutants from stubble burning in states such as Punjab and Haryana also have a direct impact.

After monsoons, the wind direction changes from south easterly to north westerly. This means smoke and particulate matter from stubble burning is carried into the city, rather than away from it, and the wind is not strong enough for dispersion. Once pollutants reach Delhi, they stay and accumulate because of weakened winds.

Last year proved to be an outlier as strong winds were seen two days after Diwali, taking the AQI from a high of 435 to 221 in a matter of 24 hours.

For those in the firecracker trade, meanwhile, the pay-off has been reducing each year. While the Supreme Court ordered in 2019 that only green crackers will be allowed in the city that year, all crackers were banned a week before the festival last year.

“This used to be the time of the year when traders made good business,” said toy store owner Ajit Singh. He used to sell firecrackers till a few years ago but stopped applying for a licence when the government began to clamp down on sales.

While Sadar Bazaar no longer has any permanent firecracker stores, the shelves are empty at three permanent standalone stores behind Jama Masjid, with shop owners and staff idling outside.

Amit Jain, whose store displayed a range of firecrackers till the ban, has packed up all his stock and sent it to places outside Delhi. “Stores here had stock worth a few lakhs each. We can no longer keep it here since there are regular police inspections. This is the business we have been doing for 3-4 generations. We’ll move on to selling something else now, maybe decorations for birthdays and weddings,” Jain said. Chhabra and Jain have stocked up on toy guns at their stores for Diwali.

Tarun Sehgal, a trader from Paharganj, too has downed the shutters of his permanent firecracker store and left all the stock inside. “What else can we do? We have green crackers that we placed orders for last year, before they imposed the ban,” he said.