NEW DELHI - With a toxic smog beginning to envelop New Delhi as winter approaches, residents of the Indian capital are set to make matters a lot worse by burning hundreds of thousands of firecrackers to celebrate the Hindu festival of Diwali early next month.
India, which has the world's 14 most polluted cities, has made little effort this year to curb the sale of ear-splitting, firecrackers that explode through Diwali night.
The smoke from them shrouds New Delhi and its satellite cities in a haze that can linger for days as wind speeds drop in the cooler weather, adding to pollution caused by the burning of crop residue, vehicle emissions and industrial gases.
Authorities, reluctant to step in to curb the rampant use of firecrackers on Diwali, one of the most important festivals for millions of Hindus across the country, are passing the buck to the Supreme Court to restrict the sale and use of fireworks.
"It's not always easy for the government to step into sensitive issues like banning fireworks on Diwali, but it works for us and others if the court decides to step in on this," said a senior official in the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who declined to be identified in line with government policy.
A spokesman for the federal Environment Ministry declined comment. A spokesman for the Delhi city government was not available for comment.
Last year, the Supreme Court temporarily banned the sale of firecrackers in and around the capital city, an area with a population of about 20 million. That reduced the use of fireworks - cutting resulting emissions by about 30 per cent - government officials said.
Indian farm labourers remove working on the outskirts of Amritsar, north-western India. The authorities have asked farmers not to torch fields to prepare them for the next crop.
This year, the court, which has heard submissions from the city government, the Environment Ministry and the firecracker industry, has so far refrained from giving an order to ban the sale of firecrackers.
The court hasn't indicated whether it will make a ruling before Diwali, which falls this year on Nov 7.
"The situation is going to be grim," Mr Ritwick Dutta, an environment lawyer associated with the not-for-profit Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment, told Reuters.
"You cannot have something monitored solely by the Supreme Court whose ruling last year can be seen only as a stop-gap arrangement."
While Diwali is celebrated throughout the country, New Delhi accounts for nearly half of India's demand for firecrackers.
Last year, the smog a few weeks after Diwali was so bad that Delhi resorted to emergency measures such as shutting schools and banning construction.
Despite rising pollution levels, the Delhi government and the federal Environment Ministry have shied away from asking the Supreme Court for a complete ban on the sale of firecrackers, according to the petitions reviewed by Reuters.
In its affidavit to the Supreme Court, the Environment Ministry has rather asked for the introduction of firecrackers that emit less harmful chemicals.
With the use of the new firecrackers, toxic emissions would go down by 30-40 per cent, said Mr Rakesh Kumar, director of the state-run National Environmental Engineering Research Institute.
"But the firecracker industry needs to come forward to take the samples of the prototype and the new chemical formulations that we've developed," Mr Kumar said in an interview.
Large-scale production of such fireworks would take time and require heavy investment, Mr K. Mariappan, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers' Association, told Reuters by telephone from Sivakasi in southern India.
Sivakasi accounts for nearly 90 per cent of India's total firecracker output, which is worth 60 billion rupees (S$1.12 billion) a year.
After last year's Delhi ban, production fell by nearly 40 per cent, resulting in lower revenues and job losses at nearly 80 firecracker plants that dot the town and employ about 300,000 people.
Shopkeepers in the trade say setting off firecrackers on Diwali is part of an ancient Hindu tradition and the Supreme Court must respect the sentiments of Hindus.
Mr Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, a spokesman for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, said he would personally distribute firecrackers if the Supreme Court decides to ban the sale of fireworks on Diwali.
"There should be a blanket ban on the sale of firecrackers, and not only on Diwali. I think it's hypocrisy to target Hindu festivals like Diwali," Mr Bagga said.
Sitting outside his shop Delhi's old city area, Mr Maheshwar Dayal Sharma, the fifth generation of his family to sell firecrackers, lamented that in 2017 he sold only 10 per cent of his inventory because of the court ban.
Diwali is celebrated only once a year and the impact of firecrackers lasts only for a couple of days, he said.
"Please don't blame us for the mess that is a result of a combination of factors like industrial and vehicular exhaust," he said.