Have a Smokin’ Happy Diwali

smokin

Another Diwali is upon us. Smog, noise, and the usual muck that marks Lord Ram’s return home. Lately, a perceptible and steady decline in the use of firecrackers was seen during this Festival of Light. Despite the fact that the trend had more to do with rising prices and lower income growth, it led the optimists to assume that people’s attitude were changing for the better. Sadly, what I noticed this year is a preference for lower decibel firecrackers (read, more smoke and chemicals). Users seem to be saying “we are doing everyone a favour by not using loud ones.” To such Cuckooland dwellers, just a reminder of what the noiseless variety does to everyone:

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Given rising literacy levels and the fact that many, many, users are reasonably well educated, I do wonder if willful ignorance is at play here.

The comparison between tobacco smoking and the use of firecrackers is a useful one. There has been a huge backlash against smoking due the damage it does to the smoker and those around him. Considering the above, firecrackers seem to do a lot more damage and yet are subject to the most limited of restrictions. A comparison:

 

Cigarettes

Firecrackers

Who can buy Above 18 only Anyone with money
Where can it be sold No sale around schools, colleges, Anywhere
Where can it be used Cannot be used in any public place. Banned in workplaces Anywhere
Restrictions on advertisement No advertising allowed. No remotely indirect endorsement without explicit disclaimers None
Warnings Pictoral warnings cover most of the packaging None
Penalties Severe penalties for violations on users, sellers, and manufacturers Some provisions for wrist slaps exist on paper

Passive smoking through 2nd and 3rd hand smoke does a lot of proven damage, doubtless. Hence, people have now been given the choice of not inhaling cigarette smoke or any of its residue. Chemicals emitted by completely unrestrained use of firecrackers do much more damage and there is no escape from them. They waft through my home. They settle on my furniture. They seep through my skin. They enter my food chain. And there are no restraints on this. I have a say in avoiding a smoker; I have no say whatsoever in avoiding a person using firecrackers (except to leave the city for a couple of days).

The reason why the tobacco industry continues to exist and prosper is because of the employment and more importantly the taxes it generates. Combined tax revenue (Central Excise and State taxes) collected annually from tobacco products is around Rs. 30,000 crores annually. Regulations have put fiscal management in a sweet spot – those opting to poison themselves by smoking are free to do so, while paying a hefty financial penalty through punitive taxes while those who do not want any part of this are provided with well-enforced laws. Win-win. There surely are unresolved issues in that sector relating to taxation. Eg. cigarettes account for 11% of tobacco product consumption but 85% of taxes. This is because the bidi brigade dominates both the market and political clout. Operating in either the unorganized sector or by obtaining concessions through influence, they manage to stay out of the tax net mostly – this is where the tobacco industry has parallels with the firecracker industry.

The reason why the firecracker industry continues to exist and prosper is because of the religious significance of the product. Period. No politician has the balls to impose a much warranted ban or any severe restrictions on the sale and usage of fireworks.

Estimates on the fireworks market are unreliable. However, the total retail market is pegged at around Rs 10,000 crores. Of this, Chinese products account for about Rs 4,000 crores (20-40% cheaper, more variety, far more dangerous chemicals, and a customs clearance racket by importers are the hallmarks). The balance is spread between the unorganized sector (out of the tax net) and 2-3, very large and influential Indian manufacturers, all of whom thrive on using child labour, exploitation, absence of any kind of best practice, casual workers, and cheap inputs. Wholesaler and Retailer taxes have been on the rise but the momentum is nowhere near what it is for cigarette taxation.

The irony is that the Festival of Lights now ends up blocking out sunlight. I do wonder about Lord Ram – if he had any inkling about what the celebration of his return would turn into (wait, he is a God – he ought to know!), he’d have advised a dose of sanity to his followers.

Sunshine is the best disinfectant – let it shine on this industry and on the minds of its moronic customers. Happy Diwali.

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