Thursday, March 08, 2012

IEDs in Diwali and Toxic chemicals in Holi

by Ajay Shah.

When I was young, resounding explosions and other fireworks were an integral part of Diwali. It was not possible to conceive of Diwali any other way. If you extrapolated into the future, and envisioned the next doubling of GDP, you'd have forecast that there would be much more than 2x the explosions and other glittering displays, assuming that social mores stayed unchanged.

There was a dark side to such Diwali celebrations: the inevitable trickle of people engaging with explosives who got hurt, extreme discomfort for all forms of life other than humans, and air pollution. Many years ago, it seemed like all these problems were real, but there wasn't any other way. It was hard to conceive of a world where Diwali was celebrated differently.

I used to think there was a common goods problem: Each individual gained utility out of igniting fireworks, despite imposing externalities on other creatures (of various species) in terms of noise or pollution. It isn't easy to get humans to be concerned about externalities imposed upon others.

I have been astonished at how these three messages (accidents, animal rights, pollution) have gone through to the young, and Diwali now involves much less of the fireworks than used to be the case. After we factor in the GDP growth, the change is simply amazing. By rights, such a social transformation should have been very hard. But it happened. I wonder how this happened. (There is some data on this phenomenon at Central Pollution Control Board, but the work is of poor quality and the website is terrible, so it's hard to compare 2002 against 2011).

Fast forward to Holi. Holi seems deeply entrenched, particularly in North India. There is a dark side to Holi celebrations: toxic chemicals, sexual harassment, substance abuse. All these problems are real, but there doesn't seem to be any other way. Unlike the problems of Diwali, two out of these three (toxic chemicals and substance abuse) are about private goods: the individuals who engage in certain practices are the direct losers as a consequence. So there isn't a common goods problem here; this should be easier to solve. But it's hard to conceive of a world where Holi is celebrated differently.

Or should we be so pessimistic? I saw a story on NDTV: Nearly 175 hospitalised for colour poisoning. As information about these problems spreads, will behaviour change? In an ideal world, we should have the public goods of Health/Safety/Environment regulation, ensuring that the dyes used are safe. In an ideal world with high quality police and courts, the sexual harassment and Holiganism will be checked. But it will be many years before India has such governance capacity; at present the main focus of politicians is not upon public goods. For a few decades, the only way forward is for a lot of people to step away from the present social mores. It happened with Diwali; could it happen to Holi?

Could it happen to Ganpati Visarjan in Bombay?


  1. The change in Diwali celebrations surely came by way of 'spreading the word' through schools and children led from the front. For the same to happen with Holi, the message has to be targeted to young adults - do you sense a challenge there?

  2. A bigger concern was about the news of a boy dying. Also, when you dig up the internet you will find that some of these boys have broken into a dying unit and have stolen real toxic color from there. Who should be blamed? My guess is the parents and the society?

  3. Because of the awareness and education today, many people, if not all, are making Diwali a festival of lights rather than of noise. Thankfully, the cost of crackers is also a deterrent. Despite the education, still some children and adults, unfortunately, have become the victims of the viciousness of crackers. A lot more work needs to be done to prevent injuries during Diwali. As far Holi is concerned, education is the key for the sale and use of safe colors. Thank you for the useful post.

  4. It is also a question of culture. The tendency to cheat, harass, steal etc varies between cultures. Unfortunately, we are not the best in these aspects. You can only control so much with a police state. People need self-control and there are many cultural groups around the world who are much more disciplined and scrupulous than us.


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