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Banned firecrackers sold across Delhi markets

Nov 11, 2023 11:15 AM IST

Illegal sales of firecrackers are thriving in Delhi ahead of Diwali, despite a blanket ban on their sale, manufacture, storage, and use.

The streets are bustling. A sea of people course through the veins of Kamla Nagar market, one of Delhi’s busiest Diwali shopping destinations. The stores are packed to the rafters with clamouring customers. On either side of the broad main avenue, bright signboards jostle for a customer’s eyes. There is no space for subtlety. In the heart of this din sits “Sardar Ji Jeans”, occupying pride of place on the main road. Its blaring white neon sign sits above a wide, welcoming glass door. But adjacent to its name sits another sign – “Sardar Ji Patakhe Wale”, it reads. It isn’t much of a covert operation.

Spot checks by HT over the past week found violations by the dozen in a range of markets – Kamla Nagar, Sadar Bazar, Rajouri Garden, Ramesh Nagar, and near Jama Masjid. (Sanchit Khanna/ HT Photo) PREMIUM
Spot checks by HT over the past week found violations by the dozen in a range of markets – Kamla Nagar, Sadar Bazar, Rajouri Garden, Ramesh Nagar, and near Jama Masjid. (Sanchit Khanna/ HT Photo)

The streets are bustling. A sea of people course through the veins of Kamla Nagar market, one of Delhi’s busiest Diwali shopping destinations. The stores are packed to the rafters with clamouring customers. On either side of the broad main avenue, bright signboards jostle for a customer’s eyes. There is no space for subtlety. In the heart of this din sits “Sardar Ji Jeans”, occupying pride of place on the main road. Its blaring white neon sign sits above a wide, welcoming glass door. But adjacent to its name sits another sign – “Sardar Ji Patakhe Wale”, it reads. It isn’t much of a covert operation.

Inside, a middle-aged man is behind the counter. As two of his employees take customers through pairs of jeans, the man attends to a flurry of urgent queries from scores of customers, all asking the same thing: “Patakhe hain kya?” (Do you have firecrackers?). He nods and passes around a catalogue detailing each firecracker on offer.

Phuljhadi (sparklers), chakhri (ground spinners), anaar (flowerpots), rockets, ladi (bomb garlands), as well as a Big Skyshot – the store has a plethora of options, priced between 900 and 12,000, provided you place a bulk order.

There may be a blanket ban on the sale, manufacture, storage and use of all types of firecrackers in Delhi, but it hasn’t deterred a black market from taking root across the national capital ahead of Diwali. The illegal sales and slipshod enforcement have triggered concerns that Delhi will once again be pushed headlong into a pollution crisis on Diwali and the day after, as toxic fumes from firecrackers mingle with local emissions and farm fire smoke, and subject the city’s residents to lungfuls of a deadly cocktail.

Spot checks by HT over the past week found violations by the dozen in a range of markets – Kamla Nagar, Sadar Bazar, Rajouri Garden, Ramesh Nagar, and near Jama Masjid. On sale were firecrackers of all shapes and sizes, with traders doing little to keep their illicit business under wraps. Many of these sellers also had listings online, all of which were a simple Google search away.

Take the store in Kamla Nagar, for instance.

When a customer calls to enquire if they can buy firecrackers, his first response is to turn them down. But in the next sentence, he asks: “How much do you need?” He then asks the customer to visit the shop and refuses any further discussions on the phone.

His store has a minimum order of 5,000, he says.

“We have a ‘buy one, get one free’ offer and don’t sell below 5,000 because we are in the wholesale business. I’ll spend time with you only if you buy,” he tells a customer in his store, even as he ignores a barrage of calls, all presumably to enquire about firecrackers.

HT bought firecrackers worth 5,300 from this shop for the purpose of this story. The goods will be turned over to the Delhi Police on Saturday.

Ban?What’s that?The Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) on October 10 this year imposed its annual ban on firecrackers – even on those of the so-called “green” variety – till January 1, 2024, and warned that people flouting the order would be charged under sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Explosives Act. The Supreme Court, on Tuesday, called on states to comply with its curbs on the use of firecrackers, saying that a celebration by polluting the environment “is selfish”.

But even a cursory glance through Delhi’s markets is evidence of these bans going up in smoke, even as Delhi lives through one of its longest spells of severe pollution.

In the bristling Sadar Bazar, beneath the bright sheen of string lights and chinese lanterns, street vendors sold firecrackers tucked away behind their stalls.

A man in his early 20s selling toy guns also doubled up as a firecracker seller. When customers walked up to him and asked about firecrackers, he turned them away coyly, before answering in a hushed tone – “I only have one variety of cracker. I can show it to you on my phone.”

He was selling a box of what he called “Gola Bomb” – a round firecracker designed to explode into a burst of colour and a loud noise – for 150 a piece. “It’s one of the loudest firecrackers,” he said.

Once ordered, the man went to his godown about a kilometre away on a two-wheeler and brought back a box hidden in his shirt. “Open your bag,” he told the customer and slid the box in.

In local residential markets, some shopkeepers kept the phuljhadi and chakhri proudly on display. A shop inside the Rajouri Garden market, for example, had a line of firecrackers laid out on the ground. Most, however, were packed in black plastic bags.

The shopkeeper sold phooljhadis of different sizes ranging from 70 to 170, cracking pops for 50, and anaars for 250.

“Come at night and I’ll be able to show you a wider variety,” said a 40-year-old worker in the shop, who pulled out a brief assortment from his store room.

“There are fewer police checks at night,” confirmed a seller in a store in Ramesh Nagar market.

It was no different in the market near Jama Masjid, with phuljhadis and chakhris on display.

“The police check our stores, but don’t say much if we only sell firecrackers meant for children. We are not selling the ones used by adults,” a shopkeeper said.

Their supplies flowed in primarily from the outskirts of Delhi as well western Uttar Pradesh, he added.

Indeed, many of these sellers insisted their wares were “only for use by children” – essentially crackers that burn bright, but don’t make much of a noise.

“This year, we are not selling crackers used by adults because we may be penalised,” said the seller in Ramesh Nagar.

According to the data shared by Delhi Police, they seized 10,668.877kg of firecrackers between October 16 and November 8. Most seizures made were by the east district police — 2,842.86kg, followed by the crime branch at 1,960kg and the north east district police at 1572.38kg.

Delhi Poilice public relations officer deputy commissioner of police Suman Nalwa said that the local police has been conducting regular checks. “All efforts are being made to ensure that the order of the Supreme Court regarding firecracker ban is implemented on ground. The local police is vigilant and regular checks and raids are being conducted. We seek the support of the residents of Delhi to come forward and not only say no to firecrackers but to inform our helpline at 112 if they have any information regarding the same,” said Nalwa.

A Delhi Pollution Control Committee official said they have asked the Delhi Police to crack down on the illegal use of firecrackers and take action.

A seamless experienceIn the large stores, like the one in Kamla Nagar, buying firecrackers is a rather comfortable experience, with police officers turning a blind-eye to the thriving business.

After a customer takes their pick, the store owner texts a list to an associate in a nearby accommodation doubling up as a godown for the firecrackers. The man in the accommodation then packs the order and sends the owner a photo to show the customer for confirmation.

Customers are asked to wait for 10-15 minutes, preferably outside the store.

“I’ll send you a message on WhatsApp saying ‘Pack’. Come and collect your order then,” the owner tells the customer.

A short while later, the customer finds their firecrackers packed neatly – in a gunny sack bearing a tea brand’s label.

“My employee will escort you till the main road. No one will say anything, don’t worry,” the owner tells the customer confidently.

Two Delhi Police officers – a head constable and an assistant sub-inspector, stand outside, chatting with the owner’s father.

“They know we are selling, but we have to at least respect them enough not to send the package outside in front of their eyes,” the owner laughs.

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