Manufacturers allege that they are being targeted by vested interests

Supreme Court's firecracker verdict: Sivakasi feels the heat

Inside a small room at a fireworks factory in Meenampatti, 9 km from Sivakasi, 47-year-old Chinappa Rasu uses bare hands to mix chemicals that will eventually be loaded into firecrackers. Exposed to chemicals almost every day, Rasu might be prone to health hazards, but the father of three is not bothered since he takes at least Rs 2,000 home every weekend, after mandatory deductions. What troubles Rasu now is the uncertainty that surrounds the multi-crore fireworks business with the Supreme Court directing manufacturers to produce only green crackers. The apex court has also banned the use of barium nitrate, which is an important ingredient in more than 75 percent of the products.

If the ban on barium nitrate continues, many factories won’t up their shutters after Diwali. Rasu, who has been working in the fireworks industry for the past two decades, is clueless about his family’s future if factories don’t open by November end. “We usually celebrate Diwali with the bonus we get. We get back to work soon after the festival. But the situation is bleak this year. If the production does not start, my family will be on the streets. There are thousands of others who share the same fate,” he told DH. With his limited income and some help from his son, who also works in the same industry, Rasu has managed to get his daughters educated — one is pursuing nursing and another is in 10th standard. “We suffered earlier this year when factories were closed for a month. We get paid only when we lay our hand on the chemicals,” Rasu said.

P Ganesan, director of Sony Vinayaga Fireworks, a leader in fancy crackers, told DH that his factories are usually in operation immediately after Diwali. “How do we start production when we can’t use the main ingredient, barium nitrate? First of all, we don’t know what is meant by green crackers and how to produce them. An alternative chemical cannot be developed overnight. Unless there is clarity over what chemical to be used, many factories won’t reopen after the festival,” he said.

Manufacturers allege that they are being targeted by vested interests because of which the industry has been facing a lot of opposition in the past few decades. “First they took up child labour and then raised the issue of noise pollution and now air pollution. We will come out of this crisis as well, but it will take some time,” N Kartheeswaran of Sri Velavan Fireworks said.

Sivakasi, which produces 90 percent of the firecrackers manufactured in the country in its 1,000-odd factories, is surrounded by drylands and is known as Little Japan because of its inimitable workforce. The fireworks industry employs around nine lakh people, either directly or indirectly. Other related industries, such as offset printing and paperboard making, provide employment to thousands of people.

With machines invading the traditional match works industries in Sivakasi, lakhs of people were forced out of the companies and sought refuge in the fireworks factories, which in turn became the sole source of livelihood for them. Thousands of people from the neighbouring districts of Madurai, Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi also migrated to Sivakasi to eke out a living. A majority of the workforce here doesn’t know any job other than those related to the fireworks industry making them more worried about their future.

The industry has been accused of exposing its workforce to toxic chemicals by not giving them safety gear like hand gloves. Under-payment is another problem that the workers are facing. They seem to endure almost everything for two reasons — the factories give them a regular employment and there is no alternative occupation in the region.

T Kannan of Sri Balaji Fireworks denies the allegations of underpayment. “People earn anywhere between Rs 500 to Rs 900 per day. The income depends on their output and one cannot expect the fireworks manufacturers to provide equal wages. Providing the same wage to everyone is not possible and it does not happen anywhere,” Kannan said. “Most of the fireworks manufacturers get a loan by hypothecating their properties. And some crackers cannot be made by using gloves – they can only be made with bare hands. Every manufacturer takes necessary precautions.”

In an animated conversation inside a factory, Veeramma, Muthulakshmi, Sasi and Michael Raj discuss the implications of the Supreme Court order. “I have been in this field for over 15 years. I may earn less, but what is important is I get regular work here. Without fireworks industry, there is no Sivakasi,” says Raj.

Veeramma pitches in and asks why those who want a ban on firecrackers are turning a blind eye on industries that pollute the air more.

“We get work through the year because of this and if someone wants even that celebration to be without crackers, what do we do? Where do we go? We are not trained in any other work,” she said. Muthulakshmi admits that they are not happy working for long hours. “But do we have an option? Can the people who seek a ban on the industry get jobs for around nine lakh people? Why don’t people understand that this industry lights up the lives of lakhs of labourers?” she asks.

At a tea stall in the heart of Sivakasi, P Ambeth Kumaresan and Jothimani agree that working in fireworks industry exposes them to several diseases but they can’t stop working as there is no other option. “Sivakasi’s economy will plummet in one day if the factories are closed permanently. The entire economy of the town and Virudhunagar district is dependent on the fireworks industry. And any adverse effect on the industry will wreck the lives of labourers for we will be on the streets,” Jothimani says.

Kumaresan hopes that the factories open immediately after Diwali so that he has money to pay his children’ school fees. Jothimani, who relocated to Sivakasi 25 years ago from Dindigul district, says his entire family — wife, son, daughter, son-in-law and daughter-in-law — works in the fireworks industry, but they are still not able to lead a content life. “Even when we handle aluminium, we are not given hand glove to wear. The life of a labourer is full of miseries and we can’t even narrate our sorrows. We are continuing here despite all odds because there is no other alternative in this district,” he said.

Manoj Kumar has a different opinion. He says he now earns much more than what he took home as a driver three years ago. “I never used to earn more than Rs 200 per day as a driver and since the wages in fireworks industries are fixed based on the work one does, I earn Rs 500 per day. Since this wages are good for me, I came to work in the fireworks industry. Everything here depends on your output,” he said.

M Mahalakshmi, general secretary of Crackers and Matchbox Employees Sangam, accused a few owners of not even granting Employees’ Provident Fund and Employees’ State Insurance benefits to their labourers, apart from poor working conditions. “The wages have not been increased for long and the bonus has remained at 25 percent for decades. The owners do suffer if there is a lockdown, but it is the labourer who is the worst affected,” she says and accuses the companies of not following safety measures and putting employees at risk of diseases. However, Mahalakshmi says, they became a party to the petition filed by the fireworks manufacturers against the all-India ban since they strongly feel that the labourers can exist only if the industry thrives.

For pollution-free festivities

The petition seeking a ban on firecrackers in Delhi National Capital Region was filed before the Supreme Court in 2015 by three toddlers. The petition was filed by one child’s father, who was worried about the kids’ health due to foul air.

In two separate judgements within a span of one year and a subsequent clarification, the top court has now set the benchmark on the manufacture, sale and use of crackers in India, which has 14 of the world’s most polluted cities, according to the World Health Organisation.

The SC says only green crackers are allowed to be sold in Delhi NCR that has the country’s worst air. Rest of India can celebrate with conventional crackers but only for two hours in a day. It’s up to the state governments to decide on those two hours, which can even be staggered. On Christmas and New Year’s Eve, crackers are permitted only between 11.55 PM and 12.30 AM.

It would be the responsibility of station house officers in every police station to ensure that the SC order is complied with.

The apex court rules that use of barium salts in the fireworks is banned and there won’t be any e-commerce on firecrackers. The manufacture, sale and use of joined firecrackers (series crackers or laris) is thus banned as it causes huge air, noise and solid waste problems.

The governments have been asked to permit community bursting of firecrackers wherever it is possible. The Petroleum and Explosive Safety Organisation has been asked to analyse the chemical composition of the crackers and submit a report to the top court.

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