Fireworks’ industry fears total shutdown post elections

Fireworks’ industry fears total shutdown post elections

(L) Women labourers who have lost jobs due to shut down at their colony in Sivakasi on Monday. (R) Units where labourers' produce crackers closed due to shutdown.

44-year-old V Saravanan and his wife S Vasuki breathed easy for the first time in four months when they were told in the second week of March that fireworks’ factories in this industrial town would reopen. But their happiness was short-lived since they have had work only for four days each so far.

Fireworks’ labourers get to work for six days a week, but since production has begun only on very small scale, manufacturers are asking their employees to come in turns to ensure majority of them get some money at the end of the week. More than 1,000 fireworks’ manufacturers shut their shops in November 2018 just before Deepavali due to Supreme Court’s ruling that only ‘green crackers’ can be manufactured and sold – it also banned the indispensable Barium Nitrate without which 75 per cent of crackers and fancy items cannot be manufactured.

Trade unions say many manufacturers began production in March on a small scale only to supply crackers for the election season – the plight of Sivakasi fireworks’ labourers is a major election issue in Virudhunagar Lok Sabha constituency under which Sivakasi falls.  

Congress’ Manickam Tagore, who served as MP from 2009-2014, DMDK’s R Azhagarsamy and S Paramasiva Ayyappan of AMMK led by T T V Dhinakaran are fighting it out in the constituency which has nearly 15 lakh voters.

While Tagore accuses the AIADMK and BJP governments of not standing behind the fireworks’ labourers during their time of crisis, Tamil Nadu Information Minister Kadambur Raju, who hails from near-by Kovilpatti, told DH that the Supreme Court agreed to allow two hours’ time to burst crackers “only because of our government’s efforts.”

A fireworks’ manufacturer, who wanted to remain anonymous, said only less than half of the original strength at his factory is being deployed for production of crackers. “We don’t know how long we can keep our shutters open,” he said.  Around 8 lakh labourers are dependent on the fireworks’, matches and paper industries that fuel the economy of not just Sivakasi, but the whole of Virudhunagar district.

“We did not have work for four months and we survived only on hand loans that we availed from people known to us. Even after the factories have opened, they call only less than half of their staff for work which means a person will be able to earn only for a couple of days in a week,” Saravanan, who has worked in the industry for 30 years, told DH at Viswanatham village outside Sivakasi.

Labourers fear factories would shut their doors yet again after the election season is over. “I work in the packing section of a fireworks’ firm. I got to work only for four days since mid-March and get paid only Rs 200 per day. Though the wages are less, it becomes very difficult when we don’t get to lay our hands even on that. We don’t know what will happen after elections,” 53-year-old Thilagam said.

Not just the ‘green cracker’, but the Supreme Court’s order that crackers be burst only for two hours during Deepavali would also reduce the demand for fireworks, the manufacturers feel. Though the Supreme Court ordered that only ‘green crackers’ can be manufactured, the Centre is yet to come out with a formula for manufacturing them which has delayed opening of factories.

Labourers also allege that the factories were forced to open since the ruling party did not want them to remain closed at the time of elections – a charge vehemently denied by fireworks’ manufacturers. However, P Ganesan, who has taken over as President of Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers Association (TANFAMA), told DH that factories opened in the second week of March to manufacture crackers that do not need Barium Nitrate, while a few others called in workers to prepare trials of ‘green crackers’ made of additives provided by the CSIR-NEERI (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research–National Environmental Engineering Research Institute.

“The case is pending before the court and we hope that the formulas for ‘green crackers’ would be derived at and production will begin very soon,” Ganesan said. Since the labourers are entirely dependent on their wages for living, several thousands of them were at the mercy of their employers’ who organised community meals almost every day for four months till the time factories up their shutters partly.

The near shutdown has triggered migration of thousands of labourers who have already left the town looking for green pastures in Madurai, Tiruppur, Coimbatore and Chennai. “Migration from Sivakasi could be at its all-time high. Thousands of youngsters who were dependent on the industry are moving out of the town and have begun working in cotton mills in Rajapalayam and as casual labourers in cities like Madurai,” P N Deva, CITU secretary of Virudhunagar district, told DH.

Another resident of Sivakasi said several hundred youngsters have left the town for Tiruppur, the knitwear hub in Tamil Nadu, to work in the garment factories.

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox