Darkness and light in Tamil Nadu's Sivakasi

Darkness and light in Tamil Nadu's Sivakasi

Millions of workers risk their lives and endure extreme hardships to produce fireworks

After walking 20 minutes from his house to get to his factory, Muniyandi (45) gulps down a glass of cold water. He then enters a room filled with chemicals. With the help of two others, he carries sackfuls of chemicals to a shed.

It is just 9 am, but the sun is scorching hot. “This is how harsh summers can be here,” says N Kartheeswaran, partner, Sri Velavan Fireworks, at the entrance of his factory in Meenampatti, 5 km from Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu. 

Kartheeswaran leads me to a shed with four entrances, protected by an outer wall and covered with an asbestos sheet. “This is where we mix chemicals every day,” Muniyandi tells me as he gestures to his colleague John (44) to dump aluminium powder, sulphur, and potassium nitrate on the floor. 

Clad in vests and shorts and masking their faces with cloth, Muniyandi and John use their bare hands to mix chemicals. They wipe the sweat off their forehead every two minutes. 

These chemicals are essential to make crackers like ‘bijli vedi’ and ‘Lakshmi vedi’, Muniyandi says, gesturing me to keep a safe distance. “Please stand at the entrance and watch what we do.”

Kartheeswaran asks Muniyandi and John whether they have mixed Zeolite with the three chemicals they are handling. They have.

“Zeolite is one of the chemicals recommended by CSIR-NEERI (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research-National Environmental Engineering Research Institute) to make crackers ‘green’. They make crackers emit less smoke and produce less noise,” Kartheeswaran explains.

As I perspire profusely, Kartheeswaran gently reminds me that the day has just begun and that I should brace for more discomfort. With their eyes fixed on the chemicals, Muniyandi and John work in silence. 

“How can we talk when we handle chemicals that can explode at any moment? We are careful throughout the year but are extra-careful in summer,” Muniyandi tells me.

They are making an exception to the “rule of silence” only to explain the process to this DH correspondent. 

Mishaps inside fire factories are attributed to human error, as machines are almost non-existent in the process. Interestingly, the only ‘machine’ I found inside the factory was a stapler to pack the crackers in recycled plastic bags.

Safety remains an issue despite authorities and factory owners taking necessary precautions, I am told. Since 2018, 75 accidents have taken the lives of 55 people in these factories.

The industry also faces allegations of employing child labour but Kartheeswaran says the fireworks manufacturers have signed a declaration that they won’t employ any children under the age of 14. “We strictly follow the rule. How long do we keep responding to the (same) allegations?” he asks.  

Banana detox

An hour later, Muniyandi and John are covered in silver as a result of the chemicals they are handling. “Our job will go on till about 1 pm, after which we take a shower,” he explains.

John says: “We are given coconut oil and soap after the mixing. We can’t step out without a shower. The oil ensures that chemicals are washed away from the body. Once we come out, we eat a banana before and after our regular meal. It helps us detoxify.”

An arid region in southern Tamil Nadu, Sivakasi is popularly known as Little Japan because of the super efficiency of its workforce.  

“It is the fireworks industry that fuels the economy in Sivakasi and the whole of Virudhunagar district. Printing, another major industry in the region, is also dependent on us (as it prints labels for the crackers),” says Murugalakshmi, 32-year-old worker. 

Making the bijli

The mixed chemicals are injected into circular plates inside the shed. A worker picks up half-a-dozen circular plates before dumping them on a platform outside.

Sitting under a neem tree, Antony (37) covers the circular plates, using alluvial soil mixed with water and gum to ensure the chemicals stay inside. He then exposes them to the sun. Yards away, Bhagyalakshmi (38) punches holes on the plates, the penultimate process of making ‘bijlis’.

Next, they dry the ‘bijlis’ for some time and fix the wicks. “We then leave the plates in the shade for a while before exposing them to the sun again,” she explains. 

A few metres away, Irulandi flips the circular plates upside down and uses a stick to release the crackers from them. In a few minutes, he empties about 40 plates, leaving mounds of ‘bijlis’ on the platform. 

“The cracker should be under the sun for a few hours before it is taken to the manufacturing shed. We test the lots at night, check their performance and again expose them to the sun before packing them,” Irulandi says.

Four doors to life

The manufacturing sheds are located at a “safe distance” from others. All important details, from the size of the shed to the number of people allowed inside are written on a board outside. 

A team comprising Thiraviyam, Madha, and Irudayaraj sit close to the three of four doors inside the shed, around huge piles of newspapers, labels, and cracker capsules to roll the Lakshmi crackers. “Why are you sitting so close to the door?” I ask. 

“So that we can run to safety if there is an explosion or fire,” Madha says with a chuckle. “While our eyes focus on the capsules we handle, our ears are always alert to catch any suspicious sound,” she adds. 

There is no fan in the shed — the breeze can spread out the chemicals. For fresh air, labourers depend solely on the trees nearby. 

“This tiny room is our world for eight hours a day,” Thiraviyam says. He then puts down a tea cup, takes up 12 cut newspaper sheets, places them on a stool, and rolls them with gum. In exactly nine seconds, he rolls a Lakshmi cracker. Madha and Irudayaraj can also roll a cracker in nine seconds. “This is experience,” Thiraviyam says, laughing. They proudly announce that they roll 1,000 such crackers each day and take home Rs 400. Most of the workforce is highly experienced. 

At another manufacturing shed, Chitra’s (34) hands move faster than a machine while packing ‘bijli’ crackers and bundling them up for dispatch. Two years ago, Chitra was earning less than Rs 300 a day but a Supreme Court order banning ‘sara vedi’ (cracker garlands) came as a blessing. 

“I moved to the packing section and learnt the trick of packing crackers swiftly. I earn Rs 600 a day because I pack 1,500 bundles a day. A bundle has 10 packets of ‘bijli’ crackers, and the individual crackers add up to 1,000. This work is more taxing than injecting chemicals as I will have to match the speed of a machine,” she says. 

Green crackers

Two hours later, we are at Kartheeswaran’s modest office. To my relief, I find a fan there. I ask about green crackers. It is a fairly new concept, and the stakeholders are taking time to implement the processes, he says.

CSIR-NEERI, a government-funded institute, devised the green cracker formula to reduce sound and air pollution. The formula proved useful since the Supreme Court banned the use of barium nitrate for firecracker production in 2018.

The process to make green crackers isn’t much different, Kartheeswaran says. “It is the chemicals that make all the difference,” he explains.

A couple of hundred metres away, Ashok and Rajesh dump more chemicals over a sack and swing it back and forth briskly for a few minutes. Soon enough, the mix turns into small balls. The mix is sieved to separate the globules from the powder. They repeat this process every few minutes to get perfect chemical balls that are used in the ‘green shot’ crackers. 

“We do this the whole day because we have to produce five sets for five colours. Our workload has reduced a little because we don’t use green colour anymore (because of the ban on barium nitrate),” says Ashok. 

The push to make crackers green has ushered in sweeping changes in the product line. Kartheeswaran’s unit has suspended manufacturing sparklers, flower pots, and chakras because the formula to make them “fully green” isn’t ready.

Some manufacturers make ‘green’ sparklers in red and blue colours.  

But workers like Kanagalakshmi (45) aren’t much pleased with the green cracker order. “We have fewer days of work because some crackers are no longer in production,” she says.

I ask them what first comes to their mind when I say Deepavali — crackers or sweets? “Bonus,” Kanagalakshmi responds, with a smile. “That is the best time of the year for us. Priorities change in life as you age. I don’t burst crackers, but my son does. You know he speaks English?” she says proudly. 

Lunch-time chatter

After four hours of working, labourers find respite under the neem trees. Sitting in circles, they open their tiffin boxes. These women wake up as early as 4 am to cook for their family before heading to the factory. 

Fresh from a shower, John joins his wife Sasi and mother Anthony Amma for lunch. “What have you brought today?” Sasi asks her colleague Arputham. “Tomato gravy. I forgot to fry papad today,” Arputham replies before passing her tiffin box around. 

The job is difficult, and the workers are aware of the risks. Sasi has considered quitting. “But what option do we have? It is all fireworks factories in this area. And we know nothing other than making crackers,” Arputham says. 

Closing time

At 5 pm, the manager comes with a ledger. Moving from one shed to the other, he records their day’s work — the number of crackers rolled, packets bundled, and wicks inserted. 

Murugalakshmi has something to tell me as I close my notebook. “People burst crackers once or twice a year. We can eat only if people continue to buy firecrackers. I know there is a lot of bad publicity, but our lives are zero if people stop buying them,” she says. 

No fixed salaries

Labourers at the fireworks factories don’t have fixed wages. What they take home every Saturday depends on what they do during the week. This wage system exerts pressure on them to work without any break — they leave their designated rooms only for toilet breaks. Their lunch break lasts 30 to 45 minutes.

The workers get provident fund and ESI benefits. They also receive bonuses twice a year — just before Deepavali and during the Tamil month of Panguni (mid-March to mid-April).  

Quick facts

2 lakh

Labourers work in 1,000-odd factories in Sivakasi and nearby areas. Another 4-5 lakh people benefit indirectly.

Rs 4,000-Rs 6,000 cr

Estimated annual turnover of Sivakasi fireworks.

30-40%
Business has dipped since they switched to green firecrackers.

400-500
Types of firecrackers made by large factories.

Rs 5
What a labourer gets for making 100 bijli firecrackers in the factory the reporter visited. These are usually sold for Rs 16 to wholesale dealers and Rs 40 to Rs 120 in the retail market.

80%
Fireworks burst during Deepavali season. The rest are used for Ganesh Chaturthi and Onam, and at weddings and private events.

 

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