Caught between denialism and short-sightedness, vulnerable communities in Sivakasi bear the brunt of clampdowns due to air pollution.

A woman fireworks worker sits before a pile of crackers at a factory in Sivakasi
news Labour and employment Thursday, October 21, 2021 - 15:51

At the strike of a gavel in Delhi, lights go out in Sivakasi. When states located thousands of kilometres away place curbs, sales turn out to be a damp squib in the fireworks capital.

Year after year, about 6.5 lakh people in Sivakasi dependent on the fireworks industry suffer from rude market shocks because of last-minute policy and judicial responses to air pollution around the time of Deepavali. The workers in the fireworks industry — most of whom are just as vulnerable to economic shocks as people with respiratory ailments are to the pall of smoke in big cities — are almost invariably dealt a bad hand.

The economic impact, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has left workers with lower income and fewer job opportunities in the lurch as the fireworks industry has scaled down its production. “When times were better, I used to make 7,000-8,000 pieces a day,” says P Vetrivel, a 30-year-old contract worker who specialises in making rocket crackers. For every hundred pieces he makes, he is paid Rs 8. “I now make up to 5,000 pieces a day due to low demand. So, my wages have come down to nearly Rs 400 from around Rs 500-600 per day.” The loss of income, he says, has translated to choosing government hospitals over private facilities, buying fewer new clothes for children, and lower alcohol consumption.

A series of blows including demonetisation, GST, introduction of ‘green crackers’, and bans imposed by various states have crippled the industry. Women workers, who are typically engaged in labelling, assembly, and packaging of crackers and rarely work with chemicals, are paid only about half of what men earn. Even these meagre wages have taken a hit. For P Annalakshmi, who is involved in making ground chakras, the wages have come down by nearly a third, to about Rs 200 per day. “I earn around Rs 1,000 a week, half of which is paid as interest to money lenders, whom I borrowed from during the lockdown,” she says. “Only whatever is left is used to run my household.” 

On the other hand, many employees have been deprived of hikes for several years, effectively resulting in lower real income due to inflation. “My wages have remained stagnant at Rs 400 a day for the past six years,” rues 36-year-old Lenin Kumar. “With prices rising, we have had to keep our meals frugal — buy fewer veggies, have non-vegetarian food only once a month or substitute it with eggs.” 

The compliance conundrum

Due to the COVID-induced lockdown and ban on toxic chemicals including barium salts, many of the 1,010 fireworks industries in Virudhunagar district are in the red. “We have reduced our production drastically. As far as my factory is concerned, we produced only 40% of our capacity this year,” says AS Rajendra Raja, Vice-President of The Indian Firework Manufacturers Association, adding that the ban on barium salts was proving to be costly. “We produced a few items without barium, but there were no takers in the market. And what the market wants, we are not able to make because of the chemicals being banned (sic).”

Barium nitrate, colloquially known as pacha uppu, is widely used as oxidisers and to emit bright green sparks on combustion. But the chemical can cause irritation to skin, eyes, nose, throat and lungs on contact or inhalation.  

In September 2017, the Supreme Court had banned the use of antimony, lithium, mercury, arsenic, lead, and strontium chromate. A year later, the apex court banned barium salts and the sale and manufacture of joined crackers (saravedi or lari). However, a CBI inquiry report has revealed the presence of barium salts in samples of finished, semi-finished crackers, and raw materials lifted from six leading manufacturers. 

During the inquiry, some manufacturers had claimed that barium nitrate was used in firecrackers after certification from the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI). A few other manufacturers said that barium nitrate was used as no other alternative chemical was available for producing colour in firecrackers. However, K Sundaresan, the then Deputy Chief Controller, Petroleum and Safety Explosives Organisation (PESO), Sivakasi, had told the CBI that any composition suggested by NEERI had to be approved by PESO. Further, no such in-principle approval for any composition containing barium salts was granted to any of the fireworks manufacturers, he added.

Usage of barium apart, shifting towards green crackers has also been difficult for fireworks industries. “Only about 10% of the products currently in the market are green crackers,” says Rajendra Raja. 

While green crackers are often proposed as a solution, environmentalists say it is a misnomer and a way of greenwashing, as the product reduces only 30% of the emissions. “The remaining 70% of the emissions remain,” says G Sundarrajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal. “Also, the cracker industries cannot do without barium. So, it is important to transition the workers from the fireworks industry.”

Just transition takes a backseat

While the idea of a ‘just transition’ towards greener alternatives remains the cornerstone of dialogues around climate change and air pollution, it has not gained currency on either side of the air pollution debate with regard to the firecracker industry. 

The 2015 International Labour Organisation guidelines on just transition highlight the need to secure the livelihoods of those who might be negatively affected by the green transition and also stress the need for societies to be inclusive, provide opportunities for decent work for all, reduce inequalities and effectively eliminate poverty.

Many politicians and industrialists in Tamil Nadu, however, continue to peddle a narrative, which is one of denialism and seeks to maintain the status-quo. For instance, Sivakasi MLA and cracker industrialist AMSG Ashokan, in an interview, claimed that green crackers do not pollute the environment and in fact “kill germs in the atmosphere.” 

Some others continue to actively promote the industry — making workers more vulnerable to clampdowns on crackers due to air pollution concerns. Congress Virudhunagar MP B Manickam Tagore is seeking to promote exports in the firecracker industry. “If an export hub is brought in, we get into bigger systems and bigger dreams,” he told The New Indian Express. 

In a rare exception, Makkal Needhi Maiam’s founder president Kamal Haasan, had mooted alternative livelihood training for firecracker unit workers. He had said that it would take at least four years to completely train the workers. 

Meanwhile, as Tamil Nadu has yet to acknowledge the need for a just transition and put in place long-term policy measures, every regime is engaged in annual firefighting exercises to protect businesses and livelihoods. 

Recently, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin wrote to his counterparts in Rajasthan, Haryana, Odisha, and Delhi exhorting them to remove the blanket ban on firecrackers and permit green crackers, which received nods from the Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal. Following the request, the Rajasthan government lifted the blanket cracker ban in the state except in areas that fall within the National Capital Region and those with air quality index in the ‘poor’ category or below.  

On the other side of the spectrum, a number of hardline environmental groups seek a complete ban on firecrackers. Even as coal-fired power plants and vehicles that run on fossil fuels have decades-long windows for being phased out, it is unfair to impose harsh strictures on the firecracker industry without allowing adequate time to transition. 

Need for long-term vision

“Workers are being used as shields by the industry,” asserts Sundarrajan. According to data from the district administration, 1.5 lakh people are directly employed in the fireworks industry, while five lakh more work in allied sectors. “The government does not have any long-term vision to transition these workers towards more eco-friendly sectors.”

While acknowledging the need for a transition is an important first step, it will be an uphill task to identify locally viable opportunities that can absorb a large number of semi-skilled workers. 

Sankara Pandi K, a PhD scholar at the Madras Institute of Development Studies who is working on a thesis titled ‘Occupational mobility in fireworks industries’ says that it would be difficult for the existing industries in the matches, printing, and textile industries to absorb such a large workforce. 

“In the match industry, for instance, the demand for the product cannot be increased, and so the wages would come down if more workers enter the trade. Some reskilling would be required to absorb workers into textile mills in the district,” he says, adding that agriculture would also be difficult because of poor rainfall and pollution of groundwater by the fireworks and safety match industries. 

“If large industries were to be set up, they should create employment predominantly for the locals, unlike in many other cases. Further, adequate training should be provided to the locals to work in these industries,” he says. “Many entrepreneurs in Sivakasi are moving from fireworks industries towards other trades. They are setting up small-scale units that make paper cups, band-aids, among others.”

Sundarrajan says there is a need for a detailed study by experts to explore the possibilities in employment generation. “The government has earned lakhs of crores of rupees in tax revenue over the years from the fireworks industry. It should use the revenue to reskill and provide various subsidy schemes to labourers to ensure their transition.”

Many of the workers, whom TNM spoke with, were willing — albeit with a bit of reluctance — to shift towards alternative livelihoods. “If given adequate training, we will learn the new job,” says Annalakshmi. 

VN Jothi Mani, vice-president of Fireworks-Match Workers Association in Sivakasi, says that many owners of large fireworks industries had diversified their businesses towards the education and transport sectors. “And workers would also naturally gravitate towards other work if provided better wages, safety and employment benefits,” he says. “It is not that people love working in the fireworks industries, they work here because of necessity.” 

He cites an example of a few fireworks industry workers who started working at a textile mill in Tiruppur as the fireworks units were shut temporarily. “They called us and said they were happy as they received Rs 500 as daily wages on working two shifts per day.”

Once the transition of livelihoods is set in motion, environmentalists say that firecrackers may be allowed to be used with restrictions. “Neighbourhoods,” Sundarrajan says, “may be allowed to burst crackers in specific intervals to ensure everyone does not burst crackers at the same time. A number of such restrictions need to be chalked out.”

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