Sivakasi firecracker workers face uncertainty as ban and pandemic hit industry  

Firecracker industry workers are questioning a late announcement on ban on fireworks that are affecting the lives of over 10 lakh workers, manufacturers and distributors.
Sivakasi firecracker worker
Sivakasi firecracker worker
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It was in 1957 that Rajasekharan completed his graduation and returned to Sivakasi. The heat of the land makes earning a living seem impossible, but Rajasekharan had a plan in mind. He had read about the firecracker manufacturing industry in a book by a German author, and decided to launch his own company, Lakshmi Fireworks. In the past 65 years of business, he has seen ups and downs, but has never failed to turn a profit. But in the year 2020, 86-year-old Rajasekharan is now just hoping to stay afloat. 

The industry had been expecting a recovery during festival season from the brutal year wrought by the pandemic. But now it may be witnessing one of the worst years due to a ban on cracker sales. "Everyone in Sivakasi is hit by losses. We just want our heads saved and nothing else. We just want to save our company and business. We already know that we cannot make a profit this year because we only produced 40-50% of the crackers, but we never imagined a ban on such a large scale," Rajasekharan said.

The state governments of Delhi, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Odisha, Haryana, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Sikkim and Chandigarh have implemented the ban on bursting crackers. The states of Haryana and Madhya Pradesh have banned sales and distribution of imported crackers and Karnataka has permitted the bursting of only green crackers.

As a result, manufacturers like Rajasekharan, who transported their products to their dealers scattered across Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and many other parts of the country, are staring at major losses. "All of them have called us again and said that they are ready to send the products back to us. Some state governments have implemented a ban even on procurement. Everything is just falling back on us," he said, as he commanded his employees to create additional space in godowns.

Once the Diwali season ends, factories will remain closed till the end of monsoon and work picks pace up only in March. The firecracker makers work full-time for only eight months a year. But weather changes can impact the process as well, as expensive explosives made of petrol ignite result in fires, so the cracker-makers refrain from work during monsoon and humid conditions.

“We had made crackers even before April and we still have the pending stock. We stopped production for six months due to coronavirus and we have suffered a lot without money," said Sanjeeve, another firework manufacturer.

Banks have already been denying loans due to the pandemic, and this ban adds another struggle for manufacturers. "This is pushing us into deeper debts and this may force many manufacturers to shut down," said Sanjeeve.

He adds, “The pandemic has caused workers to struggle. We tried to help them whenever possible but still it will take one or two years to bring back the lost production.”

The plight of workers

For firecracker workers, the months of October and November are typically busy due to the approaching Deepavali season. This year, however, things have changed for the worse. 35-year-old Lakshmi used to work overtime to earn her maximum salary, but has only been given work two days a week this year. The average salary of workers like her used to be Rs 6,000 per month, but that has been reduced to a mere Rs 2,500 per month this year.

Firecrackers have been Lakshmi’s work since she was 15 years old. Lakshmi reports to work twice a week at 8 am and meticulously begins to roll the white paper and gum over the wick and explosive. She then dries all the pieces of vedi (cracker) rolled by her. She earns a salary of only Rs 200-300 based on the number of pieces of crackers rolled by the end of the day.

Though she has been working tirelessly and single-handedly supporting her family and ailing husband, the pandemic has now pushed them into a deep financial crisis.

“We have never faced a financial struggle and poverty like this before. This year we found it difficult to even receive rations properly. My children cried to me about how the pandemic has left us without a way to eat,” said Palani*, Lakshmi’s husband.

Questioning why there was a delay in state governments announcing the ban on crackers, Palani urged officials to arrange alternative careers for residents. However, Palani considering the land of Sivakasi, also says, “If not for both, the government can at least make Rs 18,000 as a minimum wage for the firecracker industry workers.”

“Unlike other years, this year will be a Deepavali only for others while we struggle to even eat quality food,” he said.

Delay in announcements?

The Sivakasi region, also known as little Japan, has eight lakh direct and indirect workers with over 1000 manufacturing units. The ban on the sales has cast a shadow on the employment of nearly 10 lakh people, including distributors. Citing the large number of people employed in the industry, the workers question the reason for the delay in making the ban announcement.

"Why can't the government decide on a ban much earlier? At least we would not have produced the crackers or not sent them. Every year the ban is announced at a much larger scale than imagined, but an announcement is made only a few days before Deepavali," Rajasekaran questioned.

Every year, a week before Deepavali, the debate on the ban of firecrackers takes a centre stage. Last year, the Supreme Court refused to ban the bursting of crackers but allowed people to use eco-friendly green crackers. The Supreme Court also fixed a time limit of two hours for bursting crackers, which led to manufacturers witnessing a downfall in sales.

This year as well, the festival sparked debate over the air pollution caused by crackers. However, manufacturers in Sivakasi, who have started to produce green crackers, questioned the reason why industries and factories that emit carbon monoxide are not restricted in the same manner. Some state governments also cited the pandemic as the reason behind banning crackers to prevent large gatherings.

Rajasekharan said, "The factories that emit carbon monoxide on a daily basis are also the reason [for poor air quality], but they are not handled the same way as us."

Explaining the loss due to the ban this year, Ganesan Panjurajan, president of Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers' Association (TANFAMA), said more than 45% of the export is affected due to the cracker ban. “This year we have produced 90% of green crackers but still the ban continues. So this will affect the production of next year. We may have to guess before producing and mostly we cannot produce beforehand if the situation continues in the same way,” he said. 

“The lives of workers and manufacturers are greatly affected by the ban. The ban was announced in the last 15 days after providing permission to work for over 300 days. What will happen to the products? Why is no one thinking about this? The state governments without considering our lives have banned it based on a few statements.”

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