Sivakasi, a little town in southern Tamil Nadu’s Virudhunagar district is choking and could die in the near future. The reason for the plight of firecracker hub of the country, Sivakasi, is the very poor air quality in Delhi and NCR, some 2,700 km away, and the thick smog that enveloped this region at the start of the winter.
This was the reason why the Supreme Court of India banned sale of crackers in Delhi and NCR prior to Diwali, causing a whopping Rs 1,500 crore to the firecracker town and threatening the livelihood of some eight lakh people depending on it, directly and indirectly.
It is not just the ban in Delhi that the manufacturers, workers and trade union bodies are worried about. If in 2016 demonetisation caused havoc, last year GST implementation had left the industry in deep trouble with decreased orders that led to cutbacks in production.
Already, manufacturers have slashed production targets by half, said an industry insider.
And now, threat to their very existence if the apex court accepts a plea for a nationwide ban as sought by petitioners puts a question mark on the very existence of the firecracker industry.
This threat to existence has united the workers, the manufacturers and printers and transporters to save Sivakasi.
“Has Delhi pollution gone away,” questioned a 70-year-old S Polamma in a village on the outskirts of Sivakasi town. Her question is the one everyone here is asking and rattles out facts that puncture the arguments of the petitioners – toddlers – whose plea led to the Delhi firecracker sales ban. What is more scary for them is that the sword of Damocles hangs over Sivakasi as the apex court is hearing a plea for the nationwide ban citing environmental damage as one of the main reasons.
Though there is printing and matchboxmaking industry existing in Sivakasi, it is the firecracker industry that is the driver of the economy of this district and, in fact, rough estimates put the total size of the business at Rs 4,000 crore per annum.
Eight lakh people, either directly or indirectly, are engaged in the profession. It is not just at the time of Diwali that Sivakasi goods are in demand – all round the year, wherever and whenever there are celebrations in India, there is a little bit of Sivakasi in them.
Which is why, the firecracker industry and people associated with it are waiting with bated breath the developments in the apex court and pray that it sees reason and comes out with a judgment favourable to them.
Like Polamma, every other person you meet in this town and villages surrounding it, talk like experts on pollution, smog and environment and environmental activists and hold them guilty for the mess the town is in at the moment.
In Paraipatti village, just 4 km from Sivakasi, S Kanakaraj and his family of six are sitting idle as there is no work in the firehouse (as firecracker units are referred to in these areas). “After you banned Sivakasi firecrackers, has smog in Delhi vanished,” Kanakaraj questioned as do most of the others in the region.
“Why are people in Delhi wearing masks even now? Diwali is long over. Air must have been purified by now, no? This only proves that firecrackers were never the reason,” declared P Lakshmi of Naranapuram village in the vicinity.
Though There is prinTing and maTchbox-making indusTry exisTing in sivakasi, iT is The firecracker indusTry ThaT is The driver of The economy here
This argument is smartly articulated by manufacturer Abiruben of Ayyan Fireworks.
In Sivakasi, every day firecrackers worth Rs 1 lakh are burst by manufacturers for testing purposes. “Air here is clean and environment is safe. If the allegation of firecrackers leading to Delhi smog are true, then Sivakasi must be the worst affected as all year long firecrackers are burst here, day after day,” he said.
Sivakasi had always been under threat – if it was the child labour issue earlier now it is the environmental pollution and sound pollution. A time may come when they might come up with a campaign against Sivakasi for the ‘light’ pollution – on the amount of light and brightness generated from bursting of firecrackers, lamented a third-generation firecracker manufacturer – GAbiruben, managing director, Ayyan Fireworks. He is the descendent of one of the first two persons – P AyyaNadar – who started the fireworks industry in Sivakasi after getting training in West Bengal. The duo came back to Sivakasi and started matchbox manufacturing unit and then diversification into fireworks was only a matter of time.
A nationwide ban, as sought by the infants of Delhi in their petition, will spell the doom of the boom town of Sivakasi that boasts of many good educational institutions and hospitals, showrooms of luxury cars and high-end lifestyle products indicating its prosperous present.
Sadly for the Sivakasi firecracker industry, it is not just the Supreme Court ban order that confronted it and adversely affected the industry. Compared to previous years, production has come down by half. Introduction of GST too has added to the industry’s woes.
Manufacturers not willing to be named said production commences only after buyers pay advance money for next year’s Diwali. But with uncertainty plaguing the sector, no one was coming forward. So work is yet to begin after the apex court’s ban verdict, said a small factory owner.
Besides, licences are also becoming difficult to get. Though it is a hazardous industry, it is the only one that works under the strictest of regulations and a licence is required at every stage of manufacturing, storing and transportation. Many units are shutting down due to this inability, said another manufacturer.
P Balasubramaniam, general secretary of the Virudhunagar District Cracker and Match Workers’ Union, said nearly five lakh people were engaged in the firecracker industry directly and indirectly. If the whole chain of retailers, transporters and wholesalers across the country is taken into account the people dependent on it could touch the 10-lakh mark.
“It is the existential crisis that confronts these people, if the Supreme Court comes up with a pan-India ban as is being sought by the petitioners in Delhi,” he said. This is the reason why workers and management have come together to fight this challenge to save Sivakasi.
“Earlier the management looked at us as enemies. But now, they are coming to us to work together for Sivakasi’s future,” Balasubramaniam said. “It is because they fear for their own existence,” he added.
In Paraipatti village near Sivakasi, like in every other village in the region, almost every household is engaged in firecracker industry. N Giriraj and his family of four roll paper tubes in which chemicals are stuffed to make crackers.
“Work is slow and less. We are getting lesser orders from firehouses,” said Karthick, his son.
Now, the women, men and youth in Sivakasi stare at an uncertain future.
A total ban, across India, will spell the death of Sivakasi. “We will have no option but to migrate in search of work elsewhere. How will the government give jobs to five lakh people,” questioned P Lakshmi, also of the same village.
“If Sivakasi is down, then the entire town will be down as it is the driver of economy of this region, said a hotelier in Sivakasi.
The trailer of the pan-India ban, the DelhiNCR ban on sales imposed by the Supreme Court has cost the Sivakasi a loss of Rs 1,500 crore.
The threat to Sivakasi has united the workers, trade union activists and owners of the fireworks factories (represented by the Tamil Nadu Fireworks andAmorces Manufacturers’ Association–TANFAMA) for a concerted action to save Sivakasi from forces that have been targeting the Kutti Japan (small Japan) as the firecracker hub of India is called.
K Mariappan, president, TANFAMA, said the Supreme Court was not made aware of the proper facts and he has made a detailed presentation, along with scientific proofs, to counter the petition pending in the Supreme Court.
“How can an infant tell parents that he was suffering from smoke from firecrackers,” Mariappan questioned referring to the petition pending in the Supreme Court that prays for a nationwide ban on sale of firecrackers.
In fact, several scientists, expert bodies –like the IIT Kanpur and National Green Tribunal – listed out the reasons for smog in Delhi and firecrackers was not one of them.
Mariappan has on behalf of the industry petitioned Prime Minister NarendraModi and concerned government departments to save Sivakasi from extinction.
The TANFAMA chief sought amendment of rules to enable festivals to be exempt from ambient air quality norms just on the festival days, so that courts cannot come out with bans on sale of firecrackers.
The industry also wanted the government to persuade Sri Lanka to provide facilities for transhipment of firecrackers so that export markets can be tapped. At present, Sivakasi does not have access to shipping ports where big ships can come in for transporting goods for exports.
The firecracker industry has also sought tweaking of environment protection rules and prescription of ISO firecracker noise standards by amending Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986.
These steps would help strengthen the firecracker industry to carry on, with greater safeguards, the TANFAMA president said.