Mau Aima’s hawai mohallas wear a deserted look this Diwali season as the administration has shut down firecracker units in response to a fatal accident — rendering hundreds jobless
Diwali has traditionally been the most anticipated season in Mau Aima, a modest town panchayat located some 45 km north of Allahabad. Its hawai mohallas (hawai is the colloquial for firecrackers) have for years fed the festive season demands of districts across Uttar Pradesh and neighbouring States as well, leading some to loosely term it “Uttar ki Sivakasi”.
This year, too, Mau Aima is flooded with supply orders. However, none of these will be met. What is more surprising is that the mere mention of Diwali now results in a set of gloomy faces staring at each other in silence.
Twelve persons died and at least a dozen were injured when one of the “illegal” units here collapsed under the impact of an explosion last October. It subsequently led to the cancellation of all of Mau Aima’s 18 firecracker licenses and the initiation of strict vigilance drives by the district administration.
A year on, even as the police conducts regular checks, Mau Aima Station Officer Manoj Kumar says no licenses would be handed out regardless of the festive season. “If any explosive material is found in their possession or storage without permission, we can book them under the Explosives Act.”
The ban left around 5,000 persons without a stable source of income. And for locals like Mohammed Zafar (24), who have since childhood practised the family trade, the search for an alternate means of livelihood has been a demanding endeavour. While some chose pottery, cycle repairing, ironware sales, and others took to beedi making, trash collection, masonry or even restoring the old tea joint. Zafar picked up carpentry.
“We have lost our main source of income. But we have to do something to survive, whether its carpentry or working as a mechanic. During Diwali season, there would be transaction of lakhs...We have many orders this time also but they will go empty…Now I am happy if I earn even Rs. 250 daily,” Zafar says.
While livelihood has been hit severely, the immediate impact of the ban was evident in the bulk cancellation or postponement of marriages and educational plans. With another approaching Diwali, these ghosts have already begun to haunt Mau Aima. “Each year we would conduct marriages immediately after Diwali, with the earnings during the season. Others would pay off their debts or save for next year’s education. But look at our fate, this time we have to take credit just to keep things moving. Many marriages have got wasted or delayed, and some of us have to pay back Rs. 80,000 or even Rs. 1,00,000,” says 45-year-old Mohammed Islam, who has spent 35 years of his life in the firecracker industry. While he has obediently adhered to the administration’s ban, he still believes the drastic step was a rate too harsh.
“The same officials who would buy our firecrackers in bulk have now banned everything. The blast took place in a licensed unit. It was just an accident; some labourers were careless. We have been running like this for years and nobody complained,” Islam rues.
Meanwhile, Mau Aima’s other major traditional source of income — handloom mills have been facing the down slide for the past decade or so, largely due to erratic power supply and partly due to burgeoning cost of raw materials and self-destructive competition.
A seemingly worried Fakkruddin (20) says: “Power supply lasts only 10 hours, that too, with irregular interruptions. On the other hand, the bills we pay are high! Most of the looms here have either shut down completely or remain open only for a few hours daily.”
The maths is pretty clear. Continuous power supply ensures that one metre of cloth could be woven in 10 minutes. However, that takes up to 45 backbreaking minutes now. So much slog for a paltry margin of Rs. one or two per metre. Even with such low returns, time-consuming labour and poor finished product, the ban on the firecracker units has now left them with no choice.
Like any typical eastern Uttar Pradesh town, Mau Aima lives with rabid unemployment and poor educational and health facilities. However, survival has been toughest for those who lost more than just their livelihood to last year’s blast. Mohammed Sami, 22, lost his mother and life has not been the same since. He was on course to completing his intermediate college studies, toward his dream of working for a “big company” but had to drop out, compelled to work as an apprentice to a weaver. “My brothers dropped out, too. We didn’t even get proper compensation. Only the labourers did, that, too, because they belonged to a depressed class. Our father does not work anymore; he has been in remorse ever since.”