Manufacture of fireworks has petered to a halt at Sivakasi
Every year, Sivakasi enjoys a holiday in the week before Deepavali after despatching its goods to their destinations. This year, it has been an extended holiday. After the September 5 accident at Mudalipatti consumed 39 lives, manufacture of fireworks has petered to a halt. A state of inertia has been created by a combination of factors in the hub of nation’s fireworks industry; the foremost of them being the loss of 248 lives in 170 accidents between 2000 and 2012 prior to Mudalipatti.
A series of accidents in the last few years, culminating in Mudalipatti, has had an indelible impact on public sentiments. Though there is no stock in the godowns of units in Sivakasi, the demand is likely to go down not only this year but also in the years to come. “In the 1980s, we used to record 70 per cent of sales during Deepavali season. But this demand is coming down. Simultaneously, demand for crackers for other occasions like Holi, Vinayaka Chaturti and weddings is going up gradually,” says A. P. Selvarajan, former president of Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers’ Association (TANFAMA).
Against a dipping demand, prices of fireworks have been going up in the last few years. Factory owners estimate the fall in production at 25 per cent of the usual demand and the rise in prices at 30 per cent. About 60 units have remained closed for a period of over 50 days. The other factors are labour shortage, rise in wages and power cut. Though fireworks industry is not power dependent, allied units involved in printing and packing have been hit hard by power cut. Delay in delivery of wrappers and packing materials has retarded production.
Fireworks units in Sivakasi are struggling to get workers, leave alone skilled workers. In the absence of a proper training facility, senior workers act as supervisors and take decisions at the workplace on sheer experience, explains A. R. Bhaskar Raj. Decision on maintaining the decibel levels and mixing of chemicals are taken by these seniors. Some of the leading units use laboratory facilities to test chemicals and also decide their combination in the manufacture of new varieties, especially the aerial varieties. But, by and large, experience rules. The average age of the industry used to be 20 plus a few decades back. But now, it is 30 plus, says K. Sankar, a leading manufacturer.
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has weaned away workers from the fireworks units. At present, about 70 per cent of the workforce is women. Another peculiar nature of the industry is that it is not able to retire people on superannuation. People are employed as long as they can work and as they progress in age they are relocated in non-hazardous areas, says Vivekanandan, another manufacturer. The industry has offered a 35 per cent increase in wages this year in order to keep the flock intact, claim the manufacturers. There has also been an increase in the cost of raw materials.
All these factors have resulted in a jump of about 30 per cent in prices across the board. Fancy items, which shoot upwards, have literally reached the sky in terms of prices. A pack of ordinary sparklers, which used to cost around Rs 24 last year, is priced at Rs 30. One has to spend money in thousands to satisfy the children at home. A slump in production and rise in cost will only help the illegal manufacturers of fireworks, it is apprehended. The gap in demand and supply is sought to be filled up by the illegal manufacturers who operate as cottage units in villages around Sivakasi.