Ground zero | Tamil Nadu

Green crackers make Sivakasi see red

Grey zone: “A ban on barium effectively means a ban on flower pots, chakraas, pencils, sparklers, and aerial fireworks.” A bed of sparklers left to dry at a sparkler manufacturing unit, at Vembakottai in Sivakasi.

Grey zone: “A ban on barium effectively means a ban on flower pots, chakraas, pencils, sparklers, and aerial fireworks.” A bed of sparklers left to dry at a sparkler manufacturing unit, at Vembakottai in Sivakasi.   | Photo Credit: R. Ashok

India’s fireworks manufacturing hub is up in arms against the recent ban on all firecrackers that are not ‘green’. While it is imperative to switch to less polluting crackers, how robust was the consultative process and the scientific research that formed the basis of the ban? P.V. Srividya reports from Sivakasi

suorA.P. Selvarajan is a man besieged. A firecracker manufacturer in Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu, he was part of a small industry group that met Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami in Chennai on October 26. The delegation was seeking relief from the Supreme Court order last week, on October 23, which banned all firecrackers that were not ‘green’. The order, in one stroke, effectively rendered the entire cracker industry in India’s fireworks manufacturing hub, illegal.

According to an affidavit filed by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) in the Supreme Court on August 21 last, ‘green crackers’ are less polluting, with lower emission levels. However, Sivakasi views the court order as striking a death blow to the pyrotechnics industry.

For Selvarajan, owner of big fireworks factories in Sivakasi, the discomfort has many layers.

 

The MoEF&CC had commissioned a team from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research-National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (CSIR-NEERI), Nagpur, to conduct research on ‘green crackers’. In its affidavit to the Supreme Court, the Ministry has mentioned a ‘CSIR-Kaliswari joint facility’, which is Selvarajan’s firm, Sri Kaliswari Fireworks Private Limited, implying an industry partner for the ‘Green Cracker experiment’.

If Selvarajan was blindsided by the court order, he had to swallow it. He had agreed to partner with NEERI when its team was in Sivakasi in March for consultations on low emission crackers. “They visited my facility and my CSIR-approved emission testing laboratory. Since we are one of the oldest establishments in Sivakasi, I felt it was my duty to help with this research for the greater good of the industry,” says Selvarajan, who paid a licence fee of ₹10 lakh to NEERI and participated in what he assumed was a private study for his factory. He also sent technicians to NEERI to teach the basics of cracker chemistry to research students there. “The study began only around June-July this year.” But this seemingly well-intentioned decision has now come back to haunt him.

The petition for the firecracker ban was first filed in the Supreme Court, on behalf of three infants, in 2015. In November 2016, in light of Delhi’s air quality having deteriorated sharply after Deepavali, the Court suspended the permanent and temporary licences of all cracker retailers in Delhi and banned the entry of fireworks into the National Capital Region (NCR). The suspension of firecracker licences was revoked briefly in September 2017 on the ground that there were no definitive pollution standards for the industry to adhere to. But in October 2017, just ahead of Deepavali, the court overturned its earlier order and ordered an experimental ban on firecrackers in the NCR. This led to the petitioners seeking an all-India ban on firecrackers. The court asked the MoEF&CC and affiliated bodies to come up with solutions.

A woman worker busy packaging 50 cm sparklers in boxes of five each at a sparkler unit at Vembakottai in Sivakasi.

A woman worker busy packaging 50 cm sparklers in boxes of five each at a sparkler unit at Vembakottai in Sivakasi.   | Photo Credit: R. Ashok

 

The devil in the detail

K. Mariappan walks into his office and heads straight to a wall-mounted shelf that is lined with the framed pictures of deities. A short prayer later, Mariappan, the general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers Association (TANFAMA), turns around and settles into a chair across the table.

“There is no such thing as a green cracker,” he says. He has been repeating this to the media ever since the court ban on all crackers that are not ‘green’.

The court order, which was issued when Deepavali was barely two weeks away, included other strictures too: a ban on the use of barium salts in cracker manufacturing, and also a ban on using series or joint crackers (garlands/laris) on the ground that these caused noise pollution and generated way too much garbage. But all these decisions by the court were based on suggestions from the MoEF&CC which the judiciary swiftly accepted and worked into its order.

According to Sadhana Rayalu, NEERI’s scientist on the project, ‘green crackers’ operate on a technology called Safe Water and Air Sprinklers (SWAS). “When a material absorbs water, it generates heat, which aids the bursting of crackers,” she explains. “In a ‘green cracker’, a reactant such as aluminium absorbs the water, generating a lot of heat, which enables the explosion. Then the same water also acts as a dust suppressant.”

 

But those in TANFAMA are not impressed. If there is one thing that both the firecracker industry and the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO), the industry’s licensing body, are keen to avoid, it is aluminium coming in contact with moisture. “In the laboratory, if it produces sound, in factories it causes accidents,” says Mariappan.

Rayalu clarifies, “Aluminium was just an example. It could be any inert material, like, say, zeolite.”

Constrained by his interaction with NEERI, Selvarajan measures his words carefully. He does not believe that a result in the laboratory will automatically move to the industry level. “Some chemicals available at laboratory grade cannot be replicated at the industry grade,” he says. “Even NEERI knows what is possible and what is not.”

Whether a cracker is ‘green’ or not is determined by its emission levels. Vijaykant, a young entrepreneur in Sivakasi, had taken part in an experiment by the CSIR that was conducted in his factory in mid-August this year using ‘flowerpot’ crackers that had magnesium instead of aluminium. “The first prototype exploded like an atom bomb. We tinkered around a bit, and the second time, it behaved more like a flower pot. Theoretically, magnesium has lower emission levels but NEERI has not yet shared the actual figures with the industry,” he says.

“There is one team working on the chemical formulation for ‘green crackers’, and another on sound monitoring. We cannot lose sight of performance efficiency, which is going to be the key for product commercialisation,” Rayalu says.

Fireworks manufacturing units are graded on the basis of their scale of operation, nature of licences, and whether they are in the organised or the unorganised sector. PESO, which comes under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, is the licensing authority for units of higher capacity (in terms of chemical handling and production). The second category, of smaller units or ‘DM (district magistrate)-licensed units’, are monitored by the local revenue and police departments.

Sivakasi’s firecracker manufacturers claim that PESO, the sole licensing authority for the industry, was not consulted at any stage in the ‘green cracker’ research. But Rayalu has an explanation. “PESO,” she says, “was not taken into confidence during chemical formulation because we tried a lot of permutations and combinations and did not want to bog them down with the developments. We formally approached PESO three weeks ago. We will seek their opinion after the research is done and the final conclusions are at hand. Nothing goes without PESO’s approval.”

The industry, however, believes that the MoEF&CC sidelined PESO. As if to lend credence to the allegation, on October 30, a week after the order, the Controller of Explosives, Faridabad, Haryana, in an affidavit said that barium is required in the manufacture of 60% of the products. It even listed the products, dismissing the MoEF&CC’s claim that barium salts were unnecessary. But the ban on barium was not lifted.

Women workers roll up and stick packaging rolls for crackers in Gangar Seval village in Sivakasi.

Women workers roll up and stick packaging rolls for crackers in Gangar Seval village in Sivakasi.   | Photo Credit: R. Ashok

 

The ban on barium

While the ‘green cracker’, as it exists now, is a work in progress, the MoEF&CC’s affidavit to the Supreme Court gave it an air of certitude. The Court had asked the MoEF&CC for “short-term measures/actions it proposes to tackle pollution due to firecrackers this Diwali”. In August this year, the Ministry responded by suggesting the use of ‘green crackers’ or SWAS, but without mentioning either the status of the research or a timeline. It did say, however, that they could be produced subject to PESO approval. At this point of time, according to Rayalu’s account, PESO had not been shown any of the research developments.

Strangely enough, and conspicuous in its absence from all these developments has been the Fireworks Research and Development Center (FRDC). Created under PESO and with its campus in Sivakasi, the FRDC was set up with the specific objective of researching and “developing environment-friendly crackers”. Its website talks about its excellent infrastructure. “They have been around for 12 years, operating under the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, but without any encouragement for research,” says Mariappan.

K. Sundaresan, Deputy Chief Controller of Explosives, PESO, Sivakasi, did not respond to queries.

Adding insult to the industry’s court-inflicted injury is the MoEF & CC’s assertion in its affidavit that “barium nitrate only gives an attractive green colour and the court may consider its immediate banning.” The Court immediately banned the use of barium salts in firecrackers. In practice, this translates into an indirect ban on the industry as a whole as 60% of its products require barium. Mariappan is scathing in his criticism of the ban: “Anything that emits light needs barium, while something that only explodes does not need barium. Barium added to aluminium gives off white light. When PVC [polyvinyl chloride] powder is added to barium, it lends a green colour to that light. A ban on barium effectively means a ban on flower pots, chakraas, pencils, sparklers, and aerial fireworks.”

For Selvarajan, the CSIR’s own ‘industry partner’, this spells an end to all ‘traditional’ fireworks. “They assumed barium is for colour. But it is for light,” he says.

The industry asserts that it has always responded positively to change. According to Mariappan, in 1998, when a petition came up in the Kolkata High Court seeking a lowering of firecracker noise levels to 65 db (the decibel level of a clap), the industry approached the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and initiated its own study under the DRDO’s Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences. The government, too, did a study under the CSIR-National Physical Laboratory. The Central Pollution Control Boards’s National Committee on Noise Pollution Control discussed the findings. “Until then, there had been no comparable statutory standard on noise levels,” says Mariappan.

Another focus of the MoEF&CC’s recommendations has been the ‘series’ or ‘joint’ crackers (garlands), also banned last week by the top court. Mariappan points out that the noise standards for ‘joint’ crackers were settled 20 years ago. The rules prescribed a noise level ceiling of 125 db for a single cracker, when measured at a distance of 4 metres. For a string of crackers, a single piece from the string is tested and using a formula, the decibel level for the total number of crackers is calculated.

“These rules were upheld by the Supreme Court in 2005,” says Mariappan, adding that it permitted ‘joint’ crackers up to the ‘1,000 series’. “The PESO-controlled units do not manufacture them. Only those in the unorganised sector do so.” But he may be incorrect in this. In Sivakasi, ‘2,000-wala’, ‘5,000-wala’and ‘10,000-wala’ series crackers gleam on the racks at an exclusive retail outlet of a popular firecracker brand. Evidently, the noise standards have not been a deterrent.

Ramachandran, a former Indian Army man who now runs a sparkler unit, was unaware of the details of the court order when this writer met him. Nor was he aware of the ban on barium salts, which is an important raw material for sparklers. “What are you saying?” he asks, when told about the ban. “Without barium I will have to shut down!”

Besides the PESO and District Magistrate-licensed units, there is also a category of unorganised units that fall in the grey zone of illegality. While many of them are units operating in stealth even after their licences have been revoked, there are also scores of ‘home units’ where women manufacture firecrackers as ‘job works’ outsourced to them by factories.

Sivakasi’s firecracker manufacturers claim that PESO, the sole licensing authority for the industry, was not consulted at any stage in the ‘green cracker’ research. File

Sivakasi’s firecracker manufacturers claim that PESO, the sole licensing authority for the industry, was not consulted at any stage in the ‘green cracker’ research. File  

 

The business cycle

Nadar lodge in the Sivakasi bazaar area is desolate. On any other day, it would have been swarming with buyers and agents from across the country. A street away lives fireworks agent Ganesan (name changed) who brings buyers and seals firecracker deals for the smaller manufacturers. He also has a supply network with ‘home units’ that make bijilis (individual units of the ‘series’ crackers) as ‘job works’. Ganesan says that he had feared a ban and was relieved that there was no ban on the bursting of crackers.

“Business will be as usual,” he says. He does not know what a ‘green cracker’ is and how it is different from the crackers they are currently selling. Listening to us and looking up from his notebook, his son chimes in, “In school, our class teacher told us not to burst crackers as it degrades the environment.”

Sivakasi’s firecracker industry has its own business cycle. Every year, a month after Deepavali, agents and buyers trickle in to strike deals with the producers. Orders are floated and costs are negotiated even for the next year. Between mid-January (after Pongal, the harvest festival) and March, orders are negotiated and struck at the prevailing price, which depends on the demand at the time.

Rajendra Raja, Secretary of the Indian Fireworks Manufacturers Association, in Sivakasi, says that buyers and traders are now confused by the court’s order, especially as dispatches are made on a part-cash, part-credit basis. “Now they all are calling us to ask if they can return the goods. After the payment of the Goods and Services Tax, how is that even possible?”

Another dimension of the impending crisis relates to public sector banks in Sivakasi, whose exposure to the firecracker industry is estimated to be ₹1,500 crore. Like a ‘joint’ cracker, the fortunes of the two sectors are intertwined —if one goes off, the other will too.

Footing CSIR’s bill

On October 29, at a press conference by the Minister for Environment in Delhi,the director of the CSIR-NEERI, Rakesh Kumar, referred to unresolved questions about how much the CSIR will get paid for the ‘green cracker’ technology.

The CSIR-NEERI’s ‘Green Cracker’ project, budgeted at ₹65 lakh, is to be officially funded entirely by the CSIR. But Selvarajan’s firm paid ₹10 lakh for the research. NEERI undertakes research and development for private entities on payment of a research fee. That is one reason why Selvarajan had assumed that the Sri Kaliswari-CSIR partnership was for a private project.

Green crackers make Sivakasi see red
 

On August 29, after the MoEF&CC’s submission to the Supreme Court, Selvarajan sent an email to the CSIR flagging the reference to the ‘CSIR-Kaliswari joint facility’ as a testing facility for research for the entire industry. The mail said: “Studies undertaken by you was meant for the Sri Kaliswari Group of factories and not meant for the whole industry. Also, the alternate formulations which you refer [to] were not disclosed or its performance demonstrated to the satisfaction of me or my group of factories.”

Referring to an internal mail by the CSIR-NEERI to PESO,on August 29,, Selvarajan adds, “It is categorically stated that no member of TANFAMA was present to witness the trial or study as mentioned in your mail to PESO.”

Lastly, alluding to secrecy, the mail said, “Under Explosives Rules 2008, no formulation or composition for fireworks is a secret as it is to be displayed on the labels of boxes under Rule 15 of the Explosives Rules, and patented formulations are not heard of under the Rules regulating Fireworks industry in our country.”

Without resolving this question of who will pay the CSIR for the research, there will be no further study on ‘green crackers’, says Mariappan.

“The industry came up on its own in the 1920s, thanks to the initiative of our forefathers who were illiterate and not scientists. We, the fourth generation, are educated and have access to science and technology. We gave our inputs to the CSIR, but it wants to make money from us with some cock and bull stories,” he says.

In response, Rayalu says that the CSIR is still working on the royalty issue.

“We can, of course, manufacture crackers with lower emissions,” says Selvarajan.

“But for that, raw materials need to be properly identified, and mixtures and combinations should be studied. We have the expertise and the wherewithal for research, and the help of FRDC and PESO. But why this sudden haste?”

“Even the phasing out of highly polluting diesel engines has been given time till 2020,” adds Mariappan.

“If the court had just issued a directive for research and development to be done on time for next Diwali, that would have served the cause so much better,” says Selvarajan.

________

At the time of the article going to press, the court had issued partial relief to retailers for sale of crackers that were already produced.

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Printable version | May 27, 2020 8:29:36 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/green-crackers-make-sivakasi-see-red/article25406861.ece

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