India’s fireworks capital losing its sparkle

Updated - March 10, 2022 04:25 pm IST

Published - March 10, 2022 04:15 pm IST - Sivakasi

The men involved in making crackers at a fireworks unit in Sivakasi.

The men involved in making crackers at a fireworks unit in Sivakasi. | Photo Credit: R. ASHOK

Early in the 20th century, young cousins A. Shanmuga Nadar and P. Ayya Nadar set off to Calcutta from their home town Sivakasi, an arid region in the present-day Virudhunagar district, to learn the know-how of the match work industry.

When they returned, they also brought with them the knowledge of making firecrackers. Thanks to their enterprise, Sivakasi evolved into the ‘Little Japan of India’ and a fireworks capital. Soon Sivakasi will enter its centenary year of firecracker business, but it is not yet celebration time as the industry is embroiled in a legal tussle over air pollution and is staring at a bleak future.

For many decades, the fireworks industry had proved a boon to the locals. “Rain-fed farming happens between November and February and then the entire workforce used to be rendered jobless in those days,” said G. Abiruben, a fireworks manufacturer and grandson of Ayya Nadar. The hand-made matches offered jobs to a good number of people. It was then that the entrepreneurs switched to colour matches and graduated to sparklers before making sound emitting crackers.

“The strong workforce, along with the entrepreneurial spirit in people of Sivakasi, saw the fireworks industry grow manifold,” Mr. Abiruben said.

The restriction on import of Chinese crackers during the World War II gave a big impetus to the domestic cracker industry.

Alongside, the entrepreneurs expanded its scope by starting units to produce raw materials. “Gone are the days when metal boxes containing German copper-coated mildsteel wires for sparklers were imported,” he said.

The industry, which initially offered seasonal work for a few months ahead of Deepavali, slowly began to work round the year. “This is the only industry that offers bonus twice a year to the workers — one for Deepavali and the other for Panguni Pongal,” said another manufacturer K. Mariappan.

From a handful number of units in the initial decades, the industry has grown. Over 500 units have come up since the turn of the millennium.

Technology-wise, the industry has grown from making crackers that produced mere sound and light to adding glitter. “The advent of aerial fireworks has changed the face of the industry in the last 20 years. We make fireworks of world-class standard, and all with indigenous technology,” Mr. Abiruben said.

While still the job largely remains labour- intensive, some units have introduced mechanisation that is limited to a few processes like mixing of chemicals.

Allied industry

Printing and packing that were started to fulfill the needs of fireworks units, too, grew along the fireworks industry to become major industries in the district. Besides workers from neigbouring districts for decades, it has attracted workers from all parts of the country.

At least eight lakh people are directly and indirectly involved in the fireworks and allied industries, including transport.


However, the industry is battling restrictions imposed by the Supreme Court on charges of causing air pollution during Deepavali, especially in north India.

“In the last four years, the industry is struggling to find a permanent solution to this issue,” Mr. Abiruben said. For the past three years, the industry has embraced green crackers, formulated by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), that are said to cut air pollution by 30%.

After the restriction on the timings for bursting crackers to just two hours for Deepavali, the sudden ban on using barium nitrate in crackers by the Supreme Court has jolted the industry.

The annual turnover of the industry stood at ₹3,000 crore, says P. Ganesan, president, Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers’ Association (TANFAMA). However, now most fireworks units are working with fewer workers because production has been hit.

The industry’s exports have also been hit by a higher shipment cost. “Since fireworks come under the ‘dangerous’ category, the transporters are charging ten times normal fare. The Union government should create a hub for exporting fireworks by sea and subsidise transport charges to drive up the exports,” said A.P. Selvarajan, a leading manufacturer.

Though the COVID-19 outbreak had largely isolated China, the world leader in fireworks exports, the Sivakasi units were unable to tap into opportunities for exports owing to the allied crisis, he said.

The ban on barium nitrate, an oxidising agent, used in making fireworks across the globe, is a concern as the industry claims at least 60% of its products could not be produced without this chemical.

Pottasium perchlorate was an expensive alternative, said Mr. Selvarajan. But the major limitation with Pottasium perchlorate was that for safety reasons, it could not be used in any factory that uses sulphur.

Mr. Ganesan has appealed to the Centre to approve NEERI’s guidelines for allowing a reduced quantity of barium nitrate along with additives.

The industry has got an export order for 100 containers of fireworks containing barium nitrate from a European country. “But we are not able to accept the order. At least for the purpose of exports, the Centre should allow it till the issue is decided,” Mr. Selvarajan said.

A senior manufacturer said fireworks units were experimenting with newer chemical combinations to get the preferred result. “Since there is no guideline from the Centre, the owners and the foremen were adopting a trial-and-error method which could lead to accidents,” he added.

Besides production safety, the chemicals should ensure a longer shelf life for the goods so that the dealers can store them for at least two or three years.

The industry is also plagued with frequent fire accidents, mostly at unlicensed units, leading to loss of lives and crippling of workers.

Joined crackers

Another jolt to the industry came in the form of a ban on making of joined crackers (saram), when the whole country used only joined crackers for every celebration. At least 30% of the workforce is dependent on making joined crackers. “We have some 250 units that are exclusively for making joined crackers,” said Mr. Selvarajan.

“Manufacturing of joined crackers (with only 28 pieces) should be allowed as it is one of the most popular fireworks during the Deepavali celebrations,” he added.

Mr. Ganesan said the Centre should intervene in the Supreme Court and permit NEERI-developed joined green crackers that could be made with potassium nitrate as an oxidizer.

Considering its huge size (1,000- odd units) and highly labour-intensive nature, the industry should be given five years by the Centre to ensure smooth transition to newer technology without disrupting production and affecting the livelihood of the workers.

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