It’s lights out in Sivakasi

The Supreme Court’s order regulating the manufacture of crackers has forced the industry in Sivakasi to go into shutdown mode. With no clarity on what constitutes ‘green crackers’, lakhs of workers stare at an uncertain future

November 24, 2018 11:55 pm | Updated December 03, 2021 10:13 am IST

A grim-faced middle-aged man shakes his head in disappointment after reading a multicolour banner in front of a fireworks unit on Naranapuram Road, Sivakasi. Its message is loud and clear.

“Due to unprecedented hardships suffered due to the harsh and impractical conditions imposed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in its orders dated 23.10.18 and 31.10.18, this factory is forced to close indefinitely. You may claim your gratuity and other benefits as per law.”


It is normal for fireworks units spread across Sivakasi, Vembakottai, Virudhunagar and Sattur taluks of Virudhunagar district to remain shut for 15 to 30 days post Deepavali. But, this year, industry bodies -- including Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers' Association (Tanfama) and The Indian Fireworks Manufacturers' Association (Tifma) -- announced an indefinite closure of factories on November 12.

Just a few days earlier, Sivakasi’s fireworks had lit up skies across the country with bright and multi-hued light during the festival of lights. But the sheen of 'Kutti Japan', the nation’s fireworks hub, was robbed when the lights died out.

The closure has rendered about three lakh workers employed by the 1,070 registered fireworks units in the district jobless. Except for the presence of a handful of supervising staff and security personnel, thousands of working sheds remain locked and the sprawling units wear a deserted look.

The Supreme Court's recent orders banning manufacture and sale of all fireworks, except green crackers and crackers with reduced emissions, have virtually imposed a blanket ban on production. Practically, the industry cannot make any fireworks if it is to comply with these orders.

“Since the court has banned joined crackers and fireworks with barium salts which constitute 80% of traditional fireworks, the industry cannot make any crackers now. In this scenario, we had no other option but to close down the industry,” says Tanfama president A. Asaithambi.

Dire straits

The situation is dire for the workers, including P. Kaleeswari, 34, a single mother. “Only if I work for all 30 days a month, can I run my family.” Forty-two-year-old K. Sadachiammal, who has been making fireworks, returned to Sivakasi within a few years of her marriage to Karuppasamy in a different village. Working on farmland did not fetch the couple enough money to run the family with two children. “Now, my husband and two sons (both married) are also into making crackers,” she says with pride. She earns anywhere between ₹300 and ₹400 a day. The advantage of working to earn at piece rate is the flexible working time which allows her to take care of chores at home.

Sadachiammal is now worried as ‘uppu’ (barium) and chorsa have been banned. She makes chorsa, while her husband and sons are involved in mixing chemicals.

What are green crackers?

As for the remaining 20%, the industry is confused as to whether these fireworks come under the category of'green crackers' permitted by the apex court. “We are yet to get an answer to the question: What are green crackers? No authority has an answer, but everyone wants us to make only green crackers,” rues Tanfama general secretary K. Mariappan. “We are ready to make green crackers, but no agency in the country is ready to define them,” he adds, saying even the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (Peso), which is the licensing and regulating authority for fireworks, has no clue.

This question has virtually crippled the industry with an annual turnover of ₹6,000 crore. It has flourished for over eight decades in the arid Virudhunagar district, where employment in agriculture is not significant.

The Virudhunagar district administration and PESO have issued separate circulars insisting that fireworks units shall make only green and improved crackers. Violating units have been warned of suspension or cancellation of licence under Explosives Rules 2008. “Any official can close down any unit claiming that the crackers are not 'green', in the absence of a definition,” Mr. Mariappan points out.

No alternatives

The industry feels that the Supreme Court has been misled by the Government of India, represented by the Central Pollution Control Board and Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, on various technical aspects. “PESO has pointed out that 50% to 60% of the total fireworks production like sparklers, flower pots, ground chakkars, torches, twinkling stars and colour matches cannot be made without barium nitrate. But this was not properly presented before the Supreme Court by the government,” Mr. Mariappan alleges.

The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (Neeri), which had promised to provide alternativesfor reducing pollution caused by dust that is emitted during bursting of crackers, now says that it will be able tocome up with the technology only by mid- July , Mr. Asaithambi says.

Fireworks production, which was restricted to six to eight months a year in the past, has now become a full-time industry with demand growing beyond Deepavali due to increased use in all festivities.

Neeri has suggested insertion of small water pouches inside tubes of crackers so that the water that gets splashed during bursting can contain the dust. But the industry is wary of water pouches accidentally getting punctured during manufacturing, transportation or stocking. Mr. Mariappan says. “We are not sure whether PESO will approve of the technology. This means, next Deepavali there can be no crackers,” he adds.

However, the industry is ready for characterisation of raw materials, as suggested by the apex court, to reduce pollution. Maintaining purity of chemicals will ensure that no unburnt particles are left in the atmosphere . It feels that the CPCB has not realised the importance of barium nitrate in the making of crackers. It has wrongly told the court that the salt is used only to give green colour, whereas it emits a bright white colour. Only in combination with polyvinyl chloride does it emit a green colour. It produces various colours in combination with different chemicals. It is a chemical approved by PESO and has been used by the industry for the last eight decades. It is also cheap and available in abundance. Besides, it is safe, say manufacturers.

The only alternative is potassium perchlorate. This is much cheaper and also gives a brighter light. But its use inthe fireworks industry has been restricted because of its high sensitivity to friction. While loading and unloading, an accidental fall, or friction can spark fires. Hence, its usage has been restricted to only whistling rockets. A separate licence is required for it and very few units have it.

The industry has been fighting the flooding of the market with smuggled crackers from China. “One of the major arguments for preventing Chinese fireworks is that they contain potassium perchlorate. This chemical suits the cold climatic conditions of China. If potassium perchlorate is allowed in India, it will lead to more accidents and also open the floodgates for Chinese goods,” Mr. Mariappan says.

Aspirational district

Interestingly, the Centre has chosen Virudhunagar as one of the two backward districts of the State under its Aspirational Districts Programme with an aim to provide overall development.

“At a time like this, saving around 8 lakh jobs, involving uneducated masses in a backward district, would be wise,” a top government official says.

“The State and Centre cannot remain silent on the fate of jobs and livelihood of lakhs of people claiming that the ban is an apex court order,” says CPI(M)'s Virudhunagar district secretary K. Arjunan. Though the issue of pollution needs to be addressed, shutting down a labour-intensive industry is not acceptable. The industry should be given ample time to adapt to new technologies and allowed to continue its business, he argues.

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