Sivakasi, now a ghost town, waits for a verdict on green firecrackers

The push for green crackers is a win for public health. But lakhs of workers in Sivakasi are out of a job

March 29, 2019 03:26 pm | Updated December 03, 2021 10:13 am IST

A worker at a cracker unit in Sivakasi

A worker at a cracker unit in Sivakasi

At a tea kadai in Sanarpatti village, some 13 km from Sivakasi town, a group of men are huddled in animated discussion. It appears to be fairly cheerful chatter until I get close enough to hear the conversation.

Each one of them is talking of how uncertain he is about the future. Ever since the firecracker factories shut down five months ago, survival has been precarious, they say, as I join them.

We drive past the factories dotted around the village. Once thriving businesses, most of them now have locks on their gates. The roads are so deserted the town could be under curfew.

In October last year, the Supreme Court asked firecracker manufacturers to produce only ‘green’ or low-emission crackers to reduce air and noise pollution. Chemicals such as lead, mercury, arsenic and barium, which give colour, bang and sparkle to crackers, were banned. A win for public health. But for Sivakasi, the town responsible for 90% of the country’s firecrackers, the verdict was a blow . Known as little Japan for the spiralling growth of its 70-year-old cracker industry, the town is now limping, with lakhs of people left without a job.

 

“Big companies like Standard, Sonny, Sri Kaliswari, Ayyan, Arasan have stopped production indefinitely. Some are functioning with just 20% of their staff,” says Ishwar Chander Bansal, a fourth-generation supplier of barium salt, a key firecracker ingredient, from Agra. Every year he would transport 21 tonnes of the raw material. It would be lifted within a fortnight after Diwali for the subsequent year’s production. “This time I have sold only six tonnes, and at half the price. And I have paid extra to rent a lorry shed for the stock and to pay for lodgings since last November,” he says.

The locked gate of a fireworks unit in Sivakasi

The locked gate of a fireworks unit in Sivakasi

When 1,400 units (licensed and illegal) shut down indefinitely late last year, it left nearly 2 lakh direct employees and another 4-5 lakh people in the ancillary industries in the lurch. The decision to shut shop was as much a protest against the Supreme Court order as it was about their inability to rapidly convert to green production.

Confusion prevails

What it has meant, however, is that the town itself seems to have shut down. Prem Chand Sharma runs a popular restaurant on Velayudhan Road. He says his business has been hit for the first time in 35 years. “My eatery would always be brimming over with vendors, agents, dealers and traders from all over India. Now I have retrenched staff and I am running my hotel with only my two sons. People have stopped coming to Sivakasi to trade,” he says.

Meanwhile, confusion prevails. Constant adjournments, counter affidavits by various petitioners, and a lack of clarity on what exactly an environment-friendly cracker is have left manufacturers scrambling. The newly minted term, ‘green cracker’, grabbed headlines, but doubts remain about its efficacy and practicality.

 

In fact, anybody who has ever earned a living mixing and filling chemicals, rolling and shaping crackers, connecting fuses, packing, labelling, transporting, and selling has by now heard the term ‘green cracker’ but not one of them is quite sure how it can be made. Equally, it’s clear that manufacturers are loath to give up some of the banned chemicals, without which they say Diwali won’t be the same again, either in bang or business.

Last November, Sadhana Rayalu, a scientist with National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), told The Hindu that ‘green crackers’ operate on a technology called Safe Water and Air Sprinklers, where reactants such as aluminium or zeolite absorb water to generate heat and enable the explosion, but where the water also acts as a dust suppressant.

 

Not everybody is convinced. “Green cracker is a chimera,” declares K. Mariappan, who recently stepped down as secretary of the Tamil Nadu Fireworks & Amorces Manufacturers’ Association (TANFAMA). He and the association’s former president, T. Asaithambi, are among those who say that “green crackers are a myth” and are seeking a review petition.

A.P. Selvarajan is the owner of the oldest and biggest firecrackers company in Sivakasi, Sri Kaliswari. He says, “If we want to save Sivakasi’s industries, we have to go green.” It was in his laboratory that the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) did its initial tests for low-emission crackers. And it was Sri Kaliswari technicians who went to NEERI to teach researchers the basics of cracker chemistry. Now, CSIR-NEERI has come up with a formula that reduces the chemical weight in the cracker formulations and adds a patented green additive to it. And they’re charging a royalty fee for it, which many manufacturers are unwilling to pay.

A woman at a fireworks unit

A woman at a fireworks unit

Companies, however, have been told to enter into an agreement with CSIR-NEERI. Those that signed up were invited to a final testing of the product on March 17. The formula itself will be shared only after the April 3 court order. Rayalu says 160 manufacturers have paid and signed up for the transfer of know-how for safe, clean and green crackers. “Hopefully, work will resume in these factories soon,” she says. Meanwhile, another petition challenging NEERI's so-called green additive has also been filed.

At the Sanarpatti tea stall, the conversation rumbles on. “We’ve never faced such trouble before,” the group says. Of course, they have been told that bursting crackers pollutes the environment and impacts health. But what they understand better is that the barium ban will kill all the traditional smoky and sparkly Diwali attractions like the flower pot and the pencil, the wheel, the whip, the sparklers.

Stall owner Ravichandran brews tea as emotions around him run high. “My business is down by 60%. People are buying fewer groceries; people out of jobs often drop in for a free chai,” he says.

 

Last summer, it was a different story. Ravichandran was earning ₹1,000 a day selling tea and snacks. Sanarpatti’s residents worked at firecracker units around the town and earned between ₹250 and ₹400 a day for at least 25 days a month.

In Sivakasi’s business cycle, as soon as Diwali ends, agents from across the country land up in droves, to float orders and negotiate costs for the next season’s consignments. By the end of March, at around this time, all deals would have been sealed and production would have begun. “What we make today explodes six months later,” says Ramesh, 41, who has worked at a firecracker unit since he was 19 and is now unemployed. “Last November, we were told the factory was closed indefinitely. Initially, I did not believe this because my father and grandfather have done this work since the 1950s. Why did nobody think of how we will feed our families?”

Many from his neighbourhood moved to Kerala to look for odd jobs in masonry and in timber factories on the Sengottai-Thenmala-Punalur highway. Others found work in Tirupur textile units or construction sites in Madurai. Many like Ramesh, who worked briefly as a cleaner in a Coimbatore hospital, returned within a month because they found it difficult to stay away from their families.

A worker a fireworks unit

A worker a fireworks unit

Vinoth, 20, of Maraneri village, quit college last May to work in a paper-cutting unit to augment the family income. Three months ago, his employer in Sivakasi retrenched him; his parents, both working in a firecracker factory, lost their jobs too. “A week ago, however, my mother was called back for a few hours of work at half the pay,” he says, adding, “We are finding it difficult to run our household.”

I meet Muthumari, a 35-year-old widow. She started working in a firecracker factory in Vilampatti village following her husband’s death seven years ago. “I don’t have any savings and I have a loan of ₹20,000 to repay. I have been without work since November and my resources are drying up,” she says, her eyes welling up. She asks if she will be paid for this interview.

Mariamma, 40, is hopeful because she has heard that some workers are being called back. She has mortgaged her jewellery to keep her home running. “But for how long,” asks the mother of three. Her husband, who drove a fireworks factory bus, is now in Coimbatore with a call taxi company. “The cost of living is high there; he is not able to send us enough money,” she says.

We visit a factory in Singampatti. Inside, a couple silently fills bijlis in small cellophane packets. “We are lucky to have been given this work even if it’s for a few days,” says Janaki, 34. “Firecrackers are our life,” says her husband Kaliraj. “My parents worked here. We are struggling to pay school fees and we worry about the next meal for our children.”

Hand-rolled

Lakshmi, 48, is patiently filling the chemical masala into hand-rolled paper pipes to make the bijlis. She is not sure how long she will have this job. Her husband, meanwhile, has become a sand-loader in Rajapalayam for ₹150 a day. The fireworks factory paid him up to ₹500 a day.

A worker lays out firecrackers to dry at a factory in Sivakasi

A worker lays out firecrackers to dry at a factory in Sivakasi

Many units like the one Lakshmi and Janaki are in have reopened to make crackers without barium — rockets, bijlis, atom bombs. “We are using up the raw material that’s been lying around since last year. But buyers and traders are confused about the court’s ruling. We did business on credit and in cash but now nobody is willing to take risks with their money,” says Jay Bhavani, owner of Jay Bhavani Fireworks.

Across Viruddhunagar district, the story is pretty much the same. The closure of the licensed factories has had a crippling effect on village upon village: Kottaiyur, Vembakottai, Ammapatti, Thayilpatti, Anaikottai, Idayankulam, Meenakshipuram and Meenampatti.

“The court did not order the closure of factories but barred manufacturers from using certain chemicals. The manufacturers decided to shut shop even though the majority of them had licences valid for five years,” points out K. Sundaresan, deputy chief controller, Petroleum & Explosive Safety Organisation (PESO), whose responsibility is to observe compliance in Sivakasi. In fact, the Supreme Court in its March 12 order, stated that while only green and improved crackers will be permitted, the poor cannot be robbed of jobs.

“What choice did we have?” counters Selvarajan. “There was the threat of our licences being cancelled if we did not opt to go green.”

In this blame game between manufacturers and regulators, the one thing that’s clear is Sivakasi’s economic slowdown. The fireworks industry, whose annual turnover is pegged at about ₹6,000 crore, has dwindled to practically nothing over the last five months. “It’s not easy to recover from this loss,” says V. Rajappan, TIFMA member and owner of Ruby Sparklers. Equally, however, the industry might never have gone green without such a drastic shutdown.

Factory owners and workers alike are now waiting for the court judgment on April 3. Until then, life here is in limbo. Like those sparklers that sometimes don’t light up during Diwali.

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