How the bad air battle turned the tide for once-thriving Sivakasi

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Velavan Fireworks, established in 1983, is not the beehive of activity it used to be ahead of Deepavali. In a corner of its 36-acre compound is a small office, out of which N Kartheeswaran, the second-generation owner of the factory, works.

There are at least 50 manufacturing sheds inside the campus, each painted in white with blue doors. The bigger sheds usually have four workers to a space, the smaller ones hold two. This year, several sheds are shut. The factory had 150 workers until 2020. It has between 50 and 70 now.

Many of the workers are women. Their children have nowhere else to be, so next to their mothers, they play in groups, swaying from makeshift swings made from old blankets and sarees hung from the ceiling. By the middle of the day on October 20, even before lunch, two workers approach Kartheeswaran and ask what to do next. Their work for the day is done. Two weeks before Diwali, in Sivakasi, the question borders on the absurd.

“If we have another situation like last year, there is no way our factory, or the industry will survive,” Kartheeswaran says.

In September 2017, the Supreme Court banned the use of antimony, lithium, mercury, arsenic, lead and strontium nitrate in firecrackers, hearing a case filed in 2015 by the legal guardians of three Delhi based children who argued for a complete ban to protect their right to a pollution-free environment. A year later, in 2018, the apex court held that only “green crackers” would be allowed. This year, the Supreme Court on Friday, October 29 clarified that “green firecrackers” were allowed, but reiterated the ban on those that contain barium salts and “joined crackers”, a staple of the industry. The apex court said: “Celebration cannot be at the cost of the other’s health.”

In 2020, just before a week before Diwali, seven states banned the sale and use of firecrackers. This year Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh have allowed green crackers, while in Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Odisha, they are allowed for two hours on Diwali. Haryana has announced a blanket ban in 14 districts, allowing green crackers in areas where AQI is “moderate” and above. The Calcutta high court on Friday ordered a complete ban on firecrackers in West Bengal, which the Supreme Court set aside on Monday, allowing green crackers.

A Asaithambi, president, Sivakasi Fireworks Manufacturers Association (SIFMA) says that if production was affected by 25% in 2020, it has already dropped 40% this year.

As India grapples to control the heavy toll taken by the annual winter pollution with at least nine Indian cities among the world’s worst 10, according to the World Air Quality Report 2020 — converting some northern metropolises into veritable gas chambers in the winter, the fallout of bad air shortening lifespans and causing serious ailments among the vulnerable — the firecracker industry, close to a hundred years old, is on its knees.

THE BEGINNINGS

In 1923, two men from Virudhunagar, P Ayya Nadar and his brother Shanmuga Nadar, travelled to Kolkata to learn the skill of making matches. They returned in eight months, convinced they had struck gold. Soon, the Nadars, a powerful community in Tamil Nadu, began setting up factories. The factories, which originally made matches, were owned by the Nadars, while those that worked in them were predominantly women and Dalits. Within a few years, fireworks began to emerge, beginning with sparklers. As machines began taking over the match business, the workforce began to turn to fireworks by the late 1920s.

As the industry grew, people, including child labourers, began migrating to Sivakasi from the neighbouring districts of Madurai, Tirunelveli and Thoothikudi. Across India, most fireworks were still being imported, but this was curtailed during the Second World War. In 1940, the government passed the Indian Explosives Rules which licensed the manufacture, sales and storage of fireworks, and the industry exploded.

Much of the land where factories, such as Velavan, now stand, is agricultural in an area that is not conducive to farming, with dry weather and low rainfall. Until they began the factory in 1983, Kartheeswaran’s family had grown spinach. “There was no water and barely any hope in agriculture. We only began to grow when firecrackers began,” he says.

THE SLIDE

Sivakasi produces firecrackers worth an estimated 6,000 crore every year, 90% of the volume produced in India. According to the Virudhunagar district administration, there are 1,010 factory units. Of these, 269 are licensed by the district revenue office and 741 by Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organization (Peso). The number of workers employed directly is 150,000 and workers in the allied industries — offset printing, paperboard, retail and transport — are close to 500,000, according to Virudhunagar district collector J Meghanath Reddy.

Factory owners say the total number of people working in fireworks and allied industries in the region could be around 800,000.

After the Supreme Court’s orders in 2017 and 2018, sections of the industry began manufacturing green crackers using formulae prescribed by CSIR-NEERI’s (National Environmental Engineering Research Institute). According to the NEERI website, one such new formulation of light-emitting crackers named ‘STAR Z’ uses 32% potassium nitrate, 40% aluminum powder, 11% aluminum chips, and 17% proprietary additives to reduce PM10 and PM2.5 emissions by 70%. Peso approved these new formulations in 2019.

In Sivakasi, there is still a great deal of confusion on what “green crackers” are. “The confusion lies in not knowing the definition of green crackers. This is supposed to be clearly defined by the central government but there is no consistency…The alternatives that are recommended for green crackers are four times as expensive. In just 2021, every three months there has been a revision in the prices of aluminium powder and metal power,” says Prasanna Gunaram, the 31-year old, third-generation owner of Ramsons Fireworks.

Fireworks manufacturers have also made a plea to the Supreme Court to allow barium nitrate, which they argue is a “safe” oxidiser. “90% of conventional crackers need barium nitrate. NEERI has offered a formula where an additive to this composition will reduce emissions. But as of now barium nitrate isn’t permitted, Peso will not allow these crackers, and therefore our number of manufactured items have reduced,” Asaithambi said.

In the middle of the crisis and the confusion, came Covid.

When the national lockdown was enforced in March 2020, the industry downed shutters for 55 days. When they reopened, only 50% of their workforce was allowed to work. “We didn’t know what to produce. Because of the unpredictability, production was very low and some factories couldn’t afford to pay workers,” says Asaithambi. The industry’s busiest months are from July to October, ahead of Diwali. “From December to April we produce orders for the marriage season and temple festivals but this completely stopped due to Covid.”

In 2021, factories were also shut throughout May due to the second wave. Orders from across the country are usually placed by wholesalers immediately after Diwali, up until May. “This year the production has fallen further because our buyers have stock in excess. So they either limited their orders or just didn’t buy,” says Prasanna Gunaram.

THE WORKERS

Workers begin walking into the Velavan factory by 6.30am. There is a canopy of trees around the factory, and it is early in the day, but it is already warm. “It’s the chemicals,” says Kumaravel Pandian, the foreman who decides what chemicals are mixed in which shed, the type of knife to be used to cut threads, and most things else. Only those who qualify in the “explosive licence exam” held by Peso can be employed as foremen. Pandian once ran a small business selling raw materials for matches, but it turned unviable in 2004. “If not for this job, I wouldn’t have been able to get my daughter married,” he says.

Next to him, 40-year-old Amul Raj is bathed in striking silver. Raj has the riskiest job in the enterprise — mixing the chemicals. For his own sake, he has to finish by 11am, for then he runs the risk of his body heat rising to unhealthy levels, combined with the strong sun. Raj has been doing this for 15 years before which he was loading crackers for transport. Now he earns 500-600 a day, double what he once did. It is this job that has brought his family a respectable living, the prize for the tenuous dance between life and death he lives everyday.

Working with them is the 65-year-old Victoria (who gave only one name), brought to the factories as a child labourer, as a Class 5 student. Back then, she earned 40 paise a day for making a 100 “joined crackers”. She married a factory worker and has five sons, none of whom works in the industry. “When you go to bed drinking just water every day, you follow what everyone else does to survive,” she says.

At 65, she is frail but her hands have the deftness of a surgeon, as she wraps plastic around multiple two-sound crackers in seconds. Earning between 150 to 170 a day she now can afford a lunch box which she shares with the three stray dogs that call the factory home. She echoes a sentiment common in the region. “Who else will give us work now? If they (the factories) don’t remain open, it’s a death knell,” she says.

THE DEBATE

With the threat of closure looming, the industry has been appealing to the Union Environment Ministry since 2017 to exempt fireworks from the Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986. “We are eligible for exemption since pollutants from crackers don’t stay in the air for more than 48 hours. People burst crackers only for two days during Deepavali and now, for only for four hours a day with the new restrictions. Our industry doesn’t pollute like thermal power plants, cement factories, construction, vehicles and stubble burning,” Asaithambi claims.

Environmentalists do not agree, but they acknowledge that it is time the government creates a transition plan for the labour force.

“We have to acknowledge that this is a sunset industry,” says Dharmesh Shah, public policy researcher who works on air pollution and is a senior advisor for Lawyers Initiative for Forests and Environment (LIFE). “The science is very clear that contamination, especially heavy metal pollution, is extremely high in firecrackers. Green crackers are safer but not pollution-free.”

Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) have been agitating for the implementation of Employees’ Provident Fund and Employees’ State Insurance to be strictly implemented by all factory owners. “We are also appealing for a minimum wage of 18,000 per month to be fixed for all the workers,” says V N Jothimani of Crackers and Matchbox Employees Association. “Everyone is desperate for a job. They’re going even if they get only 100 a day and they sleep over at factories so that they don’t miss out on any work.”

THE FUTURE

Manickam Tagore, the Congress MP from Virudhunagar, says that there is a desperate need for a long-term plan. “The biggest strength of the industry has been adapting to the times. It brings revenue to the government and creates jobs. We have the capacity to compete with China which exports fireworks to Australia, the US and the UK. But instead government agencies are targeting this industry and creating several bottlenecks.”

Back at Velavan Fireworks, there is no next rung of generational leadership of the factory waiting after Kartheeswaran. He had studied till Class 12, and after trying his hand at unsuccessful businesses, returned to the family business. But there is now a distaste for the work among their children. While Kartheeswaran’s daughter is still in school, his niece work as a nurse and nephew as a mechanical engineer. “No one has the mindset to come back here and struggle through this.”

Still, there will be time to worry about that later. For Sivakasi, much depends on this pivotal week. Kartheeswaran and his employees, like everyone else in Sivakasi, are hoping there are no additional last-minute bans.

“That’s the difference between life and death,” he says. An ironical, but serious, fallout of India’s air emergency.

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