The ban by several states, including Delhi, West Bengal, has put the lives of over ten lakhs and the economy in a dire gloomy future, and uncertainty to the firecrackers hub of Sivakasi, also known as kutti Japan (little Japan) of the country.
Sivakasi in Virudhunagar district is a busy city all 365 days of the year, giving employment opportunities to over 10 lakh people directly and indirectly. They are solely dependent on the fireworks industry for livelihood despite well-established 'professional health hazards' caused by the chemicals used in making the firecrackers, frequent accidents and other risks involved.
The industry has been targeted in the name of causing environmental pollution for the past 4 or 5 years. People unconnected with the industry and from other religions file court cases to ban the bursting of firecrackers during the Diwali festival. The festival is important for people all over the country. Various theories are attributed to the festival. In Tamil Nadu, the killing of the demon Naragasura is observed as a festival. The Busting of firecrackers were mentioned in Veda. Diwali is also known by various names such as Deepavali, Dipalika, Deepa Oli, Deepamala etc. in ancient Kashmir, it is known as Sukasuptika.
Delhi air pollution is because of the burning of stubbles by neighbouring farmers, construction debris, dust from roads, vehicles pollution, etc. But the courts and the Delhi government have been banning the use of crackers. First, imports from Chinese products were banned. Later, Indian made (Sivakasi) crackers were banned. When the industry took it up with the SC, time limits were prescribed to burst crackers on the festival day (Morning and night). There were restrictions on decibels of sound coming from crackers. In the past few years, there has been a new word, Green crackers. i.e. crackers without causing hazards or pollution. Industry sources say there are no such green crackers. Sulfur, Barium, and other chemicals may cause harm, but they can't be produced without them. Sara Vedis (Lari or serial crackers) is banned as it contains Barium.
The last-minute directions of the SC have put the industry in dire consequences. During the pandemic days, the production could not be maintained at a normal level. The intervention of courts and giving last-minute directions has affected the industry. They have cut down the production year after year despite huge demand both in domestic and international markets. Crackers are burst during Diwali and on Christmas to welcome English New Year, marriage and family-related celebrations, political wins, victory in sports like cricket, etc. But the ban is only Diwali implies the petitioners' ulterior motive or those against the industry. "Diesel vehicles are the ones which cause the most pollution. Can the judiciary think of banning the use of vehicles run by petro and diesel?" asks a firecracker unit owner.
Year after year, the last-minute decision of the apex and other courts have put the lives of over ten lakh workers who depend on the fireworks industry in the doldrums. The fireworks labourers are vulnerable to economic shocks as their earning is affected. The economic impact caused by the COVID-19 has left workers with meagre income and fewer job opportunities. The industry has reduced its production level. Wages also come down to drastic levels. The effects of Demonetization, implementation of GST, introducing Green Crackers, the ban imposed by various states have added further woes to the industry. It is still a labour-intensive one despite modern technology being in vogue.
According to Sridhar, who has been privy to the industry affairs in close quarters said since 1940, Sivakasi has become the fireworks capital of India. Kolkata was the first city to start the manufacture of crackers in 1892 by one Dasgupta. The bursting of crackers has been popular in India since Vedic times. The Rig Veda calls it Agni Upasaha. A Ved Vyasa's Sanskrit Sloka Ulka danam refers to the compulsory bursting of crackers during Diwali. It is a fact that only about 10 per cent of the products presented in the market are green crackers.
Sridhar said, "The industry has crippled in the name of protecting environment and the decision of judiciary and state government. Men and women laborers engaged in labelling, assembly and packaging of crackers and other associated works, are badly affected. They have been denied increment for several years. Earlier, they accused the industry of using child labourers. Now they have come with air pollutions. The pandemic lockdown and ban on toxic chemicals like barium nitrate salts, many of the over thousand fire works industries in the district are in the red. Barium salts are used as oxidisers and to emit bright green sparks on combustion. It can cause skin irritation, including nose, throat, eyes and lungs on contact or inhalation. SC, in 2017, has banned the use of Antimony, Lithium, Mercury, Arsenic, Lead and Strontium Chromate. Now the Barium salts. We have a license from Nagpur based Central government Explosive dept. They are the authority and go by the standards set by them". The ban and restrictions have affected the industry. He said, "We have huge export orders but could not send. This is a loss for the country as it loses Forex revenue. Sofar 30 to 40 percent of the production has been sold in the domestic market."
Tamil Nadu is yet to put its long-term policy measures in place. They are engaged in annual firefighting exercises to protect businesses and livelihoods. In a letter, TN CM M. K. Stalin has appealed to his counterparts in Delhi, Rajasthan, Haryana, Odisha to lift the blanket ban on firecrackers and allow green crackers, which have the stamp of approval from SC and National Green tribunal. In a reprieve, setting aside a Calcutta High Court order, the apex court has allowed the residents of every city in the country to burst green crackers on Diwali provided the ambient air quality remained better than poor category. The Calcutta HC had put a blanket ban on the bursting of crackers.
The industry needs a long-term vision instead of last-minute knee jerk actions to protect the industry and the interests of lakhs of labourers who depend on it. The available lands are barren, and the people can't take agriculture as an alternative. Both the Central and state governments have the duty to protect the forex earning fireworks industry and the people seeking out their livelihood. It is a seasonal business but a year-round production, steps should be taken keeping in all these minds.