Sivakasi Remains a Tragic Tinderbox
Fireworks that are used during Diwali take about 300 days to make
It was 12 years ago, but Karuppusamy (42), who works as a painter, still remembers that fateful morning like it was yesterday. He had been out of town for a couple of days for work and was returning home, eager to meet his wife Thilagavathi (37 ) and children.
She worked in the firework industry and made firecrackers at home, trying to earn some extra money for her family. That day the children were at home, and there was no power supply. In the dark, Karuppusamy's then eight-year-old son Arvind lit a candle.
A few minutes later, the candle fell on the gunpowder pile that his mother had left on the floor. There was a loud explosion and the house burst into flames. Arvind's younger sister Gayathri, only five years old, and a neighbour rushed to help.
Arvind was rushed to the hospital, but it was too late. The child succumbed to the injuries. Karuppusamy was informed of the horrific incident and he was heartbroken. His wife hasn't stopped blaming herself. However, she continues to work as a firework maker, because she doesn't know any other trade and the family needs the money to survive.
After the accident, the police filed a case against Karuppusamy's wife for negligence. Three years later, the case was closed. The family received no compensation.
Dangerous Home Units
When the tragedy changed her, and the family's lives forever, Karuppusamy's wife had been working at a 'home unit'. These are unorganised firework 'factories' that have been operating without a licence.
People who work in these units know the dangers that come with it, but they say they have no other option to earn a livelihood. In 2013, the Madras High Court had directed the collector of Virudhunagar district, where Sivakasi is located, to shut down all unlicensed units without any delay.
However, activists working in the area say that home units are still operational even today. All that has changed is that these illegal units keep their work low-key. In these home units, families and neighbours usually gather together and make fireworks. There are no safety measures in place.
Typically in a firework factory, each worker earns about Rs 400 a day. This is hardly enough for their survival and many are forced to take up the risky business of working for extra hours in their 'home units' to earn more money. This way they earn about Rs 300 more than they would earn in a factory.
However, even there, they are exploited as most of the jobs are given through agents. These agents always take a huge commission, leaving the workers with less profit.
Sivakasi is known as the fireworks' capital of India. Almost 90 percent of fireworks supplied across the country are manufactured here. There are about 2,200 big and small factories here. At least nine lakh people earn their livelihood directly and indirectly from this trade.
The city of Sivakasi has a natural advantage for firework manufacturing units because of the low rainfall and dry weather. The conditions here make it favourable for year-round fireworks production cycle.
Typically, fireworks that are used for three to four hours during Diwali take about 300 days to make. Most of the labourers work overtime to meet the demand.According to some reports, the firecracker industry in Sivakasi is estimated to have an annual turnover of over Rs 4,800 crore.
The fireworks factories in Sivakasi are also known for producing training weapons for the armed forces. These training weapons are mostly used by the armed forces to train newly inducted officers.
However, Sivakasi is most often in the news for the wrong reasons. Every year, there are at least 10 to 20 accidents happen in Sivakasi, mostly in the unorganised sectors where there are no proper safety measures in place or because the workers are not trained properly to handle the hazardous chemicals properly.
The 2012 Sivakasi factory explosion was perhaps one of the deadliest. Those explosions killed more than 40 people and left another 70 badly injured. The incident happened at Om Sakthi Fireworks Industries fireworks factory in September 2012. The festival of Diwali was just weeks away and workers were reportedly under high pressure to manufacture more fireworks.
The fireworks factory reportedly did not have a valid licence. There have been several such incidents before and after, but the people here are undeterred by it and continue to work under hazardous conditions simply because they have no alternate source of earning a livelihood.
Rajagopalan, a social activist who has been working for the empowerment of fireworks workers for several years now said, "there are hundreds of people working as daily wage labourers. In the factories, there are temporary staff and confirmed staff.
"According to the law, the confirmed staff have to get all the benefits like minimum wage, health insurance, etc. But the factory owners don't want to spend money or lose money on this. So, out of the 100 or so workers in a particular unit, they give permanent positions to only about 20 staff members, the rest 80 workers are given daily wages.
"These labourers may also work in other units. They are given a meagre wage of about 400 rupees per day, irrespective of the number of firework pieces they make in a day."
He added, "some of them are also trapped because they take an advance from the owners, and then are required to work longer hours without extra pay. Many of them work extra hours throughout the year and have no say in it."
Speaking about the safety measures, he said, "owners claim that the work is safe and that all safety measures are being taken, but the ground reality is that the work is extremely dangerous. The chemicals that are used to make these firecrackers have to be filled in the moulds within ten minutes, otherwise it can catch fire.
"There are many accidents which happen because of this. Just last week, there were two deaths. The problem is safety standards are not properly adhered to. There is only one fire and safety officer for close to ten districts. How will he be able to monitor everything? There needs to be more manpower.
"Most of the labourers are not trained. They all start young, initially supporting their parents as they work, and then eventually take up the same occupation. Even up to the manager level, they don't have proper training on safety. They just follow what they have grown up seeing their parents do.
"There are a lot of health issues among the people here. Working in the firework industry can cause a high risk of asthma and other lung related conditions. Also, because of the extreme heat in these units, apart from the already hot and dry weather conditions in Sivakasi, a lot of the workers here are anaemic, especially the women.
"There are many others who have been facing skin conditions and dehydration problems. Although there are rules that gloves, masks and other safety features must be made mandatory in all the factories, hardly anyone follows the rules. Only the very big factories follow the rules.
"Women workers here are especially affected. Firstly, they are not paid as much as men. They face many other health challenges because of the extreme heat. Some of them are forced to take their children along.
"Although the number of child labour cases have come down significantly over the years in the big factories, there are still children working in the unorganised sectors. Factory owners also employ adolescents, children above 14 as they are legally allowed to work in non-hazardous conditions. However, the truth is that the conditions are very hazardous."
Manjula Devi (36) has been working for 15 years in the fireworks industry. She was just 19 years old when she started. She had never been trained. It was just something she learnt by watching others doing it.
"When I started work initially, it was extremely cumbersome. We would work extra hours every day, without being compensated for it. Our hands would turn out to be scarred at the end of the day.
"Over the years, my workload has reduced a bit. But that's because I work in a big factory and they adhere to all the rules and regulations. It's not the same in other factories. However, we are still not happy with our salary. It's been the same for years. My husband and I work together and make just about Rs 800 a day together," she said.
She also recalled an accident that she saw years ago, "I was walking by a house, where people had gathered to make the fireworks and suddenly the house went up in flames, there were bricks everywhere. Everyone inside the house died on the spot.
"That scene really affected me. Even today, the families of the victims are still struggling to survive. The government had promised some compensation, but not everyone was given it."
Low Wages, Alcoholism, Sexual Harassment
Speaking about the problems women face in these factories, she said, "we don't have bathroom facilities. That's a huge problem. We work here from morning to evening and it gets really difficult for the women. We also don't have water facilities. We work in extremely hot conditions, but we are not even provided water. A lot of the women here get dehydrated often."
Another issue that women in the factories face is sexual harassment. "Alcoholism is a huge, huge problem here. Even though the law allows sale of liquor only till a particular time, nobody follows the rules.
"The men start drinking early in the morning, and many of them go to work drunk. Women regularly complain of harassment by drunk men at the workplaces. Once they go home after long, stressful hours of work, their drunk husbands come home and beat them up. This has been a pattern here for years now.
"Moreover, there are other challenges that come with alcoholism. Even if one is sober, it is extremely dangerous to work in such hazardous conditions, these drunk men can't follow the safety procedures properly. There are so many accidents caused because of this. Something needs to be done about this," said Karuppusamy, who is also the head of his village.
Speaking about the low salaries, another worker Easwaran said, "I am happy now that the payment is coming regularly because all the transactions are online. That makes it much easier. Earlier, we had to wait in queues to get our pay in cash and it would never be on time. We had to wait for days and even weeks.
"The online payment has been helpful, but we still get the same amount. It hasn't changed even a bit in all these years. We still get only about 400 rupees a day."
There are about 150 people in Easwaran's workplace and most of their families have been in the industry for generations, so that's all they've grown up seeing. But for the next generation, things are looking slightly more hopeful. More and more workers are beginning to see the importance of sending their children to school and not taking them to work with them.
Easwaran said, "all my kids are going to school now. We will send them as long as we can, but I don't know if circumstances will push us to take them to work with us.
"The salary has been the same for years, whereas the prices of commodities are increasing starkly. They don't give us any safety gear as well. We are asked to buy it ourselves, but how can we afford all that? We can hardly make ends meet."
He added, "we face a lot of health problems, especially asthma. My uncle died a few years ago after developing a serious lung condition. He worked all his life in the firework factory and was continuously exposed to harmful chemicals. Eventually his lungs got affected and he died.
"Only the big factories pay for the Employees' State Insurance Scheme (ESI). Since we work in small factories, we don't get those benefits. We face the same risks or even more, but we have to go to government hospitals, where they don't take care, or to private hospitals which we can't afford.
"Now as Diwali is approaching, it's our busy season. There is high pressure at work. We have to make about 1,000 pieces a day, from flow pots to rockets, all sorts and sizes of firecrackers.
We start at 6 A.M. and finish at about 6 P.M. in the evening. During Diwali, the factories are closed for a month. Immediately after that, we start the process of manufacturing again. It's a year-round process."
The Barium Ban
In 2018, the Supreme Court had passed an order, banning the use of barium in manufacturing fireworks and ordered units to manufacture only green crackers. In 2019, the manufacturers were unable to obtain any formula for green crackers and when they did, the raw materials were purchased in less quantity which really affected the sales.
Then in 2020, COVID hit and four states banned the use of firecrackers. The SC's order was reconfirmed in 2021. All these factors together put the city of Sivakasi in a tight spot.
Many stakeholders have pleaded seeking a lift on the ban. While some big factories have begun manufacturing green crackers, local sources say that the production of barium fireworks is still prevalent in smaller factories and home units. They alleged that the police look the other way, in many places.
Karuppusamy alleged, "the home units are functioning everywhere. This is all done with the support of the police. But what else can the people do? How can you bring about a ban without providing an alternative source of employment first?
"Yes, it is good for the environment, but what will we do? Our people have been doing this for years. They cannot jump to another occupation overnight. There aren't that many jobs available and even if there are, we don't know how to do them."
Before the pandemic around nine lakh people worked in the industry directly and indirectly. Over 6.5 lakh families had been dependent on the fireworks industry for their livelihood. But the numbers have now come down significantly, owing to COVID, and the ban on crackers and manufacturing units are facing a big economic crisis.
Both these factors have played a huge role in bringing down the procurement of crackers from 80 percent in 2018 to 60 per cent in 2020. In 2021 as well, the procurement of fireworks was just 60 percent.
Manufacturers across the city are calling the ban unreasonable, claiming that there are several other industries which cause pollution but nobody talks about it. Many feel that their industry is being singled out and most probably has a political agenda behind it.
The manufacturers claim that if the ban prevails, more than 40 per cent of the firecracker industry in the city will shut down permanently, if the sales don't happen during Diwali.
However, according to the Confederation of All India Traders, the biggest strength of the industry has been adapting to the times and the hope is that they will be able to manufacture greener firecrackers.
The NGOs working in Sivakasi are mostly involved in creating awareness about safety measures and encouraging families to send their children to school, instead of taking them along to the factories.
Speaking about the healthcare facilities, Karuppusamy said, "the government has introduced several measures for healthcare in case of accidents and other health issues due to working in the fireworks industry. However, these services are limited only to workers in big factories who have a licence. Workers in the unorganised sectors cannot avail any of these benefits."