Sivakasi's Dark Diwali
Workers face a gloomy future as the proposed ban on Barium, used to make firecrackers, is still pending a hearing before the Supreme Court
A darker and blacker Diwali was unthinkable in Sivakasi, the city renowned for producing the majority of the nation's firecrackers. Sivakasi, which once was a hub of commerce in Tamil Nadu, now appears to be deserted.
The city is in a terrible shape right now and generations of workers face a gloomy future as the proposed ban on Barium, a major ingredient in making crackers, is still pending a hearing before the Supreme Court.
Many states have outlawed the use of fireworks during Diwali as a result of mounting pollution concerns. In Sivakasi nearly every household is involved in producing fireworks and has now been impacted. In addition to the 500,000 more workers in allied industries, there are around 3,00,000 direct employees at the manufacturing units.
The manufacturing of pyrotechnics has gone down by 50 percent of what it once was, and with Diwali only a few days away, manufacturers are struggling to meet the demand. Many have stopped working ever since the production threshold was raised, thus reducing the number of employees in each factory to one-third of what it was before.
The fireworks sector in Sivakasi, employs over three lakh people directly across about 1,000 organised units. It is now in a bind as a result of the Supreme Court's 2018 and 2021 bans on the use of barium in firecracker production.
To lessen air and noise pollution, the Supreme Court had ordered firework makers to exclusively produce "green" or low-emission fireworks. Lead, mercury, arsenic, and barium, chemicals that give crackers their colour, pop, and sparkle were outlawed. The ruling was a setback for Sivakasi, the town that has produced 90% of the country's firecrackers in the past 70 years.
Once known as 'Little Japan', it is currently home to thousands who have lost their jobs. "We don't have a breadwinner in our family, so I make firecrackers at a factory. I was able to feed my children three meals a day because of the money I earned working in the firecrackers industry," said Sanju, a worker at Rathnaa Fireworks.
"My family hasn't had a healthy supper for many weeks now because of the prohibition and decrease in firecracker manufacture. I don't know of any other jobs. The judiciary is the last resort. We hope to receive a favourable ruling from the nation's highest court," he added.
Since the ban, 1400 legitimate, and illegal units have shut down, and over two lakh workers lost their jobs as a result. According to the officials, Sivakasi's firecracker factories produce fireworks worth approximately Rs 2,500 crore and may sell them for as much as Rs 6,000 crore in retail sales.
However the fireworks industry has been under scrutiny. Manufacturers were first charged with employing child labor, then for noise pollution. Since the laws were put in place, the problem of noise pollution has been resolved, and the companies say they are now being accused of air pollution. According to an owner of a fireworks unit, "the next charge may be that the light emitted by firecrackers is damaging to human eyes."
A. Murali, Vice President of the Sivakasi Fireworks Manufacturers Association (SFMA), told The Citizen, that the fireworks business was currently facing problems in addition to the bans enacted by many State governments. "They target us because they know we won't be able to mount a successful legal defence," he said adding, "do the modern environmental activists have the same concerns about the companies using barium that they do about us?"
He defended the fireworks sector claiming that it was not to blame for the post-Diwali haze, not even in the National Capital. "According to studies, only 30 percent of the air pollution from Diwali is still present the day after, and the following day is completely clear. The government needs to reconsider its ban decision," he said.
Murali owns four factories in Sivakasi and said the number of employees at each factory has decreased to 50 from 150. According to Murali, "forced downsizing has forced workers who previously knew just how to make crackers to turn to illegal means of supporting their families". However, he didn't disclose what those "illegal methods" were.
According to Sivakasi locals they are "being targeted by special interests". Manufacturers claim that Sivakasi would have become a ghost town long ago if firecrackers were the sole cause of Delhi's air pollution. "The prohibition of barium is baselessly imposed without any scientific assessment being undertaken on the possibly hazardous impact with relation to the pollution," alleged A. Murali.
The Sivakasi belt directly employs three lakh people, while another four lakh work in the region indirectly by supplying raw materials like chemicals and printed boards, among other things. "Despite the fact that other industries also employ barium in a variety of industrial processes, we are the target of environmentalists. We are the weaker adversary and are being used as scapegoats, I feel," said Murali.
According to him, barium is one of the primary oxidizers for the majority of fireworks, and because of the restriction, they are unable to produce many products. "After the prohibition, my factories are operating at 50% capacity and have drastically cut production, which clearly has an impact on the business. I employ 450 to 500 people, but now I am only able to hire 200 people," he added.
Bhavreen Kandhari, a Delhi-based environmentalist, said that crackers should be strictly prohibited, but she also acknowledged that doing so will have an impact on many people's ability to make a living. "Distributors will also be harmed, not only the makers. However, the issue is that we do not treat the environment seriously enough. How many people even know that before the firecrackers took over, Sivakasi was a center for weaving industries?" she asked.
"The primary cause of pollution is not us. Stubble burning is an industry too," said Sunil, a 45-year-old who owns Ratnaa Fireworks. Sunil, a resident of Sivakasi, has experienced the rise and fall of the industry, "after barium was banned in 2018, we suffered a great deal. Our current productivity is only 30 percent of what it once was, and we now employ only 300 people instead of 1000."
According to Sunil, each Diwali has brought with it less light as the years have passed.
All the manufacturers also claim that they test all the crackers before they go out to the rest of the country.
The battle over lifting the barium restriction also comes just after a two-year shutdown during the Covid pandemic. According to Murali, the firecracker industry ceased production entirely during the pandemic. Now, he says "legislative and judicial stakeholders are making it impossible" for them to recover their losses.
According to environmentalists the ban on firecrackers ought to last the entire year, not just before Diwali. According to Kandhari, "it does no good to impose a day-long restriction. The manufacturers that have spent months preparing and are uncertain about the ban bear the consequences because neither the people nor the media pay attention. Whenever I even attempt to lodge a complaint, it is categorically disregarded, and they ask ridiculous questions like who was lighting crackers, what was it, etc. Has this ever been of any use?"