In fireworks capital Sivakasi, crackers ban may impact electoral outcome despite AIADMK-BJP promise for resolution

Firecracker industry owners and workers in Sivakasi, which is part of Virudhunagar Lok Sabha seat, which polled on 18 APril, have been protesting since November 2018 in the hope that electoral compulsions will force the Tamil Nadu government to announce some relief for them and grant them exemption from the new norms

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Virudhunagar: Two brothers, driven by the drought and desperation in Sivakasi, travelled to Kolkata in 1922 to find jobs in the matchstick industry which was thriving under Japanese collaboration. Shanmuga Nadar and Ayya Nadar would go on to become the pioneers of Sivakasi fireworks industry when they returned home six years later to start their own matchstick company. With abundant labour and a dry climate, the fireworks industry in Sivakasi continued to expand in terms of area and products, until Sivakasi — which accounts for 90 percent of the fireworks manufactured in the country — came to be called ‘Little Japan’.

But today, the livelihood of over eight lakh people who work in the fireworks industry in Sivakasi, is facing the onslaught of tightening environmental regulations.

In October last year, the Supreme Court in its judgment on the Arjun Gopal petition (famously filed by fathers on behalf of three infants) stated that only "green crackers", which adhere to certain noise and air pollution standards, should be sold and the cracker manufacturing units should adhere to the new norms. It also said that Barium, a critical raw material to make firecrackers, should not be used and state and central pollution control boards should ensure the new norms are not flouted. Furthermore, the Supreme Court also gave permission to burn crackers only for two hours during Diwali day.

Work continues in some fireworks factories due to elections. 101Reporters

Work continues in some fireworks factories due to elections. 101Reporters

The problem is Sivakasi’s fireworks units, mostly small scale, do not know how and are neither technically equipped, to make green crackers, which were still under development by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) at the time of the judgment. In fact, Sivakasi’s fireworks makers were hearing of green crackers for the first time and were baffled by the concept. They have no clue on how to procure them, the costs involved, and how to mix the ingredients.

For decades, the basic raw material in fireworks was Barium Nitrate, which the Supreme Court has now banned.

"Sivakasi will become barren land without green salt (Barium)," said Kasiyammal, a fireworks worker, who was recently laid off.

Jothimani, secretary of a cracker workers association, said that Sivakasi’s fireworks manufacturers do not have the technology to produce crackers without Barium. "Like Jallikattu, the ban on the use of Barium should be withdrawn,” he said.

But things have started looking up for the industry. In April this year, the Supreme Court has directed the Centre to approve the chemical composition of green crackers by 15 May. It noted that the manufacturing of green crackers in the country must begin as soon as possible after the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO) approves the green cracker formulation and submit its report to the Centre for approval.

Just a month ago, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and NEERI, which were entrusted with the task to formulate the chemical composition of green crackers, told the apex court that trial samples have been developed and tested. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, granting permission to display fireworks for the popular Thrissur Pooram festival in Kerala, on behest of the Central government, has demonstrated that traditional crackers can’t be done away with soon.

Industry representatives are also seeking to challenge the notion that their crackers cause high pollution. They argue that pollution happens only when the particles released by bursting crackers stay beyond 48 hours while the Pollution Control Board has declared that the gas released by the bursting conventional crackers does not stay beyond 24 hours.

Former MP Manickam Tagore said that the Pollution Control Board should file a report with the Supreme court that the five states including Delhi, where cracker sales were banned, are not facing a pollution problem because of crackers.

"MP’s from Tamil Nadu should raise the issue in the Parliament till it is resolved," he added.

Prominent state leader and head of Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), Vaiko, who had contested unsuccessfully from Virudhunagar in the past two general elections, said that steps have been taken to petition the Union Minister of Environment, Harsh Vardhan and Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to save the industry.

Lakhs of livelihoods in limbo

Workers who for generations had earned a livelihood by working in the fireworks units are the worst hit by the Supreme Court order. There are many like Pandiyammal, who were out of job for several months as cracker units closed down.

File image of firecracker workers in Sivakasi. 101Reporters

File image of firecracker workers in Sivakasi. 101Reporters

"We have been made poorer," said Padiyammal, adding, "We have no money even for our children’s medical expenses."

As Tamil Nadu went to polls on 18 April, many in the state maintained that they would boycott the Lok Sabha election unless the government delivers on its  promises to help the industry get back on its feet.

The fireworks factories in Sivakasi fall in the Virudhunagar Lok Sabha seat (known as Sivakasi constituency till the delimitation of 2008).

INC’s Manickam Tagore was the first MP from this seat which is currently being held by AIADMK’s Radhakrishnan.

However, on polling day, no boycotts were reported in Sivakasi.

Jothimani attributes this to the fact that the administration never really cracked down on the use of Barium with all seriousness and the BJP-AIADMK alliance had taken pains to convince the electorate that their government would fight for the industry in the court.

Whether or not the voters in Sivakasi were convinced by the electoral promises will be revealed only once the election results are out on 23 May. But that there's no doubt that there's a lot of anger on the ground for leaving the fireworks industry at doldrums in the past few years.

"When we voted five years ago for Modi, we were hoping he will do something to promote the fireworks industry. But after he has come to power, every year we lose out 4-5 months’ worth of work,” said Saroja, an unemployed cracker unit worker and neighbour of Pandiyammal.

Joint secretary of the Indian Fireworks Association, Rajappan said that the industry was facing intermittent closures for one or other reasons, from GST to the Supreme Court ban. If this persists, the industry will be beyond repair.

Several firecrackers units have laid off workers since the SC ban on crackers. 101Reporters

Several firecrackers units have laid off workers since the SC ban on crackers. 101Reporters

“Earlier we used to hear about people dying because of fire accidents in manufacturing units. But now, we all being burnt alive by the government,” says Pandiyammal.

Lakshmi, a third-generation worker in cracker manufacturing, says they are fully dependent on the industry and don’t know any other work.

Local politicians were quick to come out in support of the industry.

Rajendra Balaji, Sivakasi MLA and a minister in the present AIADMK-led government in the state, said, “I am confident the new norms will be relaxed and the industry in Sivakasi will be exempted from them,” said Balaji. “We plan to meet Prime Minister Modi in this regard,” he added.

Sivakasi’s fireworks manufacturers and labourers have been sitting in protest since 13 November in hopes that local MLA Balaji will prove true to his word. However, the protesters’ hope that electoral compulsions will force the Tamil Nadu government to announce some relief for them and grant them exemption from the new norms, haven’t quite panned out. Ironically, a handful of small units are back in operation to fulfill the demands of political parties who stock up on fireworks in anticipation of election results.

The author is a Chennai-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters

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