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TN: Diwali may Remain Dark for Firecracker Workers of Sivakasi

Neelambaran A |
The ambiguity over cracker ban in several states, ban of several types of firecrackers and union government's alleged partial approach towards the industry could deal a death blow to lakhs depending on the firecracker industry.
TN: Diwali may Remain Dark for Firecracker Workers of Sivakasi

Image Courtesy: Times Of India

The festival of lights is not the same for the firecracker workers of Sivakasi in south Tamil Nadu's Virudhunagar district. After disaster struck the industry in the form of demonetisation and goods and sales tax (GST), the ban on crackers and fear of pandemic has hit them for the second consecutive year.

The production reduced to under 50% due to the lockdown in May 2021 during the second wave of the pandemic. The ban on firecrackers by several states and Supreme Court directions has hit the industry hard.

The ban of joined-crackers and several other varieties have led to the loss of work and wages for the workers. But the demand increased at the end of October, as fresh COVID-19 infections reduced across the country. The apex court's clampdown on the blanket ban also came as a minor relief.

Both environmentalists and cracker manufacturers deny that the 'green crackers' are a solution, but for different reasons.

WORKERS' SUFFERING SET TO EXTEND

The ambiguity over the cracker ban and the threat of a third wave of COVID-19 pandemic dampened the demand for crackers across the country.

"The factories were closed for two months during the second wave resulting in lower production. To complement this, the low demand from the north Indian market also added to the agony of the workers," said PN Deva, secretary of Virudhunagar unit of Centre of Indian Trade Union (CITU).

The production reportedly slumped to 50% owing to several factors, including the pandemic. The manufacturers had received only 15% of orders during January 2021.

"The manufacturers had nothing to lose because they invested less considering the low demand. But, the workers had little work during this year, forcing them to the brink of hunger," he added.

"Given the present situation, the situation may not improve and may worsen," said Mahalakshmi, general secretary of Virudhunagar District Firecracker Workers Union.

"Women form 80% of the workforce in the cracker industry, who will be affected more. Already an exodus took place in 2020, with thousands leaving the district looking for greener pastures," she said.

The thrust for green crackers and a ban on certain types of crackers remains a massive threat to the industry.

ARE GREEN CRACKERS A POSSIBILITY?

The supreme court in 2018 came down heavily on the manufacturers for using banned substances, including Barium Nitrate in firecrackers, as per the finding of a court directed CBI probe. The introduction of green crackers did not find many takers as the concept itself remains flawed, said a manufacturer who sought anonymity.

"Barium Nitrate is essential to manufacturing crackers. What we have understood is that the material is not dangerous, as projected by a certain section," he added.

Both environmentalists, along with small and medium enterprise owners, reject the concept of green crackers.

G Sundarrajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal said, "Have you ever heard of sweet poison? There is nothing called green crackers. It's only greenwashing."

He cited the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) report, which said 40% of Indians could lose nine years of life expectancy due to air pollution. Sundarrajan also said, "Crackers are not the only reason but a major contributor during winter and rainy seasons of the country."

The manufacturer to whom Newsclick spoke echoed a similar opinion.

"We believe that the large manufacturers have coined the term green crackers. They easily get certified by National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), claiming that the crackers are made as per the formula decided by NEERI. Still, the small and medium enterprises are unable to pay for it," he said.

The NEERI is testing two varieties from one unit every day to certify green crackers. "If this pace continues, it will take years to test the crackers manufactured in 1050 industries in the Sivakasi region. These are impractical norms to snatch the livelihood of lakhs," the manufacturer said.

'UNION GOVERNMENT SILENT ON PLIGHT'

Both the workers' union and manufacturers' association trade charges against the approach of the union government in dealing with the firecracker industry, which is the lifeline of the rain-shadow Virudhunagar district.

"When the petition demanding a blanket ban comes up for hearing, only the petitioner is allowed to speak. CITU is an impleading party in the case but has been denied permission to present our case. The government side is also remaining silent and seems to act in favour of a cracker ban as demanded by the petitioner," Deva said.

"The Union government is acting weirdly in this case. They are not echoing our sentiments in the supreme court hearings. We are ready for regulations and restrictions, but that itself seems to be out of reach considering the union government's approach now," the manufacturer said.

The possibility of the ban continuing is a threat to the industry and the six lakh workers.

"The cracker industry gets ready a year ahead for Diwali. Since the threat of reduced orders persists, the work is set to get delayed. The workers usually get cash in advance for work, which will not happen this year," said Mahalakshmi.

The workers and manufacturers have appealed to the state government to present their case in the apex court to get permanent relief.

"The state government took timely action to revoke the ban in a couple of states. What is also necessary is its solid action in the court of law to save the livelihood of the lakhs of workers," said Deva.

The manufacturers' association pointed out the Supreme Court judgement, which stated that the firecrackers are not a major source of air pollution, as a saving light.

"India can afford crackers with regulations and proper implementation of existing laws. The state and union governments should ensure that the eight-decade old industry survives and flourish," the manufacturer added.

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