TN: 'Shutting Firecracker Units in Sivakasi Not the Solution, Provide Other Work,’ Union Demands
Image credit: ANI
Rarely a week passes by without an explosion in a firecracker unit in Sivakasi, an arid region in the present-day Virudhunagar district. But, the industry workers oppose the closure of factories because their livelihood depends on it.
Sivakasi contributes to almost 90% of the fireworks produced in the country and is known as the 'firecracker capital of India'.
In September 2021, the special teams formed to inspect safety violations in fireworks units suspended operations in 70 units involved in grave violations. However, firecracker accidents persist, and terrible injuries and loss of life have not receded.
Since the beginning of 2022, more than eight people have lost their lives in mishaps in firecracker units in Virudhunagar alone.
In October 2021, the Supreme Court ordered the ban of using barium nitrate and making joint crackers because 'they are injurious to health and affect the health of citizens.' More raids have since been carried out on firecracker units.
The Tamil Nadu Firecracker and Matchbox Workers Union, affiliated with the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), criticised the state and central governments and the court for not considering the workers' livelihoods before imposing bans and shutting down production units.
'GOVT MACHINERY INSUFFICIENT'
To carry out an inspection of safety norm violations in firecracker units in seven talukas of the Virudhunagar district, special teams were set up in July 2021 after Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) formed the government last year. The teams allegedly inspected 758 fireworks units and issued notices seeking explanations from 116 units where safety rules were flouted.
After the safety audit, it was expected that firecracker accidents would subside. However, there have been regular accidents in firecracker units.
When NewsClick asked NC Pandiyan, leader of the firecrackers workers' union, whether the safety audit was carried out properly, he said, "There are 1,200 firecracker units in the Virudhunagar district, the government should set up a mechanism to regularly survey them and overlook them. A one-off survey and shutting units cannot be a solution; hundreds of families depend on the industry."
He further said, "The present mechanism overlooking the fireworks industry has the strength to oversee only about 200 to 250 fireworks units. The industry has long expanded. The government should also extend its machinery accordingly."
Home-based, unregistered firecracker production units are also common in the region, and accidents are prevalent. Pandiyan said the union is not in favour of them.
BAN IS NO SOLUTION
Virudhunagar district administration warned the firecracker industry from using barium nitrate and making joint-crackers as per Supreme Court order.
"The court banned barium nitrate, but no alternative was provided to replace it. At present, producing firecrackers without this ingredient is not possible, so its usage continues," Mahalakshmi, general secretary of Virudhunagar district Firecracker and Matchbox Workers Union, told NewsClick.
The Supreme Court entrusted the job of finding an alternative for Barium salts to the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), but there has been no solution as yet.
"But raids are carried out to see if the barium nitrate usage has stopped. Those who carry out raids do it to rip off money, not to stop the use of the material," said Mahalakshmi.
Regarding the ban on joint crackers, she said, "The court banned it citing pollution, but the join-cracker doesn't create any special or more pollution. There are many more serious causes of air pollution. The judiciary does not show equal interest in controlling those."
She added, "Moreover, if the court is interested in controlling the production and consumption of firecrackers, it should first push for alternative livelihoods for the workers. Only then the bans will be successfully implemented."
According to the union, about eight lakh workers are engaged in the firecracker industry in Virudhunagar. If the production units shut down due to bans and safety protocols, their lives are at stake.
Mahalakshmi said, "Many of the people employed by the firecracker units are former agriculture workers who lost their jobs and migrated here for work. If the industry reduces in size, what will they do? Where will they go?"
"Due to the hardships of the COVID-19 imposed lockdowns, workers are already under heavy debt. If units start shutting down, it would have adverse effects on them," she added.
CITU stresses the need to train the workers and provide them with awareness to avoid accidents rather than closing down units.
"The LPG cylinder is the biggest bomb, and every household has them. The handling, transporting and using it is done so precisely. Why can't we ensure similar safety with firecracker production? What is lacking is interest from the government," said Pandiyan.
"Forty to fifty big production units are fully following protocols, those are the big factories, and they can afford it. The effort has to come from the government for the small units," he added.
Tamil Nadu Firecracker and Matchbox Workers' Union is suspicious that the developments are leading to the corporatisation of the industry.
Pandiyan said, "From the developments, it appears that the Central government wants to shut down the entire firecracker industry and give it away to the corporates. Like other small-scale industries, pressure is built to shut down the factories and workers are pushed out of work. We are continuously struggling to save the industry," he added.
With the March 28-29 All India general strike, CITU is demanding a permanent solution to the problems of the firecracker unit workers.
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