MANY countries around the world have imposed a ban on the use of firecrackers, which are considered harmful for the environment and also dangerous for those manufacturing the products, or consumers lighting them up.

But in India, the use of firecrackers is expanding at a rapid clip, despite a growing movement against its production and use.

Last week’s disaster at Sivakasi, a small city in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu — about 500 km from Chennai, the state capital — in which nearly 60 workers were killed in a blaze that broke out at a manufacturing unit, once again brought the spotlight on this dangerous and unorganised sector. Sivakasi is the pyrotechnics capital of India, accounting for almost all the firecrackers that are produced in the country.

But every year around August and September, when production peaks to cater to the huge demand for firecrackers during the festive season, accidents happen at the nearly 10,000-odd units in the city, killing several workers. Activists in Tamil Nadu estimate that almost a thousand people have been killed in accidents over the past decade in and around Sivakasi.

Though firecrackers are increasingly being used round-the-year in India, traditionally demand soars during Diwali, the festival of light and sound. Billions of rupees worth of firecrackers go up in smoke in major cities, as revellers insist on ‘celebrating’ the festival by bursting them and destroying peace in neighbourhoods.

In cities like Mumbai, millions celebrate the festival, but in the process add to environmental pollution as the firecrackers release dangerous fumes. The noisy firecrackers also raise the decibels to dangerous levels and doctors and anti-noise activists have warned of the adverse effect the noise has on residents.

Sadly, while in the past firecrackers were used mainly during Diwali it has now become de rigueur for almost every festival that is celebrated across the country. Even weddings, birthdays and other social events see the bursting of noisy firecrackers. Successful candidates in elections — to parliament, state assemblies, local bodies, or even university and college posts — also believe in ‘celebrating’ their victories by bursting firecrackers. They are also burst by fans to celebrate the Indian cricket team’s victories both at home and abroad.

Courts in India have directed the authorities to impose a ban on the lighting of firecrackers after 10 pm, but these are observed more in the breach. Since the bursting of firecrackers has now become a national pastime, the police simply ignore the violations.

***** THE blaze at the Om Shakti factory in Sivakasi on Wednesday, in which nearly 60 people were killed and over 80 injured, happened just a day after its licence was suspended temporarily for violation of safety norms. The unit was working overtime to meet the expected demand for firecrackers, and the workers were under pressure to meet the demands.

The fire occurred when the workers were mixing deadly chemicals; soon it spread to nearby warehouses, trapping employees. Even the fire brigade personnel and the police could not rush to their rescue as the chemicals and firecrackers went on exploding for over two hours.

The Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers’ Association, which represents the industry, claims that most of the accidents happen in the small units. But Om Shakti was one of the 200 large units from the organised sector at Sivakasi. The remaining 9,000-plus units are medium or small enterprises, besides tiny units that function out of homes.

According to a recent study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), the domestic firecracker industry has been in the doldrums for the past few years. Sivakasi, which accounts for almost all the fireworks output in the country (estimated to be worth around Rs20 billion), employs almost 200,000 people. The city also accounts for 80 per cent of safety matches produced in India and has a vibrant offset printing industry.

Though the firecracker industry is growing at about 10 per cent annually, manufacturers say that their margins are getting squeezed. Imports of cheaper — and safer — firecrackers from China are hurting the industry in Sivakasi.

Growing awareness about the dangers of firecrackers and the disastrous impact they have on the environment is also expected to pose a major challenge for the industry over the coming years. In the past, the firecracker industry was one of the biggest employers of child labour. But growing international and domestic pressures have seen in a sharp decline in the number of child labourers employed by the units in Sivakasi in recent years.

But these pressures have resulted in a proliferation of illegal units, mostly operated out of the homes of workers, in Sivakasi and other near-by cities. Many of these illegal units employ children, their workers operate in hazardous conditions and the units also do not adhere to any regulations.

Worse, most of the illegal units are patronised by political parties for whom the thousands of workers and smalltime entrepreneurs constitute a vote bank. The authorities are, therefore, reluctant to crackdown on these illegal units.

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THE sharp drop in profit margins, the seasonal demand for products, the growing international pressures and rising costs has forced many of the bigger units to shut down operations and outsource production. Consequently, manufacturing firecrackers is rapidly becoming a cottage industry.

The seasonal demand for firecrackers — which peaks in October/November — means that the bigger units have to hand out work to the smaller ones, as they cannot keep permanent employees on their rolls round-the-year.

They approach contractors, who assign the tasks to individuals working from their homes. In many cases, even explosives and chemicals are stored in their homes. Since the firecrackers are made at home, government officials are not able to detect the deployment of child labour, and it becomes difficult for them to raid homes. Representatives of the organised sector who sub-contract tasks to the smaller units, claim that only non-hazardous work is done at home.

The Campaign Against Child Labour, a leading NGO, recently brought out a report highlighting the fact that child labour is increasingly being used in home-based production of firecrackers in Sivakasi. Many school-going children also abandon their studies and stay at home, helping their parents in making firecrackers.

The activists also referred to the health hazards of making firecrackers at home. Many children suffer from a variety of ailments because they fill aluminium powder into the firecrackers all day long. Headaches and asthma attacks are common among the children.

More dangerous jobs are executed in smaller towns such as Arupukottai, where members of a community of traditional artisans have been lured to work for the firecracker sector. Thousands of people in this town are entrusted the task of making fuses for the firecrackers. They have to reduce three-metre-long black threads, which were earlier dipped into a combustible concoction of potassium nitrate, sulphur and charcoal, and shorten them to fit inside the firecrackers.

The artisans are forced to inhale carbon dioxide and sulphur, which could irreparably damage their lungs. They are paid measly rates of Rs10 for every 100 fuse that they make.

The Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers’ Association has often complained to various authorities about the proliferation of illegal units. The association notes that owners of these illegal units are not aware about the reaction and unstable compositions of the chemicals, exposing their family members and even the neighbourhood to hazards of fire and explosion.