The Current Turmoil in India’s Cracker Industry

Know how the 7000 crore cracker industry in India came to be so significant and what the effect of the Delhi ban on the people at Sivakasi is.

People celebrate Diwali across the globe in myriad forms. While some believe the festival marks Lord Rama’s return upon defeating Demon king Ravana, in another part of India it is associated with the union of Shiva and Shakti. To some, the legend of Krishna’s wife Sathyabhama killing the demon Narakasura, or of Goddess Laxmi appearing during the churning of the cosmic ocean, is celebrated in Diwali. Jains believe Diwali initiates a new year as it marks the anniversary of Lord Mahavira’s nirvana, whereas some believe this marks the time the Pandavas returned from their exile in the forest. Sikhs call the day Bandi Chhor Divas to celebrate Guru Hargobindji’s release from prison by Emperor Jehangir. In various sects, people celebrate the triumph of good over evil by visiting pilgrimage sites, meeting families, enjoying lip-smacking delicacies, making decorative rangolis and praying. What remains constant across these celebrations, however, is the amusement gained from bursting crackers. A lot of them!

Diwali literally means ‘Rows of Lighted Lamps’ or ‘Quelo’, and is celebrated during the month of Kartika every year, according to the Hindu calendar. The festival of lights, however, has transmogrified quite rapidly more into a festival of ‘sparkles’, with India even becoming the second largest manufacturer of firecrackers in the world. It follows close on the heels of China, where the original “exploding bamboo” was invented in 200 BC. Chinese religious beliefs suggest that the loud noise and blinding lights of crackers keep evil spirits away. We assume this reason also aligns with the religious point of view in India since there aren’t any scriptures that portray Rama bursting a roll of cracker upon his return.

crackers-factory-sivakasi

Currently Sivakasi, located in the southern state of Tamil Nadu the firecracker capital of India, provides for 85% of the overall demand of firecrackers in India, incurring an annual turnover of Rs 7000 crores. Our humongous population provides sufficiently cheap labour, with over 3,00,000 labourers being involved in direct cracker manufacturing, and around 5,00,000 in the parallel sectors of packaging, printing, transportation and the like. Sivakasi has had a history of multiple perspectives to it since last few decades. Ever since journalist Shubh Bharadwaj came up with the story in 1989 the industry has been much talked about in legal circles due to the involvement of child labour who work in such a hazardous atmosphere. According to Nobel prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi, who runs ‘Bachpan Bachao Andolan’ an initiative to save childhood of these children, there are more than 1 lakh children employed in incense stick, matches and crackers factory in total. Cumulatively 237 children have died till now due to the perilous chemicals and conditions of the factory.

So how did the firecracker industry begin?

Two brothers, Shanmuga Nadar and P Ayya Nadar, left Sivakasi during a severe famine in the early 20th century and, in quest of a job, reached a match factory run by Dasgupta in Kolkata. There, they learnt the skill of developing matches. They returned to their town later, where the dry conditions of the drought served as conducive grounds for them to create a flourishing firecracker workshop. A parallel industry created to produce packaging for the firecrackers resulted in Sivakasi’s famous printing business. Today, 30% of diaries manufactured in India come from this site.

It is the growth and progress of cracker industry in Sivakasi which can be attributed to the rise in use of crackers as a tool of festive celebration. More than religious or ritualistic reason, it is the supply dynamics that has shaped this aspect of the society. And today, not just Diwali, major social celebrations are incomplete without the use of crackers.

 

Crackers for the Indian Army

Sivakasi does not solely develop recreational crackers. It also fulfils the Indian Army’s requirement for alternative Ordinance Factories products. Tempest proof matches, smoke screens, rehearsal bombs, Fuzee Matches (which do not produce flames when lit, but turn red hot instead) are a few of the contributions from the firecracker factories of Sivakasi to the India Army. This is serious business, and hence the government has established the Fireworks Research and Development Centre (FRDC) here which is responsible for safety and quality standards of the prepared firecrackers.

The Current Cracker Ban

The year 2017 has been a setback for the cracker industry in India, with the Supreme Court ordering that the air of Delhi NCR be cleaned, by blanket banning crackers from being sold there till November 1. Delhi police has seized more than 1182 Kg of firecrackers till now but this move has choked the livelihoods of vendors as the manufacturing industry of Sivakasi is likely to face a loss of around Rs 1000 crore. Social media activists have waged a war of words on the topic, and many influential personalities have chimed in with their opinions. On one end of the spectrum is the issue of air pollution, a real threat to the health of people of NCR (last year the region faced serious smog issue that was of hazardous proportion) and on the other end is the supply chain of firecrackers in Delhi, who contribute nearly 20-25% of the overall cracker sale in India.

The Delhi retailers and distributors have already returned the stock of worth 500 crore to wholesalers due to the ban. The 25% of advance payment already paid to the distributors have already been lost by retailers as, if they ask for it, the distributors ask them to take their stock back. Delhi Police also warns vendors for selling crackers online as the department arrests 29 people in the case of illegal cracker sales.

All of these puts the pressure on the stakeholders at Sivakasi. Livelihoods of thousands depend on this industry and losses of huge scale can act as a deterrent to the industry in the following year too.

The perfect solution – a mirage

A lot of hue and cry is currently going on Social Media and Television with people taking sides for and against the cracker ban. Hints of attaching cracker with Hindu religious sentiment has also surfaced. Over and above the hysteria lies the question – could there have been another way of dealing with the issue ? Would an option of rationing cracker sale worked ? or maybe stipulated hours for enjoying cracker bursting ? There are three major parties to the issue – the residents of NCR who want safety from smog resulting from crackers, the citizens who want to exercise their right to enjoy crackers during Diwali festivities and lastly the stakeholders of the cracker industry. A solution that answers concerns of all the three entities still seems to be distant.

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