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Sivakasi workers stare at black Diwali as environmentalists push for complete ban on all forms of firecrackers

The question of a firecracker ban is a matter of “life” and “death” for various forces affected by it. While the environmentalists see it as the right to breathe clean air, for the firecracker industry workers, a ban is nothing short of a death knell.

By Samriddhi Sakunia
New Update

publive-image Firecracker industry workers in Sivakasi | Photo courtesy: sivakasionline.com

Years ago, Sivakasi, a city in the Virudhunagar district of Tamil Nadu, used to bustle with activity around this time. The city used to meet about 90 percent of the firecracker requirements of India. Not anymore. 

The once bustling streets of Sivakasi look deserted these days. The workers of the firecracker industry have said that they have suffered huge losses, and Diwali production is yet to pick pace. Industry bodies have estimated that nearly three lakh workers directly employed in about 1000 firecracker manufacturing units are in a fix because of the firecrackers ban.

Vikrant Tongad, Environment conservationist and founder of Social Action for Forest and Environment (SAFE), speaks on the ban on firecrackers and its socio-environmental impact 

Sanju is a worker in one of the firecracker units in Sivakasi. Speaking to The Probe, Sanju says the impact of the ban has hit his family hard, and it has been days since his family had a wholesome meal. “I am the sole breadwinner of my family, and I work in a factory here (Sivakasi). Until a couple of years ago, the income from manufacturing the crackers helped me feed my kids, and we could afford three meals daily. But my family hasn’t had a wholesome meal for a long time because of the ban. The demand for firecrackers has reduced. The problem is, I don’t know any job apart from making firecrackers. The last hope is the judiciary. We hope to get a favourable judgement from the Supreme Court.”

Like Sanju, thousands of workers in Sivakasi are in dire situations. Hunger and poverty, coupled with the pandemic-infused economic strain, have significantly impacted the lives of the people in the city. 

publive-image A woman at work in Sivakasi | Photo courtesy: sivakasionline.com

The Supreme Court banned the use of barium in 2018 in the manufacturing of firecrackers. The ban was reaffirmed in 2021, following which the firecracker industry associations impleaded in the case seeking to lift the ban. In a balancing act, in 2018, the Supreme Court, while banning the use of barium, allowed the cracker industry to manufacture and sell green crackers and those with reduced emissions (improved crackers). 

Last year, the Delhi government imposed a complete ban on the storage, sale and use of firecrackers during Diwali because of the rising pollution levels in the national capital. On Monday, the Air Quality Index (AQI) level of Delhi was 193, which was put under the category of “unhealthy” scale. The AQI scale of “unhealthy”, according to the US-EPA 2016 standard, is explained as: “everyone may begin to experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects.” However, BJP MP Manoj Tiwari made headlines when he moved the Supreme Court against the imposition of the firecracker ban by the Delhi government. The court is expected to hear the matter on October 10. 

publive-image A firecracker | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

Speaking to The Probe, Vikrant Tongad, Environment conservationist and founder of Social Action for Forest and Environment (SAFE), says the government is very much within its right to ban the production and sale of firecrackers, but an alternate livelihood must also be provided to the workers of the firecracker industry. “Yes, three lakh workers may be affected in Sivakasi, but you must also consider the number of people in the entire country who get affected because of pollution. Having said that, this is a double-edged sword. The government or the courts must also look at it compassionately. While clean air is our constitutional right, the right to livelihood is also a constitutional right. The firecracker industry workers affected by the ban must be provided alternate employment, and they must be taught skills and rehabilitated.”

Industry experts have claimed that nearly 3000 crore worth of firecrackers were manufactured in 2020. But in 2021, insiders say production reduced by half. “The case is still pending in the Supreme Court. The court had earlier said the final hearing would be in June 2022. But that has not happened. The ban on barium is baseless and was imposed without any scientific study being conducted on the possible hazardous impact on the environment,” says A Murali, Vice President of the Sivakasi Fireworks Manufacturers Association (SFMA).

As per Murali, even though three lakh people are employed in the Sivakasi belt, another four lakh workers are indirectly employed as they supply raw materials like chemicals, printed boards and other accessories for producing firecrackers. The firecracker industry has always blamed environmentalists for making a hue and cry over pollution.

publive-image Workers in a firecracker factory | Photo courtesy: kuttyjapan.com

In a recent video circulated by the industry body, a key member states: “Barium is used in almost 80 percent of the products used in the manufacturing process… The reason behind the recommendation for the ban was because of the filler material called ashes, which is the particulate matter, but the particulate matter can be easily removed through some process during manufacturing. Just because the filler material (ashes) is mixing in the air and creating pollution, the entire joint cracker is banned. It’s like, if you want to remove the nail, instead of cutting the nail, you are removing the hand.”

But the environmentalists beg to differ. “There are multiple studies conducted on the environmental impact of firecrackers and on how events like Diwali or stubble burning cause pollution. When climate change and global warming are wreaking havoc across the globe, we can’t have the luxury of bursting crackers and further aggravating the pollution situation. The only solution is to save the environment and simultaneously provide alternate employment to the workers whose livelihoods have been impacted by the ban.” 

Many environmentalists are gunning for an all-out ban on all forms of firecrackers throughout the country. Bhavreen Kandhari, an environmentalist based in Delhi, says however harsh the realities of the firecracker workers may be, the environment must be prioritised. “Not just the manufacturers but the distributors across the State would suffer. But the problem is that we do not take the environment as seriously as we should. How many people know that Sivakasi had a hub of weaving industries before the firecrackers took over?” 

Pradeep, a resident of Sivakasi, completed his graduation in commerce, after which he took over his family business of firecrackers. He owns a company in the city called ‘Ratnaa Fireworks’. Pradeep claims life has turned upside down for him and most of the people in the city who eked out a living out of the production of firecrackers. “After the ban on barium, we suffered a lot. Today, our production has dropped to 30% of what it used to be, and our human power has come down to 300 from 1000.”

The question of a firecracker ban is a matter of “life” and “death” for various forces affected by it. While the environmentalists see it as the right to breathe clean air, for the firecracker industry workers, a ban is nothing short of a death knell. The challenge before the government and the courts is to prioritise the environment over firecrackers while providing alternative livelihoods to tens of thousands of firecracker industry workers.