NEW DELHI: It is a cracker of a story from the dusty shelves in the explosives section of the National Archive of India, regarding the British making money during the days of the Raj at the expense of India.
Today, the Indian government could prohibit Chinese crackers, but 82 years ago a government official had tried to do the same. China-made crackers had found their way into the Indian market much before Independence and at the behest of the British.
Then Hong Kong and parts of China, Singapore and India were part of the Empire.
To regulate the hazardous trade, a Chief Secretary of Madras prohibited the import of Chinese crackers in April 1932, setting off a barrage of fireworks in the corridors of power.
The documents reveal that the British not only promoted Chinese firecrackers in India by providing free warehousing for storage in Nagapatam (now Nagapattinam) and Madras (Chennai), but also institutionalised a safe sea route via Hong Kong and Singapore for the importers in the 1930s.
They were first brought to Hong Kong and then shipped to India via Singapore. But, an Order by G T H Bracken, Chief Secretary, Madras Government, on November 21, 1932, to regulate the import of Chinese crackers triggered a massive controversy prompting the profiteers to drag the issue to the Central Board of Revenue and Department of Industries and Labour in Delhi.
Apart from banning Chinese crackers of the fulminate type, Bracken also decided that a thorough port check of the firecrackers must be conducted before the consignment was released to traders and that the importers must build a magazine (storehouse) using their own money.
The Order reads, “at the time of import, the customs authorities will test samples drawn from every consignment to verify that consignment does not contain any crackers of the fulminate type. If a consignment is found to contain crackers of that type, it will be dealt with in accordance with provisions of sea customs act.”
To enforce the rule, it prohibited the imports of crackers across Pondicherry and Karikal as Customs in these two places had no facilities to examine consignments unlike Madras and Nagapatam.
Since there was no facilities at Nagapatam for the safe storage of large consignment of crackers, Bracken also directed that licence be given only to importers with valid certificate of accommodation.
The move led to protests from Chinese firecracker importers. A trader, Mohamed Sultan Maricar of Karikal, on February 13, 1933, wrote a letter to Bracken saying that the Madras Government order will ruin the firecracker business and exporters sitting in China, Hong Kong and Singapore should be asked to check the prohibited items at their end.
It appears from his letter that the Chinese crackers lobby of Tamil Nadu was very strong in the 1930s and could easily influence the government.
The letter prompted the British to take up the issue with higher authorities in Delhi and subsequently on March 29, 1933, the matter was referred to Industrial and Labour Department seeking the government opinion on importers’ representation expeditiously as the season of import was about to begin for Deepavali.
On May 9,1933, a Deputy Secretary, Jayaratnam, from the Department of Industrial and Labour forwarded the case to Central Board of Revenue seeking its opinion on providing government accommodation at Nagapatam to store up Chinese crackers.
It said there is considerable demand for these crackers in South India and any import restrictions are bound to generate complaints.