Ahead of Deepavali, Sivakasi in the south of Tamil Nadu is facing an existential crisis. The capital of India’s firecracker industry is reeling under myriad environment-related concerns and a potential ban on cracker sales. Over the past few years, the number of cracker manufacturing units have dwindled and workers’ wages plummeted. Initially, it was child labour worries and then safety concerns that gripped Sivakasi. Several units were shut, but the remaining ones went by the rulebook with a resolve to stay afloat. In 2018, the Supreme Court disallowed the use of non-green crackers. Most units subsequently moved away from the traditional ways of manufacturing crackers that polluted the environment and began using alternate chemicals that reduced emissions to a third. They got approvals from the Petroleum & Explosives Safety Organization (PESO) for new products. However, the pandemic and a ban on bursting crackers by several states came as a big blow in 2020.
The total number of units in Sivakasi has dropped to a little over 1,000 now. However, they continue to provide direct employment to 1.5 lakh people and a few more lakhs indirectly. This year, the units have slashed their production by 35% as last year’s stock is still lying unsold. But after Arvind Kejriwal imposed a ban recently in the nation’s capital, the manufacturers are utterly nervous. Like last year, will other states follow suit?
The state government should ensure that all existing units are operating as per rules and producing only approved green crackers. It should also look to set up a testing facility in Sivakasi immediately to make it easier for the industry to get certification. The Centre should meanwhile evaluate the potential of the export market that is currently ruled by China. It should help Sivakasi manufacturers seek an NoC for exports via ports in Sri Lanka and Singapore. As the Virudhunagar MP rightly said, we should groom the industry to suit the world market and not let it die citing violations. It is also important to reskill youngsters employed in the industry and create alternative sustainable job opportunities for them.