Cheap, Illegal Chinese Firecrackers Devour Sivakasi
When representatives of the Sivakasi fireworks industry recently urged Union Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Nirmala Sitharaman to help stop the sale of illegal Chinese crackers at the retail point this Diwali season, they put the spotlight on the cancer of smuggling that has been growing for over a decade.
For example, last year, the Union home ministry had issued an alert on the possibility of as many as 700 containers of banned Chinese firecrackers entering India through various ports.
Yet there was no widespread crackdown, which is why smugglers are still importing it with impunity. Quantifying the impact on the Sivakasi industry, the Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers Association (TANFAMA) says their sales to distributors this year has dropped by a whopping 35 per cent – up by 10 per cent as compared to last Diwali.
How do the cracker containers escape detection? It happens because of a variety of factors. One, they are mislabeled as toys or other goods for easy access. Hundreds of container loads of Chinese crackers have already reached retail shops through distributors for Diwali, informs T Kannan, general secretary of The Indian Fireworks Manufacturers Association (TIFMA). According to A P Selvaraj, former president of TANFAMA, “The Chinese consignments go direct to the distributors, which is one reason why they are sourcing fewer products from Sivakasi.”
Second, as Customs officials in Tuticorin Port recently admitted before the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court, they don’t have enough equipment or manpower to scan all incoming containers. The court was appalled to learn that they have just one scanner and manage to scan just 20 random containers a day.
Then there is the question of collusion. Smuggling crackers is big business. It cannot thrive without patronage. “Officials should find out how big influential buyers are making money transaction for Chinese crackers. Recently, officials seized around seven containers of Chinese crackers in Chennai. The person who brought them in, committed suicide as he incurred huge loss. That is the way forward. If officials raid godowns of cracker dealers and retailers and find Chinese products, they should immediately destroy them. Once they incur huge loss, they would be wary of handling smuggled goods,” Kannan suggests. Till recently, a few big manufacturers from Sivakasi too were allegedly involved in the import of Chinese crackers. They desisted after a stern warning, claims Kannan.
Fireworks products in India can be broadly split into three categories — good, medium and poor. Chinese crackers usually compete in the poor and medium segments. “A packet of Bijili crackers, currently sold in the market for `32 is supposed to have 100 pieces per packet. But some packs may have just 60 to 80 crackers, of which 20 may not burst because of low quality. In contrast, the Chinese equivalent of Bijili has up to 60 crackers a pack and is sold for `28. Lower cost and better quality would draw customers towards Chinese crackers,” Selvaraj said.
“In all, about 150 varieties of crackers are being manufactured in India. At present only five to six varieties of small Chinese crackers are being imported. Shopkeepers hardsell Chinese products as compared to the domestic ones because of the bigger profit margin,” he points out.
So, how does one identify Chinese crackers? You don’t need to be a Sherlock Holmes to do the sleuthing.
“There are several ways to identify them. For instance, the language and brand name on the pack manufactured in India would always be in English; on a Chinese pack, it would be Mandarin. Besides, it is mandatory for Indian packs to specify information like the Maximum Retail Price (MRP), instructions about how to handle the crackers and the address of the manufacturer. You won’t find them on Chinese crackers,” says Selvaraj. But how are Chinese crackers cheaper than those in Sivakasi? Blame it on the crippling restrictions imposed on the industry by the Union government, gripes Kannan. “The restrictions range from the choice of chemicals to the method of manufacture in India. There are no such curbs in China,” he claims. In India, there are various norms on how a unit must function, including the work site, the number of employees, type and quantity of chemicals used. While it’s true that a few small units in and around Sivakasi flout the rule book to cut cost, they are exceptions. In contrast, in China, there are no norms. You can easily find 100 employees working in one big cracker unit hall there, something that is not allowed in India. In some places in China, crackers are manufactured in multi-storied residential buildings. Imagine the scale of disaster should a fire accident occur at the unit there. But that doesn’t seem to bother them. Also, there are no restrictions on the type of chemicals or the quantity used, informs Kannan.
Moreover, Chinese crackers use potassium chlorate, which was banned in India way back in 1992. The ban was imposed because the substance is toxic and can harm you if it comes in contact with the skin or eyes.
Mixtures containing chlorates are notoriously sensitive to shock, friction and temperature change. Yet, Chinese units use potassium chlorate for various reasons, including its low input cost as compared to potassium nitrate.