VIRUDHUNAGAR: Crowded streets; festivities; lights of varied hues adorning the firecracker shops dotting the narrow lanes. Gone are the days when Kutty Japan revelled in Deepavali glory. The festival lights that now adorn the shops are tinted dark like the lives of tens of hundreds of labourers of cracker industry.
Meet Jebajyothi, a cracker unit worker and a CITU functionary, who lives in the heart of Sivakasi in a narrow street full of closely arrayed houses. She said they worked in a free environment earlier and their lives were on the path to prosperity. “However, in the past few years, our livelihood has been affected due to the pandemic and several laws, rules and regulations passed by the Union government.
Our celebration is just for the name’s sake now. Some workers can’t even afford to buy new clothes. They have taken several loans during the lockdown and are repaying with the wages they got in the past few months,” she said. Her face brightened up when she recounted her childhood memories of bursting crackers all day.
For Pattuselvi (35), Deepavali is just another day now, thanks to Covid and financial constraints. “We hope we get adequate jobs and wages so that we can celebrate the next Deepavali in a grand manner,” she said while on her way to the firework unit where she works, to fetch this year’s bonus.
Ask Ranjith Kumar (41), a daily wager, and he would say Deepavali was in all its splendour back then. “We won’t be able to walk on the streets. Such was the rush,” he said adding now only those with money can afford to celebrate.
However, not everything has changed for the worse. Muthulakshmi (25), who has been in the industry since she was 18, said there was no proper controlling measures then. “There were more accidents then. Now it has reduced manifold,” she said, adding there are more firework varieties available in the market these days.
The street parallel to the one where Muthulakshmi lives has many people who have not purchased new dress for their children, for they have no money left after repaying their loans accrued during the pandemic.
A resident of Mettamalai, Selvi (45), said their problem started with demonetisation. “Since then, each year, there crops up a new problem. This year it is Covid,” she said. The financial crisis has paved way for the emergence of many a loan shark. “If I want to pay fees for my child’s education or for a medical emergency, I have no go other than taking a loan on exorbitant interest rates,” she added.
Things were exactly opposite a decade ago when Mettamalai was flourishing, said Marisamy (39). “The workers used to get advance payment of up to Rs 50,000 up until half a decade ago. The owners used to come to our houses to book us, as we might go to other work or units. There was a huge demand for workers back then,” he said.
The villagers also reminisce about ‘Deepavali fund’, where they pay `100 every month to a person, who, before Deepavali, gives them vessels, groceries, sweets and the like in return. Another resident, Indhrani said, “As we don’t go to work for a couple months after Deepavali, these groceries will help us sustain through the period.”
Prabhu, dealer of a major cracker brand, said the sales have been dull for the last four to five years. “The main reason is the ban on joined crackers. We expect green crackers to be rolled out soon. Many customers are disappointed,” he said.
As another Deepavali passes by, the workers, whose livelihood hangs by a thread, are keeping fingers crossed for a change so they can earn enough to repay loans, eat good food, wear good clothes and sleep under a roof that does not leak.