A Case Study on Sivakasi’s Fireworks Industry
Diwali, the popular festival of lights, signifies the victory of good over evil. The festival is celebrated across India, and the whole nation is lit up with beautiful Diyas, candles and lights for nearly two weeks. Families cook up traditional delicacies, and entire neighbourhoods come together and share in the celebrations.
Diwali is celebrated not just by Hindus. People of various faiths participate in the festivities because of one major reason – FIREWORKS. Who doesn’t love to watch those lights in the sky and on the ground, lighting up the faces of children playing with them. While fireworks are used for several reasons, Diwali is a prominent festival when their consumption is incomparable.
Fireworks are produced by countries across the world. In India, the town of Sivakasi in Virudhunagar district, Tamil Nadu, is where the magic (or not) happens. The village is referred to as ‘Kutty Japan’ because it’s famous for three industries – matches, fireworks and printing. But there’s one another social phenomenon it’s known for — high prevalence of child labour.
In early 2009, my friends and I took a trip to Sivakasi to investigate this social issue. At that time, the fireworks industries in the village were worth between INR 800-1,000 crores.
As per official records, there were 10 major firework companies that owned close to 600 fireworks factories. But we found something else – Sivakasi and it’s neighbouring counties had hundreds of illegal factories.
Fireworks consumed during the 3 significant days of Diwali took 300 days to produce, with labourers working overtime throughout the year. China, the world’s largest fireworks manufacturer and supplier, was India’s largest competitor. But labour cost was cheaper in India, making it a popular choice. And even though the cost of raw materials in India was about 50% higher, statistics predicted that the fireworks market would grow 10% annually, back in 2009. In 2021, the industry was worth nearly INR 6,000 crore.
Sivakasi’s fireworks production had a long-standing history spanning several decades. The town received low rainfall coupled with dry climate, therefore, rendering the land unproductive for agriculture. This left high dependence on manufacturing fireworks. In the time that the industry flourished, Sivakasi became infamous for various unacceptable practices — child labour being one of the most notable concerns. During 1991, it was reported that about 60,000 children aged 3 — 18 years worked in firework industries.
Low wages, lack of safety precautions, fire accidents, health and life hazards were considered usual, not significant issues.
Since the 1990s, several NGOs, activist groups and individuals lobbied against these unfair practices but that only worsened the situation. The results of these interventions were continuous checks on child labour and safety measures. But the factory owners found a way around these checks, too. What happened next?
We got in touch with NEWS
In 2009, through a few contacts, we enlisted the help of Navajeevan Educational Welfare Society (NEWS), located in Thiruthangal and founded by Devaramani Lysabai. Its parent organisation was Paul Foundation. NEWS worked around issues of education and literacy. Some of its major achievements and activities focused on reducing child labour, helping poor pupils to continue education steadily through financial help, taking action against child labour and Dalit discrimination with the Government’s help, and creating institutions for education in backward areas.
For a few days, we worked with the NEWS staff – Mr. Rajesh, Mr. Pal Pandiyan, Mr. Arul Raj and Mrs. Muthumari. Through them and our own research, we gathered deeper insights on the child labour scenario, taking exposure visits and interacting with residents in Sivakasi and its neighbouring villages.
As per Reports gathered
In 2009, due to increased lobbying and activism, the incidence of child labour reduced drastically – from thousands to hundreds. In large companies, finding a child labourer below 14 years of age was difficult but in the small ones, children were rescued throughout the year.
However, a quick Google search today will show that not much has changed in the town of Sivakasi.
Here are the main reasons why child labour continued.
Government officials raided these factories but they warned factory owners beforehand. With this tacit agreement in place, the factory bribed the Government workers to avoid prison.
If the factory owners paid these bribes, children could continue working in the firework factories without the Government’s intrusion. The officials signed fake certificates stating that there were no child labourers in those respective factories. Factory owners also bribed Government doctors to procure false attestations of these children’s ages and showing that they were actually above 14 years of age.
Since factories were constantly raided, the factories in Sivakasi and surrounding areas supplied raw materials to the workers’ houses. Therefore, families worked from their homes.
Nearly every household undertook production of pipes. Children either worked full time at home (age no bar) or part time after school. When it came to fireworks, they dyed the outer paper, rolled gunpowder, dipped the material into chemicals, and packed the final products. Children engaged in these activities for three to twelve hours every day.
We also found a few girls who didn’t attend school and were under the threat of being married before 18 years of age. Children lived in dysfunctional families who moved houses due to fights in their neighbourhoods. Their financial situation wasn’t conducive for education either. So, they stayed at home making pipes and firecrackers. Children made close to 10 pipes which yielded INR 45 per day. The money was used by the parents whereas children got only INR 2 per day for their expenses. We interviewed a girl, 12 years old, who stated that her two elder brothers (18 and 15 years old) worked in a rice mill and college mess respectively. Thus, child labour was prevalent in other ways, too.
Poverty, Lack of Proper Employment and School Drop-outs
Several children dropped out of school at the age of 14 and started working for wages. The reason: no scope for better employment after studies compared to the work already available.
After studying until the tenth grade, the youth lost interest in studies. They complained that their relatives were either unemployed or working for INR 1,500 per month even after being educated. Eventually, children felt that education was a waste of time. Even if a person got a diploma or degree, they could undertake a desk or accounting job in the factories. So, while children worked as labourers in the factory, educated kids landed up in the same factories with slightly better jobs.
Opportunities majorly available were production of matches, fireworks or the offset printing press.
Although 40% of the families sent their kids to Government schools, their education was stopped short in the 7th grade. Several children’s rights were violated, there’s no doubt about that. But their conditions at home were so dire that earning money assumed priority. This was especially worse when a family member or parent died. Often, these households lived hand-to-mouth and children didn’t have any other option but to add to the family income.
High school annual fees ranged between INR 4,000 and INR 25,000. There were several private schools as compared to Government ones. Generally, private schools were preferred as parents wanted their children to learn English. In Government schools, teachers were incompetent and irregular. Even Government school headmasters sent their kids to private schools because of better standards.
In families with low socioeconomic status, children watched their parents struggle and, therefore, decided to work after school and during summer vacation to fund their studies. Low family income, high cost of living, house rent were some of the key reasons children preferred to work. After all, they get nearly INR 100 per day for making fireworks, which is a significant amount for them.
Some children used the money to indulge in activities like smoking, drinking or going to the movies. Since they experienced financial independence, they felt investing time in earning money was better than studying at school. As a result, they weren’t dedicated to learning, were unable to stay disciplined and on their own when they’re out of school.
Another significant issue was dowry. Parents paid about a lakh (or 80 grams of gold) for each daughter’s marriage into good families. Because they’re unable to earn that amount of money, children were sent to work for more income.
Lack of Government Intervention
As already mentioned earlier, Government officials were bribed to cover up child labour and hazardous working conditions. But the Government also failed to provide substantial opportunities for alternative jobs.
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme was launched in 2005. But the scheme failed to provide meaningful employment in Tamil Nadu. Unskilled labourers found work for just 3 months (100 days) in a year. Even then, they had to travel far and wide for these jobs. Compared to the ease of working in their hometown and earning comfortably, this scheme didn’t attract labourers. And while the Government put committees and teams in place to monitor the implementation of the scheme, little success came out of it.
There’s no dearth of regulations against child labour. The problem lay in seeing through their execution and that’s where the Government failed. As per official sources, the number of child workers in India stands at 20 million. But unofficial numbers portray a dark reality. The number is more than double – at least 50 million if not more, are child labourers. Girls are the worst affected. As seen in the film Kutty Japanin Kuzhandaigal, 70% of children working in Sivakasi, and putting their life on the line, are girls.
Except for a handful of big companies, none of the factories employed sound safety measures. More than 10 major accidents were reported in 2007, claiming several lives. As of March 2021, over 145 accidents were reported between 2011 and 2021.
The fireworks factory workers were to be given hand gloves and safety shoes but that didn’t happen. The existing safety rules were scarce and even those weren’t followed. Occupational hazards were frequent but no social research was available to establish a cause and effect relationship. Workers were made to work long hours without fair compensation.
Children reportedly suffered from chronic bronchitis, broncho-pneumonia, tuberculosis, malnutrition, gastrointestinal disorders, skin disorders, over-exhaustion, burns and water-borne diseases. Not just that. They also lived in hazardous conditions at home, chronically exposed to toxic chemicals and working with them.
Possibly the worst thing about this whole scenario is children didn’t have a labour union and they were working in an ‘unorganised’ sector. This meant that they could never fight for their rights. Even adults didn’t have protection against occupational hazards and toxic chemicals. Although insurance is a prerequisite as per the law, workers had none.
Just think about it – 175 pipes made one unit fetching INR 1.7 per unit. One child could make only 20-25 units in a day and this fetched them 43 rupees to make about 4375 pipes approximately. There were no salary perks and the only payment method followed was a ‘piece rate system’. Plus, they didn’t have any insurance or job security.
Impact of Covid-19
The pandemic only added to Sivakasi’s woes.
Since schools shut down, children resorted to working, to help their parents earn more money. In a recent report, the number of child labourers increased drastically from 28% to nearly 80% in Tamil Nadu during the lockdown. Kids also worked long hours ranging anywhere from 4 to 18 hours a day.
Not just that. 18% of child labourers also faced physical, mental and verbal abuse from their employers. One of the significant reasons for this shift was family and economic pressure. But children also couldn’t afford smartphones to continue learning online or for entertainment. Therefore, boredom and lack of interest in education were contributing factors. In addition to all of the above, if a parent fell sick or died of Covid-19, a child had no choice but to take up financial responsibilities.
What’s even worse, as much as 81% of these children said they wanted to go back to school. But when will they? – is the bigger question. Even new, sophisticated technologies couldn’t stop the crisis from reversing all the progress made in recent years.
Explicit focus on ‘Environmental’ Sustainability
In our previous article, we discussed the different facets of sustainability: employees, society, profit, and planet. We’re all a part of this ecosystem, and better human lives means a better planet. Yet, when it came to the fireworks industry, the attention swivelled towards environmental sustainability. Amongst this, the importance of lives was lost.
Green crackers aren’t the only sustainable solution. The environment plaguing these families is much more toxic. Every day, they are waking up and going to work, putting their lives in danger. They may die today because of an explosion, having their bodies charred to death. Or, they may die years from now, owing to inhalation of chemicals and hazardous substances. In fact, they won’t be the sole victims of this profession. Toxicity would be embedded in their DNA for generations to come. Their children and children’s children could face life-long illnesses and multiple physical or mental deformities.
Then there are other issues like abuse and mental health. Children are also trafficked and put to work in unfair conditions. Particularly, girls face the worst challenges. Lack of education and vocation opportunities has given the people in Sivakasi no option but to bet on their lives by working in firecracker and matchstick factories.
Cultural identity is also a deep-rooted issue. Sivakasi is known as the fireworks capital of India because that’s the occupation most people have in the region. The label Kutty Japan places pride in their minds for supplying fireworks across India and the world. Even if the industry is abolished, addressing this cultural identity is a challenge.
The Possible Way Forward
Shunning these fireworks factory labourers wasn’t the right way to go about it. Banning the use of firecrackers or boycotting fireworks factories posed a threat to their livelihoods.
The Government didn’t initiate any vocational training programs either, meaning these workers couldn’t transition to other occupations. While NEWS was providing a few after-school complementary education programs for children, there weren’t any other such programs by the Government.
Subsequently, what was predicted years ago became reality in 2020 when firecrackers were banned. With several states across India banning the use of fireworks during Diwali 2020, factories couldn’t sell their products leaving labourers high and dry. Several units shut down and workers’ wages fell drastically. Initially in 2018, the Government banned non-green firecrackers. Units in Sivakasi then switched to green crackers manufacturing. However, 2020 came as a big blow with a complete ban.
To see this in numbers — there were 1.5 lakh people directly employed with fireworks factories and several lakhs indirectly. The production was slashed by 35% in 2021 since previous year’s stock wasn’t sold. This was a huge blow to Sivakasi.
Other associated businesses, organisations, and activities also took a hit. Most of the educational institutes in the town belonged to fireworks factory owners. If they suffered losses, the fate of education in this district suffered, too. Plus, if parents didn’t earn wages, children couldn’t attend school either.
However, local efforts were being made to keep the industry alive through alternatives. The industry had sustained itself by constantly adapting to changing rules. And with India’s new movement – Local goes Global – the firecrackers industry has immense potential.
Change the Narrative
For starters, China is a leading exporter of firecrackers and countries like the US haven’t banned fireworks. India’s firecracker industry could be put on the map, too, if the Government provided adequate support. Currently, the narrative focuses solely on the negative side of firecrackers – pollution, child labour, accidents and more. But instead of making the industry a scapegoat to attain political goodwill and Green branding goals, it’s better to groom Sivakasi into becoming a global fireworks hub while strictly following labour rules (and ethics).
NEWS , in 2009, stated that Government organisations could build factories in bare lands, giving a salary of INR 3,000 per month with 4 days of rest every month for these workers. In that scenario, at least their labour rights violation could be prevented to a certain extent. The Government could also organise vocational training for educated youth, encouraging them to take up jobs as Government staff with reasonable salaries. In this way, the youth will be inspired to continue education, too.
More importantly, the Government needs to tighten the noose around child labour and workers’ health violations. It’s a long, continuous process but it has the potential to improve the lives of at least three lakh people and children.
At the end of it all, I realised that these men, women and children barely realised they were being exploited. In fact, they were scarcely aware that they had rights to a meaningful life. A chance at livelihood sustained by the fireworks industry and associated activities, along with education and fulfilment of basic necessities will work in their favour.
The featured photos were shot at Thiruthangal, Sivakasi and belong to ecoHQ.