Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi
Once again as the Nation celebrates the festival of lights, Deepavali, spare a thought for the thousands of people who have lost jobs and livelihood in far away Sivakasi town and its neighbouring cluster of villages in southern Tamil Nadu, the firecracker manufacturing headquarters of the country. Once again, restrictions on sale of firecrackers in Delhi/NCR and in cities and towns over pollution concerns have put paid to the firecracker industry for the third consecutive year.
Sivakasi, which has dry weather for most part of the year, is eminently suitable for the firecracker industry and is home to over 4000 small, medium and large firecracker manufacturing units. Some eight lakh people are engaged in the industry, who have been facing an uncertain future. Already, half of them have lost jobs and livelihood and if the business continues to be hampered, the industry is certain to die a slow and painful death.
The problem with the firecracker industry is that firecrackers have been banned in Delhi/NCR to begin with and later other States too followed suit, after environmental activists moved the Courts over pollution, especially during the onset of winter when Deepavali festival falls. The Supreme Court had banned firecracker sales to enable the authorities to control pollution levels in Delhi and its neighbourhood, in which residents even suffered breathing problems owing to the smoke from the bursting of firecrackers.
Firecracker manufacturer's appeal that the contribution of factories and vehicles was far greater than firecrackers was rejected by the Courts that imposed a ban on sale of firecrackers for Deepavali festival. The Sivakasi firecracker manufacturers even readied green crackers, that they claimed emitted smoke and pollutants within prescribed limits and sought permission for selling those instead.
While many States refused to lift the ban, they had imposed on the sale of firecrackers, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot heeded an appeal by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin and allowed the sale of firecrackers in Jaipur and other cities in the State. Similar pleas to other Chief Ministers were also made, but to no avail so far.
In the meanwhile, the Supreme Court once again pronounced that the ban on the sale of firecrackers must be strictly implemented. The ban on polluting firecrackers must be strictly followed, the Supreme Court said and added that the decision was taken to protect the lives and health of the citizens and that it was not against any community or festival.
For the past few years, Sivakasi that runs up a Diwali business of some Rs 7,000 crore to Rs 8,000 crore has been badly hit by the bans imposed on the sale of firecrackers owing to the pollution issue. While the Supreme Court has ordered a ban in the NCR region, the National Green Tribunal has also come out with its own restrictions on the sale of firecrackers in cities and towns with higher pollution levels.
These bans caused loss of business, which has fallen at least by half, as lamented by the Sivakasi manufacturers who are finding it difficult to employ all the workers they used to earlier. At a rough count, already, half the workers have been let go. If this continues for another two or three years, the firecracker industry would die, the firecracker industry representatives fear. Sivakasi is home to 1,070 registered firecracker units and many hundreds of unregistered units are located in villages nearby that take up job works on behalf of the big factories. Being a labour-intensive industry, Sivakasi generates huge employment and also indirect employment to an assortment of related activities–printing, packaging, and transport.
But this employment argument has not been able to cut any ice with the Courts. “We do not want to come in the way of enjoyment, but for enjoyment, one cannot play with the fundamental right of others,” the Supreme Court said. In fact, the SC had banned firecrackers after hearing arguments and counter-arguments but had allowed ‘green crackers.’ Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, moved by the plight of Sivakasi, had appealed to all Chief Ministers to allow the sale of firecrackers and said in identical letters to them that “bursting crackers was an integral part of Indian festivals, and more so for Deepavali and the States should allow the firecrackers that caused lesser environmental pollution–Green firecrackers. After the ban and restrictions, manufacturers in Sivakasi worked on their processes to reduce emissions and bring them within permissible limits. Now a little over half the Sivakasi produce is of green crackers, according to industry estimates.
The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister also maintained that Sivakasi manufacturers had come up with green crackers whose emissions are significantly lesser and conform to the norms and urged the States to lift blanket bans wherever in force.
Such bans will surely kill the Sivakasi industry, Stalin said urging for taking a balanced approach that gave due regard to the environment, livelihood, and public health.
Although the SC had allowed green crackers to be sold, confusion on the ground was scaring the firecracker dealers in different States from holding stocks, as they fear steep fines and penal action. In fact, the Supreme Court reiterated its ban order in a pronouncement on Thursday and said any sharp increase in pollutants is a serious health hazard. Firecracker manufacturers point out that while pollution was a year-long issue, Deepavali firecrackers were burst only for a couple of days.
The Supreme Court was considering a case of contempt against six manufacturers to show cause as to why they should not be punished for violation of its order by not adhering to the standard of green crackers and using prohibited materials in their manufacture.
The ban reiteration came just days ahead of Deepavali from the Supreme Court, which also directed the authorities to ensure the implementation of the ban orders. The apex Court noted that despite its previous ruling, firecrackers were being sold in violation.
The apex Court said that earlier too directions were issued by the Court many times and lamented that still, violations were there. It is purely to protect and save the people from the negative impact on their health that the ban has been imposed. The Court also said that such an order on a complete ban on firecrackers shall persist for all remaining festivities this year, including Chhath Puja, Guru Nanak Jayanti, Christmas, and New Year. Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across the country. He was associated with the Press Trust of India, The Hindu, Sunday Observer, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on [email protected]
and Twitter handle @kvlakshman