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Sivakasi on the edge

09-01-2018
Sivakasi on the edge: Workers fear loss of livelihood if Supreme Court upholds plea seeking firecracker ban, threaten to intensify stir

An indefinite strike by workers of fireworks factories in Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu, which has been going on since 26 December, is set to intensify, as a fear of loss of livelihood grips the town.

The workers are demanding fireworks be exempted from the ambit of the Environment Protection Act, and that the Supreme Court expeditiously hear a petition seeking a ban on sale, possession and use of fireworks across the country.

The manufacturers in Virudhanagar district, which accounts for 85 percent of the country's firecracker production, ​say that in anticipation of a favourable ruling to the petition, traders have not been placing orders and paying advance. This advance used to act as working capital to help them out, they say.

Vinayakamoorthi, president of the Small Fireworks Manufacturers Association (SFMA), says that other than the 800-odd small and large fireworks industrial units in Virudhanagar, there is no other industrial activity to support the people. Backed by local politicians and the public, all merchants' associations in Virudhanagar staged a complete shutdown on 3 January, while the workers' strike continues.

"The petition demands strict regulations over rising pollution levels and seeks the fireworks industry be completely banned. The state and Union governments should intervene to arrive at an amicable solution, since this case impacts our industry. The strike cannot be called back until a solution is found," Vinayakamoorthi said.

Muthu, who works at a firecracker manufacturing unit in Sivakasi, says that working in this industry is fraught with danger, but most of these workers have no alternative skills. "It would be difficult to adjust to new regulations after having worked in this business for decades. A ban on firecrackers will hurt our livelihood, and many workers are already struggling to cope due to the strike," he said.

G Sreeniappan, 43, who hails from Usilampatti town in Madurai, came to Sivakasi 15 years ago after persistent drought in his village meant he failed at agriculture. "I earn a meagre Rs 15,000 a month, and have a wife and children to support. I know nothing other than this job, and there are no other industries flourishing in Sivakasi either. Even the printing industry is in a dying state," he said.

Sreeniappan hasn't paid his children's school fees for the second term because of the strike, he said, adding, "This crisis has come at a festive time for us, when business used to be good. Around 8-9 lakh people are being affected due to this shutdown."

Fireworks trader Nataraja Moorthi said the strike will continue until the state and Centre can arrive at a consensus to provide the industry with a favourable solution. He added that the strike is causing an approximate loss of Rs 1 crore per day.

The Opposition DMK has urged the Centre to save the firecracker industry. "Centre should step in to save the firecracker manufacturing cluster in Sivakasi, which accounts for 90 percent of Indian firecracker production and protect the industry that employs lakhs of workers. DMK MPs in Rajya Sabha will raise the issue with concerned minister," DMK working president MK Stalin had said on Twitter.

Shanthi, another worker at a Sivakasi fireworks unit, said while people question the industry over ecological and pollution standards, nobody bothers about the health and safety standards that are followed here. "It has been more than 10 days since the strike started, but the discussion hasn't moved forward," she rued.

Meanwhile in Delhi, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) told the apex court that no significant difference was noticed in respiratory symptoms during the days before and after Diwali and Dussehra last year. The apex court had banned the sale of firecrackers in the national capital during the festive season last year.

Despite accidents and health hazards being common to firecracker manufacturing units, people continue to work here, as vocational skills pass from one generation to another. Lakhs of workers, directly or indirectly dependent on this industry, are hoping for a quick resolution of the situation so that business processes can be eased.

Mydeen Abdul Kathar is a Chennai-based freelance writer and S Jailani is a Sivakasi-based writer. Both are members of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots writers


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