Bengaluru: With air pollution emerging as a major concern in many Indian cities, the country’s fireworks capital Sivakasi was already feeling the heat. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, which triggered a strict lockdown for nearly two months that precluded big weddings and public celebrations, robbing the industry of a key market.
As Unlock kicked in, the Sivakasi fireworks industry began hoping for some relief, but the continued threat of the pandemic has tempered all expectations, with festivals like Ganesh Chaturthi passing by without any of the usual pomp.
Now, the expectations of revival pinned on the ongoing festive season look bleak too. A series of states/union territories (UTs) — from Rajasthan and Delhi to Karnataka, Odisha and Sikkim — have banned firecrackers during Diwali and other festivals to avoid any problems for patients of Covid-19, which is primarily known to impact one’s respiratory system.
As a result, insiders say, the industry may be looking at losses of over Rs 800 crore this year alone, which threatens the livelihood prospects of 8 lakh workers.
“This year, we are estimating a loss of close to Rs 800 crore. The two-month lockdown and decline in the number of orders has hurt us badly,” said Ganesan Panjurajan, director of a company called Sony Fireworks, who is also the president of Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers’ Association (TANFAMA), a body representing firecracker firms.
Located in Tamil Nadu’s Virudhunagar district, the fireworks hub at Sivakasi manufactures crackers worth around Rs 3,500 crores annually, according to TANFAMA estimates.
Since the pandemic began, say Sivakasi manufacturers, demand has dropped by more than 35 per cent, and production units have been functioning at less than 100 per cent strength because of social distancing guidelines and the fact that some staff members who left during the lockdown haven’t returned yet.
“With no orders during Ganesh Chaturthi this year from states like Goa, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, sales further plummeted after the lifting of the lockdown. Weddings were cancelled, festivals restricted, there is reduced manpower — all if it has left us in heavy losses,” said T. Kannan, general secretary of the Sivakasi-based Indian Fireworks’ Manufacturers’ Association (TIFMA), another professional organisation.
“First, it was the concept of a green Diwali that affected our sales. Then came the pandemic, and now our orders have reduced by more than 30 per cent (since last year). How will we survive?” said S. Ulaganathan of Virgo Fireworks.
“We are running a business and have invested crores of rupees. This year, we are staring at a loss of close to Rs 100 crore,” he added.
Other manufacturers echoed Ulaganathan’s concerns, describing the shift towards green crackers, demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax (GST) as successive “tsunamis” that already wrecked business. Demonetisation, the 2016 government ban on old Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 banknotes that precipitated a cash crunch across the country, and GST, whose implementation in 2017 is described by many as problematic, are believed to have broken the backs of many small businesses.
“Customers are cancelling orders. Our industry will perish if we don’t have sales by the end of this year. We have suffered many losses and we will have nowhere else to go if they ban or restrict the sale of crackers as well,” said a manufacturer who sought anonymity.
According to Ganesan Panjurajan of TANFAMA, nearly 8 lakh workers will be affected if the cracker ban is implemented. He said Delhi, Rajasthan and Gujarat — the latter is among the states where India’s green court has flagged poor air quality, seeking their response on the possibility of a brief fireworks ban in larger interest — contribute close to 20-25 per cent of sales, he added.
He said the manufacturers were now churning out green crackers that adhere to the environment-friendly formula approved by the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research – National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (CSIR-NEERI) and the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO).
“It takes us close to a year to design crackers that adhere to the industry standards and ensure production is well in time. We have invested time, money, energy and intellect,” said Arunagiri P, whose family has been in the business for three generations.
“Though there are several unforeseen circumstances, banning crackers will come as a big blow to those working in the industry as they have no other source of income. Many have been doing this for generations and have no other skill that will help sustain their families,” he added.
Amid all the gloom, the manufacturers say they have found a ray of hope in the campaign against Chinese goods triggered by the nation’s aggression against India in Ladakh. Many said the campaign will push people who do buy firecrackers away from the Chinese fireworks that would flood Indian markets in recent years, and towards local variants from Sivakasi.
Virudhunagar MP B. Manickam Tagore said the livelihood of thousands depends on the sales of crackers during Dussehra and Diwali. “With the Chinese crackers out of the market, people should bring back the sparkle in the lives of those who work in Sivakasi,” he added.
In a letter requesting party colleague and Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot to reconsider the blanket ban on crackers, Tamil Nadu Congress chief K.S. Alagiri emphasised that the industry has devised environment-friendly offerings.
“The Supreme Court-driven green innovation in the fireworks industry had led to the creation of a whole new range of fireworks in which the major pollutant sulphur dioxide had been avoided and the emission of all other gases was also within the limits prescribed,” he wrote. “Considering these facts, I appeal to you to relax the blanket ban on all fireworks and allow the sale of scientifically-ratified eco-friendly ‘Green Fireworks’ of Sivakasi.”