From sparkles to killer blaze, the Sivakasi story

Only the Chinese dragon can stamp out “kutti Japan” Sivakasi. Despite claiming 200 lives over the last 12 years, the firecracker manufacturing hub of India has been thriving.

What once was a seasonal industry — driven by Diwali — is now a year-round one, with an annual turnover of Rs. 2500 crore and employing 3.5 lakh people.

Marriages, political victories, sporting and even cultural events, keep the demand growing.

A few years ago, Sivakasi even sent two shiploads of crackers to the US, when it was celebrating its 200th Independence Day.

For now, China is the least of Sivakasi’s worries –Chinese firecrackers being banned in India.

What rather worries the manufacturers of Sivakasi – or should – are the regular accidents in unregulated units, like the Om Shakti factory, where 39 people died on Wednesday.

Deaths in fire are bad advertisement for the region. But accidents are accidents, as G Asokan, the second-generation head of Arasan group of manufacturers, put it.

“Just because of a few black sheep, the entire Sivakasi firecracker makers are blamed,” he said. “Of course it is very tragic,” said another manufacturer.

“Usually, safety norms are strictly followed. There are periodic checks and suspensions of licences,” added Asokan.

The trouble largely occurs when a unit is functioning illegally. And that is no mean figure. At last count, there were 822 registered cracker units.

“At least 300 are run illegally,” said S Balakrishnan, state committee member of CPM. But the big trouble comes from small units often run from homes, or individual households that big factories outsource from, he added.

The silver lining, perhaps, is the slow phasing out of child labour.

“Child labour is more of a ruse some NGOs use to stir up trouble,” said Asokan. “In my father’s time, there was child labour. But now we are educated and consider it a shame.”

Even Balakrishnan admits that child labour has almost become a thing of past.

“A few individual households and smaller illegal units may be using children, but the big regulated ones, do not,” he said.

Today, Sivakasi has 32,000 children enrolled in schools – three times the figure of 1980. Will that ‘take the sparkle out’ of Sivakasi? Only time will tell.


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