Sivakasi’s Firecracker Factories

Feudalism beyond the Farmland

Azeefa Fathima

The death of more than a dozen workers at a firecracker factory in Virudhunagar in November, 2023 was yet another reminder of the hazards of working in this sector. But the horrific incident, which is the latest of many, did little to deter thousands of mostly Dalit workers like 40-year-old Mariammal (name changed) who work in firecracker factories in the district.

There are other industries such as food processing units in the region but casteist notions of purity and impurity ensure that Dalits are not hired, forcing them to seek out cracker factories for employment. The principal breadwinner of her family and single mother of two school-going children, Mariammal had no option but to put away her fears and return to work.

“Witnessing charred bodies and individuals living with burn injuries has been a part of our lives since childhood. We are left with no alternative for earning a livelihood,” she said.

Workers like Mariammal not only have to live under a constant threat of fire accidents but also lack basic employee benefits such as leave days, insurance or a provident fund. In addition, there is also uncertainty over cracker bans being imposed by some states. For close to a decade now, activists have been demanding that they be rehabilitated and given alternate livelihood options.

While an overwhelming majority of the workers are from Dalit and other lowered caste communities, the factory owners hail mostly from the powerful caste Hindu communities, particularly the Nadars. Observers say that successive governments have chosen to ignore safety and working conditions because of their proximity to the owners and the caste-capital interests they represent.

Pointing to the control by Nadars and Naickers, Mariappan, 42, a Dalit resident of Meenampatti near Sivakasi, says, “They have full control of raw materials. If, for instance, I want to start a small-scale production of firecrackers, I have to approach them for raw materials. After manufacturing the product, I have to go back to them because they are the agents, wholesalers and dealers of crackers. It is from them that all retailers and other shops purchase goods. They fix the rate of the raw materials, as well as the end product. So, they hold the power in two critical junctions in this supply chain.”

He adds that only those who remain loyal to them would be allowed to survive in the field.

Suresh, an activist based in Sivakasi, says Dalits are not expected to sit on a chair or even enter the same room as the dominant caste dealer.

“It is not like they will be thrown out or shouted at. They might even be given a chair and treated properly. But this act of defiance will be punished in other ways,” he says. “They would fix a very high price for the raw materials and a very low price for the finished products. They can easily reduce a Dalit manufacturer to bankruptcy. This will not explicitly look like caste discrimination, especially to the concerned Dalit person because he was treated ‘equally’ each time he visits the dealer.”

“We have been doing this work since the 1920s, when the infamous Nadar brothers – AyyaNadar and Shanmuga Nadar – started building the cracker hub in Sivakasi,” says Muniappan.

The brothers, A Shanmuga Nadar and P Ayya Nadar, are credited with setting up the cracker industry in Sivakasi in the 1930s. They went to Kolkata and got to know the technique of making safety matches initially, and later went back again and learnt the process of making firecrackers.

“Now, we have the necessary skillmanship. No one can do our job, as each step of manufacturing a cracker requires specialisation. For manufacturing a single piece of seenivedi (the smallest unit of the long saravedi), we need 13 labourers. A small deviation in one of the steps would lead to a disaster. But we don’t have money, land or other resources needed to own a unit,” says Mariappan.

This makes apparent the fact that caste and class disadvantages are combined to keep these labourers in perennial economic backwardness, which also translates to social backwardness.

According to the RTI data available with VidiyalVeeraperumal, a Dalit RTI activist, between 2011 and 2021, a total of 309 persons have been killed in accidents at firecracker units in Virudhunagar district alone. However, there is no disaggregated data on how many of them were Dalits. Veeraperumal has the caste data of two particular fire accidents that happened in Sippiparai in 2020 and Achankulam in 2021 that throws some light into the issue.

In the Sippiparai accident of March 20, 2020 that killed nine labourers, eight were Dalits and one was from the Vadugar community, an extremely marginalised community classified under Backward Classes in Tamil Nadu. In the Achankulam fire accident that happened on February 12, 2021, a total of 28 persons were killed and nearly 20 injured. Out of the 57 victims (injured and deceased), 35 were Dalits, four were Dalit Christians, and the remaining 12 mostly belonged to other lowered castes. The caste details of some victims have not been provided in the reply to Veeraperumal.

According to the data with Veeraperumal, between 2011 and 2021, the cracker industry in Virudhunagar district has witnessed 194 fire accidents, in which 302 persons were killed and 250 injured. “However, relief amount has only been paid to 139 families of the victims, between 2009 and 2019, which is a little more than one-third of the total deceased,” Veeraperumal points out.

“As soon as an accident is reported, the owner of the fire unit tends to abscond. The foreman and supervisor – who are employees and not owners – are handed over to the police. The owner is usually caught after the initial anger of the people dies down. The district administration then enters into negotiations with the factory for compensation which includes only a small sum for performing the funeral. The compensation is given in post dated cheques which most often bounce. When the owner is taken to court for the default, they say they have no money. They finally agree to pay some money in installments. These installments seldom get paid,” explains Vidiyal Veeraperumal.
While several people across the country are talking about the environmental impact of firecrackers and the need to bring green crackers, Bhimrao says that the lives and deaths of the workers are sidelined completely.

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Vol 56, No. 30, Jan 21 - 27, 2024