Lives in Flames

Diwali is a festival of lights celebrated across India and the whole country is lit up for two weeks.  A lot of delicacies are made, families and the neighborhoods get together to share in the joy and celebrations. The festival signifies that the good always destroys the evil. Not just the Hindus but people of various religions participate in the festivities for one reason. This prominent reason is obvious – Fireworks. Fireworks are used throughout the year for various reasons but during Diwali, the consumption is something that is beyond comparable.

Production of fireworks are happen in many countries. In India, it happens in a small town called Sivakasi in the Virudhunagar district of the state of Tamil Nadu. It is referred to as ‘Kutty Japan’ as its famous for three industries – matches, fireworks and printing.  It also famous for another important social phenomenon – prevalence of high child labour.


In 2009 myself and my friends, went on a trip to Sivakasi to investigate this social issue. The fireworks industries in Sivakasi  were worth between Rs. 800 and Rs.1000 crores back then. Officially there were 10 big firework companies that owned nearly 600 firework factories. But we found out something else – there were hundreds of illegal firework factories in Sivakasi and the nearby counties. 

The fireworks consumed during the 3 days of Diwali had to be produced in 300 days, with overtime jobs throughout the year. China was the world’s largest fireworks manufacturer and supplier and this made it India’s biggest competitor. The labor cost was cheaper in India when compared to China which made the firework industry popular in India.

The cost of raw materials in India was about 50% higher. Even with such rates, statistics predicted that the market for fireworks in India was likely to grow at the rate of 10% annually back then.

The history of Sivakasi’s firework production dates back to several decades. The town is known for low rainfall and dry climate. This makes the land unproductive for agriculture. Hence there is very high dependence on the occupation of manufacturing fireworks. Through the decades, Sivakasi was infamous for its various unacceptable practices — child labor being one of the prominent concerns. About 60,000 children of ages ranging between 3 and 18 years, were reported of having worked in firework industries during 1991.

Low wages, lack of  safety precautions, factories prone to fire accidents, health and life hazards  – all these were usual and were not considered as significant issues.

Since 1990’s numerous NGOs, activist groups and individuals lobbied against these practices only to worsen the situation.. The result of these interventions were continuous check on child labor and safety measures, all right but the factory owners found a way around this resistance and surveillance.   About this, a detailed explanation follows.


We got in touch with NEWS : 

My friends and I, gathered some contacts and took the help of the organization, NAVAJEEVAN EDUCATIONAL WELFARE SOCIETY (NEWS).  It was located in Thiruthangal and was founded by Devaramani Lysabai. Its parent organization was Paul Foundation. It worked on key issues of education and literacy. Its major activities and achievements focused on reducing the level of prevailing child labor; giving financial help to poop pupils to steady their education; taking action with Government’s help against child labor and discrimination of Dalits; creating institutions to give education in the backward areas.

For three days we worked with the staff of NEWS – Mr. Rajesh, Mr. Pal Pandiyan, Mr. Arul Raj and Mrs. Muthumari. They gave us deeper insights on the apparent scenario on child labor, took us on exposure visits and had us meet and interact with a lot of residents in the town and the nearby villages.

According to their reports, the scenario in 2009:

Due to a lot of lobbying and activism, incidence of child labor drastically reduced to hundreds from thousands. In the big companies, finding a child worker below 14 years of age was tough but in the small ones rescues happened through out the year.


Government went on raids to these factories but made sure to warn factory owners beforehand. With this tacit agreement, the factory had to bribe the Government workers to save them from jail time. If the owners paid bribes, the children could work in the factories with out Government’s intrusion.  Then the Government workers signed farce certificates stating that there were no child laborers in those respective factories. The factory owners also bribed the Government doctors to get fake attestations of these children’s ages  to abolish child labor, the factory owners must have awareness and empathize with the situation stating that these workers were about 18 years old.


In Sivakasi and the surrounding counties, the factory owners used a new strategy called Decentralization. Since, the factories were on constant raids, they supplied the raw materials directly to the houses of the workers.  So the families worked from their homes.

Almost every household undertook the production of making pipes. Children either worked full time at home ( age no bar!) or worked after school.  They dyed the outer paper, rolled gun powder, dipped the material into chemicals, made fire crackers and they packed the final products. Children were engaged in these activities for three to twelve hours each day.

When we went there we also found a few girls who did not go to school, were under the threat of being married before the age of 18. These children had very dysfunctional families who kept moving houses due to fights in the neighborhoods. The household situations also weren’t financially conducive for education. So, they stayed at home making pipes and firecrackers. They made close to 10 pipes which yielded them Rs. 45 per day . This money was used by the parents and the children got about Rs.2 to spend every day.  A girl who was twelve years of age upon being interviewed stated that, her two elder brothers who were 15 and 18 years of age worked in a college mess and a rice mill respectively. So, child labor was prevalent in other ways too.  

Poverty , lack of proper employment and School Drop-outs:

Many children at the age of 14  dropped out of school and started  working for wages. Reason being  that there was no scope of better employment after studies as compared to work that was already available. After studying the tenth grade, the youth lost interest in studies. They complained that their relatives were either unemployed or were working for Rs. 1500 per month even after having studied at schools. So they had the feeling that education was a total waste of time. Even if a person did a diploma or a degree, he/ she could work in the factories on a desk job or as accountants. So the child workers working in the factories making firecrackers, the slightly more educated ones landed in the same factories with desk jobs. The majority of opportunities available were these – production of matches; production of fireworks and the offset printing press.

Though 40% of rural families sent their children to Government schools, education stopped at 7th grade. There are a lot of children whose rights to education are being violated, this can not be refuted. But the conditions at their households are so dire because the earning members of the family suddenly expire and a single parent has to raise the kids. Oftentimes, the households are on a hand-to-mouth situation oftentimes and the child is forced to work to add to the income.

Even in  Meenampatti village, child labor was prevalent. Many children between the ages of 14 and 18 worked . One could also find a few children below the ages of 14 working, instead of going to school.

The high school annual fees ranged between Rs.4000 to Rs.25000. There were many private schools compared to Government schools. The parents prefer private schools because they want their children to learn English. In Government schools the teachers are  incompetent and irregular. Even the headmasters of Government schools send their children to private schools because of the standards in private schools. So, in some families the children belonging to families of low socioeconomic status, watch their parents struggle and decide to work after school and during summer vacations to fund for their studies. Children also work for reasons like low income of the family, very high cost of living etc., house rents etc. They get about Rs.100 per day making fireworks.

Some children earn that money and indulge in activities like smoking, drinking, going to the theaters etc. Since they see some financial independence, they like to invest time in earning money instead of spending time at schools.  They are unable to stay disciplined at schools and they are on their own when they are out of schools.

Another issue seen was dowry.  The parents had to pay about a Lakh ( 80 grams of gold) for each daughter to get them married into other families. For, this they sent their children to work to get more income.


Health Hazards:

Except for a handful few big companies, safety measures were hardly seen in these factories. There had been over  10 major accidents in 2007 claiming many lives. The firework factory workers were to be provided with hand gloves and chapels but that did not happen. The existing rules were scare for safety precautions and even those were not followed. There was a strong prevalence of occupational hazards but no social research was available to establish cause and effect relationships.

There were reports that children suffered from  chronic bronchitis, broncho-pneumonia, tuberculosis . malnutrition, gastrointestinal disorders, skin disorders, over exhaustion, burns and  water borne diseases.  They lived in hazardous conditions at home chronically being exposed to toxic chemicals and working with them.

The worst thing about this was that they did not have a labor union and they were working in an unorganized sector.  So, they could never fight for their rights. Imagine, 175 pipes makes one unit fetching Rs.1.7/unit. One could make only 20 to 25 units per day. There were no salary perks and the only payment method that followed was a piece rate system. They did not hold insurances or job security in any of the factories.


Possible ways forward..

The staff working at NEWS stated that the Government organizations could build factories in bare lands and give salary of Rs.3000 per month and 4 days of rest every month for these workers. At least the violation of labor rights could be prevented to some extent this way. The Government could give vocational training for the educated youth and encourage them to become Government staff by giving them a reasonable salary. That way many youth will be inspired to study too.

These men, women and children hardly realized that they were being exploited.             They were hardly aware that they had rights and that they had lives.

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