Diwali or Deepavali is a Hindu festival whose importance is comparable only to Christmas and the Chinese New Year. Celebrated with light and fireworks to mark the victory of the good over evil, Deepavali is some weeks away. But the town of Sivakasi in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu will have little to fete. Many homes there will be engulfed in darkness and a feeling of dispirited sorrow.

The paper used for fireworks is dried in sunlight outside a fireworks unit in Sivakasi

For, Sivakasi, the most important centre of fireworks industry in India, has been virtually throttled by illegal imports from China. Its fireworks are certainly not as qualitatively good as those made in Sivakasi, which has over many decades achieved a high standard of safety, and established a brand value based on trust. Parents are confident that Sivakasi products are safe to be handled by their children.

However, in these days of financial hardship, faced across continents, Chinese goods — often produced with cheap labour in their sweat factories — have begun to have an edge over Indian fireworks.  An important reason is the killing pricing, which Sivakasi factories are unable to match. The Chinese prices are so low that they are naturally tempting for a consumer — and this “unhealthy competition”, as some aver, is smoking out the livelihood of thousands in Sivakasi — a town that virtually survives on the fireworks industry.

The 750-odd fireworks units in Sivakasi have had to cut their output by a third — and this means that this commercial enterprise cannot run on the fifth gear during the festival season, as has been the case traditionally.  Workers are not being asked to do overtime, which means less income for them. Additional overtime wages are an annual bonanza they have been enjoying all these years.

Worse, the factories have been operating only four days a week since August 25. Normally, they ought to have been functioning seven days a week, with many more hours of overtime thrown in.

The Chinese fireworks have just about destroyed all this.

Chinese goods began their unlawful journey into India in 2013. That year, says G. Abiruben, president of the Tamil Nadu Fireworks Manufacturers’ Association, only ten kinds of fireworks came into India from across the Himalayas. This year, the number is a whopping 215 — the increase is incredible, but painfully true.

The best part of this whole clandestine business is that these Chinese products are smuggled along with other legal imports — which may be toys or electronics. And most of these fireworks are sold in small unauthorised shops and even by pavement vendors.

Some estimates place the figure of smuggled Chinese stuff at Rs 5,000 million (US$76 million), and given the low pricing, the actual quantity of fireworks sold may well be huge.

Some 200 containers of illegal Chinese fireworks, worth Rs 4,000 million (US$60 million), were smuggled into India in 2014 leading to a dip in production; most of it is normally undertaken on the basis of firm orders placed months in advance.  A hundred units at Sivakasi had to pull their shutters down that year.

And who bothers about quality as long as prices are low. One, the money spent is as good as ash, and two, safety is still not a pressing issue in India. Most people tend to let their children take risks playing with fireworks that may be awfully dangerous.

But safety has been a key issue with the Rs 6,000 million (US$91 million) Sivakasi fireworks industry.

“Since 1920, the Sivakasi units have been producing user-friendly stuff. But the Chinese goods are made with potassium chlorate, which is a high-end explosive and a banned chemical. Who will be answerable in case accidents occur when children use Chinese products,” asks Abiruben.

Sivakasi uses only aluminium powder and nitrate of salts — which are safe.

Although there is an India-government ban on the use of potassium chlorate, and goods made out of this are confiscated, implementation has been tardy. There are not enough men to inspect fireworks en masse to weed out the spurious and the lethal.

Things can get worse in the next couple of years when China will be able to make fireworks with aluminium powder and nitrate of salts. Plans are now afoot.

Sivakasi may well be completely crippled by fiery Chinese fireworks if illegal imports are allowed to rule the market.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.

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