Every day is a struggle for 20-year-old R Jagadeesan. Slumped into his wooden chair at his 1 BHK home at Medavakkam, he is desperately thinking of ways to earn some money and pay off his debts. A street vendor who ran into heavy losses during the testing times of the pandemic, he had pinned all hopes on Deepavali.
The festival of lights has always provided Jagadeesan an opportunity to make some quick money. Every Deepavali, he works as a helper in a fireworks shop for a week and earns a decent pay of Rs 10,000 – Rs 12,000 for that period. But not this year.
There are fewer fireworks shops in Chennai this year. According to Sheikh Abdullah, Secretary, Chennai Metropolitan City Firecrackers Sellers’ Association, there are less than 1000 cracker shops in Chennai, whereas last year, 2500 shops were set up a week ahead of the festival.
The reasons are multifold. For one, a large number of Chennaiites have been hit by the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic and would not like to spend money on crackers. Then there are concerns over air pollution.
“I have just enough money to buy clothes for the family. Crackers are a no-no this year,” said Ashish Kapoor, who owns a supermarket at Alwarpet. The pandemic has hit even the upper middle class and middle class financially.
Affecting the entire chain
Unlike other states, there is no ban on crackers in Tamil Nadu. But with fewer takers, even traders who have been doing business for generations are shutting shop.
The four streets at Parrys Corner – Anderson Street, Bandar Street, Badrian Street and Malaiperumal Street – would spring to life every Deepavali with customers thronging the cracker shops. During the season, there is always a demand for loadmen and sales executives.
“We pay based on their skills. A skilled workman can take home Rs 700 a day, excluding the allowances for food and travel,” said Sheikh Abdullah.
But with the evident slow-down in business this year, the jobs have virtually vanished. Not just the workers belonging to the lower rungs, even the traders are facing the heat.
“I have a stationery shop at Parry’s Corner. It’s barely sustainable. This one week of cracker business is what helps me stay afloat every year,” says Moses Chinnadurai, a small time entrepreneur.
Chennai has at least 30,000 people relying directly on the fireworks industry, according to Sheikh Abdullah. There is also a section of shops in Parry’s Corner that sell throughout the year (only if the traders have permanent licences).
Experts say that the trend of falling demand for crackers is set to prevail over the coming years in Chennai. “The next generation of environmentally conscious children are not keen on polluting the environment, thanks to the awareness created in schools and other public spaces,” said Vaidhyeeshwaran Iyer, a school teacher and an environmentalist.
As things look bleak for the traders and workers in the fireworks industry, it is the responsibility of The Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) to provide livelihood support to them. They should be educated about the existing state and central government schemes.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami recently announced the establishment of a welfare board for the unorganised match and fireworks industry. This has raised hopes of workers, but existing welfare boards meant for the unorganised sector including the construction and domestic workers also arouse some scepticism.
A welfare board should ideally identify all workers, assess their needs and assist them by sensitising them about the existing schemes and granting monetary relief or compensation. “Until the functioning of the existing boards is improved, no one will believe in the new board. The state government should form a committee to look into the lapses in the welfare boards that are already there,” said V Ramarao, a social activist.
“Saying no to crackers is important considering the poor air quality in our cities. But, it should not be done before rehabilitating the thousands of people relying on the industry. The state government should ask the district industrial centres to teach other skills to the workers,” says M Parameswari, a civic activist.
It is not as if there are no alternatives to explore. A former official from the MSME Development Institute, Chennai talks of schemes such as Stand – Up India and the Prime Minister’s Employment Generation Programme in this regard. “It is implementation that is a problem. The institute does not have manpower to conduct awareness campaigns about such fantastic schemes,” he added.
Unless the government rehabilitates employees in the fireworks sector, the ban/restrictions on fireworks will land thousands of workers in dire straits. But that shouldn’t be used as an excuse to perpetuate the practice of bursting crackers, the ill effects of which are well-known. Instead, the fireworks associations should sensitise their members about existing schemes.
Prime Minister’s Employment Generation Programme(PMEGP): Anyone above the age of 18 years can get a loan upto Rs 25 lakh to start a business in the manufacturing sector. Applicants can also get a subsidy of 15 to 35 per cent.
Stand – Up India scheme: This scheme facilitates bank loans between 10 lakhs and 1 crore to at least one Scheduled Caste (SC) or Scheduled Tribe (ST) and one woman borrower per bank branch for setting up an enterprise in the manufacturing, services or the trading sector.
Many who currently rely on the fireworks economy may be encouraged to avail these schemes and explore alternative livelihood options with this assistance.