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Pandemic threatens to dim sparkle of fireworks industry

- The Times of India

Pandemic threatens to dim sparkle of fireworks industry

Uncertainty around Covid-19 could cast a shadow on the festival of lights and push towards a cycle of debt for fireworks makers. Sivakasi, which accounts for 80% of the country’s fireworks production, is staring at a huge loss this Diwali, with the pandemic sparking an economic slowdown, loss of jobs, restrictions on celebrations and an atmosphere of gloom and fear.

As festivities amid the pandemic have been either muted or gone virtual such as for Onam in Kerala and for Vinayaka Chaturthi in Maharashtra and Karnataka, there is an apprehension that Diwali too may not be crackling. Less than 20% of the usual stock reached destinations due to curbs. Fireworks have not been used for weddings, temple festivals, religious celebrations or family functions like earring ceremonies. Without intervention of the government, fireworks manufacturers would suffer a severe blow that could even take the business close to zero for Diwali.

For many manufacturers, the buzz around Diwali usually begins in June when respective states call for applications to grant licences for temporary fireworks shops.

On cue, retailers approach wholesalers, who in turn place orders with manufacturers by handing over advances. This year, there was no talk of business until last week when Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers’ Association (Tanfama) wrote to chief ministers of other states urging them to issue call for notice for temporary shops. It has got replies from 10 states. Though there is no exact statistic on the revenue of fireworks produced in Sivakasi and adjoining villages in Virudhunagar district and in neighbouring Madurai, Tirunelveli and Tuticorin, it is estimated to be at least 6,000 crore annually, 70% during Diwali.

The industry, which supports more than 5 lakh workers in the state, has seen a steady decline in revenue over the past couple of years. Last year, fireworks units in Sivakasi were closed for more than three months to protest the Supreme Court order on eco-friendly products and ruling against use of barium salts –key ingredient in most fireworks. It reflected on production last year.

This year, production is down by 30%-35% over last year as fireworks manufacturing units were shut from March 23 to May 6, followed by stoppage of production for 2-3 weeks when Covid-19 cases went up in and around Sivakasi. “It has reflected in stagnation of finished fireworks worth more than 1,000 crore at our warehouses in Sivakasi and Virudhunagar. At this rate we will have to halt production by the end of this month,” said P Ganesan, president of Tanfama.

Bogged by mounting debts, workers in fireworks units are also waiting for business to pick up. “Without a job during the lockdown we struggled to make ends meet.

Even after unlock was announced we found it tough to get to work without buses or due to containment zone restrictions,” said Jebajothi, 40, of Puthu Theru in Sivakasi, who had to take a loan to run her family during the lockdown. With high interest rates, she has a debt of ?40,000. Her neighbour Pattuselvi, for whom borrowings increased during the pandemic, is looking at a debt of more than ?1 lakh. “Now we are getting jobs for 2-3 days a week and make about ?400. It is not even sufficient to pay our rent,” said Pattuselvi, who is banking on Diwali business. Many units have reduced their workforce by 50% or less. CPM secretary K Murugan said, “Workers hear their employers say they could be out of job if the demand for Diwali does not pick up.”

Federation of Tamil Nadu Fireworks Traders president V Rajachandrasekaran said nearly 4,000 permanent fireworks outlets and 3,000 temporary outlets (which function during Diwali) in Tamil Nadu and also supply to wholesalers in other states. “Traders from Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh are calling us to say they are not buying stock this year due to the pandemic, fearing it could get stagnated. We are having a tough time convincing them,” he said. Unlike other years, companies may not buy the usual Diwali gift boxes for employees as a cost-cutting measure. “We fear if even half of the usual production would be sold this year as people may buy fireworks only as a ritual,” said T Kannan, general secretary, Indian Fireworks Manufacturers Association.

Diwali this year, a few manufacturers still hope, could provide the spark to bring people, deprived of celebrations for the better part of the year, out of their sombre mood. S Krishnakumar of All India Fireworks Transporters Association says business has picked up from the beginning of September. “We started despatching 30%-40% of stock from the beginning of this month. Usually we are busy despatching since April. We hope business will be back on track.”

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