Diwali Special: How green are your crackers?
- A year after Supreme Court mandated their use, the government launched ‘green crackers’ this month as a low-pollutant alternative
- Regulators call it a 'myth', saying these fireworks use banned ingredients and mislead consumers
T Kannan looks up at the sky. “It’s going to rain," he says with sage-like conviction. “In 5 minutes."
We hurry to the exit gates on the Sree Balaji Fireworks factory. The 35-acre campus on the outskirts of Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu, is dotted with 10x12ft rooms. Every day, hundreds of workers from the neighbouring villages come here, sit on the floor, mix and weigh the necessary chemicals, and make crackers by hand. Their repertoire includes nearly 250 varieties of anaars, chakkars, “atom bombs" and rockets with varying degrees of pop, spin, crackle and sparkle. Kannan, 57, built the business from scratch 28 years ago. Today, he claims an annual turnover of ₹20 crore.
Before leaving, we stop outside the factory’s research lab. Chandrakumar, foreman and experimenter-in-chief, clad in a sparkling white vest and chequered lungi, wants to show us his latest project. It’s a batch of low-smoke, low-pollution “green crackers". A Supreme Court ban on the manufacture of the traditional varieties had led to a shutdown of factories across the town for more than three months last year. Today, says Kannan, firecracker barons like him are making earnest attempts to innovate.
Chandrakumar works with a rather rudimentary set-up. Instead of a beaker, he stores his chemicals in a soft-drink bottle sawed in half. There’s no stirring spoon because he uses his hands to mix ingredients in a plastic bowl. Apart from a weighing scale, there isn’t much lab equipment in sight. How do they measure test results to, say, check if the outcome is low on emissions?
“From the previous product," says Kannan. “Earlier, it was dark fumes. Now it’s light fumes."
So, see and tell?
“Yes. From experience."
To assuage my scepticism, Kannan tells me a story when we reach his office. Once upon a time, one fellow wanted to learn to swim. He bought a book called “How To Learn swimming" and studied it carefully. Then he jumped into the water and started moving his right leg and left hand, then his left leg and right hand. Alas, he drowned.
“Education is not enough," Kannan says. “You can’t just say potassium nitrate plus aluminium powder is equal to crackers. First, you find out the proportions. Practical knowledge is most important."
I feel water droplets landing on my face. I look up. A light drizzle has begun. I look at the time on my phone. It has indeed been 5 minutes.
“What did I say?" says Kannan triumphantly. “I can tell!"
It remains to be seen if Kannan’s trial-and-error method leads to fireworks that are both eco-friendly and market-friendly. Kannan seems committed to it but he has little choice. The churn over the past year that made him go back to the drawing board is being felt across Sivakasi.
For decades, Sivakasi’s entrepreneurs capitalized on their hometown’s hot, dry climate and an uneducated, ever-willing workforce to build the fireworks hub of India. Across the country, they had customers cutting across age, region, religion and class. The prices reflected that—a few rupees for a snake pellet, a few thousands for an aerial shower—as did the packaging: Crackers in north India were sold with actor Katrina Kaif on the cover, those in the south with images of actor Nayanthara. Until last year, nearly 800,000 people worked in the industry, helping rake up an annual turnover of ₹6,000 crore. Top industrialists eventually expanded into the education, healthcare, hospitality and construction sectors, making up for state failures.
Sivakasi’s success also had a seamier side. The fireworks industry was notorious for child labour until a few years ago. Police raids, legal sanctions and awareness programmes helped reduce the scourge but even today, several of its 1,100-plus manufacturers operate illegally, without proper licences or equipment. Dozens of workers die every year in accidents due to failure to comply with safety norms.
Events like these brought the industry scrutiny and disrepute. But sales kept growing. Then began the era of “green crackers".
It started in September 2015, when three Supreme Court (SC) lawyers filed a petition on behalf of their children, aged 8-16 months, seeking a ban on firecrackers in Delhi. Around then, the national capital had beaten Beijing to rank as the city with the dirtiest air. Pollution levels would peak in Diwali due to the indiscriminate use of firecrackers, among other factors. Doctors had a one-word prescription for those with respiratory ailments: Leave.
In 2016, the top court banned the sale of firecrackers in Delhi to control air pollution. It didn’t work. Revellers easily sourced them from neighbouring Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Last year, the court issued three country-wide guidelines to enforce a systemic change: There would be no sale, use or manufacture of joined crackers (ladis), no online sale of fireworks, and no use of barium—one of the main pollutants in a cracker—in the manufacturing process. From the next year (i.e. 2019), only “green crackers" would be allowed across the country. The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (Neeri), part of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CISR), was later tasked with facilitating their development. The Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organization (PESO), under the Union commerce ministry, was told to test the efficacy of the final product before it received the SC’s approval.
At the time, green crackers had only existed as an idea. Had you tried to look it up, Google offered its culinary variant, with a slice of cheese on top. In the protests that followed, retailers in Delhi ridiculed the verdict by stuffing firecrackers in capsicum. In Sivakasi, they shut down their factories.
It wasn’t an overreaction. Barium, used as an oxidizer and to emit green light, is a crucial component of crackers. Due to its low prices and ready availability, it is used across a range of products, including ladi, anaar and chakkars. A ban on barium indirectly meant a ban on nearly three-fourths of the crackers produced.
“The SC ruling changed everything," says Maheshwaran Ravibose, whose flourishing online business came to a halt following the ban. “The industry closed for weeks. Office staff and the management continued receiving salaries but daily-wage labourers were left penniless. Nearly 30-40% of the town migrated to Kerala, Tirupur and Delhi."
With only months left for the general election, and with pan-India unemployment rising to record levels, the Union government was under pressure to save the industry. Already, conspiracy theories were afoot, that it was the doing of NGOs with foreign funding or missionaries with anti-Hindu leanings. An ingenious rumour even described it as an attempt to shut down Sivakasi so one of the two Ambanis could take over the firecracker business.
In April, Neeri proposed two formulae for green crackers. The “new" formula eliminated barium nitrate in some products of light and sound category. The “improved" formula, developed jointly with fireworks manufacturers, used reduced amounts of barium nitrate along with additives. These, said Neeri, would help reduce particulate matter by up to 30% and make little to no difference to the manufacturing cost. At 120 decibels, the noise levels generated were comparable to commercial varieties.
Why would Neeri introduce variants with a banned substance? In an email, Sadhana Rayalu, senior scientist with Neeri, said it did so at the behest of the Union government. “Neeri has been directed by MoEFCC (ministry of environment and forests, headed by Prakash Javadekar) to investigate scientifically the effect of significantly reducing use of barium nitrate in presence of additives." Its usage, she added, was subject to the approval of the apex court.
“The manufacturers were in a fix," says a retailer closely associated with the industry. “Neeri’s formula had proposed barium use in spite of the court ban. PESO hadn’t approved it either. But we were also losing money every day. Some went ahead with the Neeri guidelines, hoping the Supreme Court would rule in their favour before Diwali."
The case hasn’t been heard since April. Earlier this month, Neeri claimed it had signed 230 MoUs with manufacturers and issued 530 emission-testing certificates. Harsh Vardhan, Union minister for science and technology and health and family welfare, held a press conference on 5 October, unveiling the first batch of “green crackers", distinguished by a QR code and a green logo on the package. “I am very happy that while on the one hand we would be using eco-friendly crackers this Deepawali, millions of homes which are dependent on the sale and manufacture of fireworks will also rejoice this festival, thanks to our scientists," he said.
Sree Balaji Fireworks claims to use the Neeri formula. How much of their stock is “green", I ask its owner. “About 40%," says Kannan. Not all packages have a QR code or a green logo, he adds. Like many of his industry peers, his company had printed them out much before these rules were introduced. Given that the industry is unregulated, it’s also possible that those printing out packages with green logos aren’t following the Neeri formula.
“It will take time to conform to all the rules," says T.K.Balaji, Kannan’s son, over the phone from Delhi. Balaji coordinates the legal matters on behalf of the fireworks manufacturers. “It’s not as easy as filter coffee."
The use of crackers on Diwali is so widespread enforcement authorities simply can’t keep up with the violations. The Delhi Police arrested 300 people for violating the SC’s ban on commercial crackers last year. Yet, air pollution levels in the city exceeded 66 times the safe limit. Media reports this year suggest traditional firecrackers are being sold in shops across the country, including banned items like ladis and barium formulations.
“In the press conference held earlier this month, Neeri displayed barium fireworks as ‘green crackers’," says advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan. “It was inconsistent with the Supreme Court order, and therefore illegal. I don’t know why they are tying up with manufacturers and entering into MoUs without getting an approval from PESO."
PESO has ratified only four varieties of green crackers till date. A PESO official, on condition of anonymity, explains that they are guided by considerations of the festive season and workers’ livelihood.
When the fireworks industry shut shop last year, the official says, there were protests across Tamil Nadu. In Sivakasi, reportedly, nearly 4,000-5,000 people surrounded the sub-collector’s office on one occasion. According to this official, the state and Union governments and agencies like Neeri “banded together" and claimed to have found a solution.
A brochure Neeri shared with Lounge on email shows “green" formulations across three categories: sound, sparklers and flowerpots (anaar). These, senior scientist Rayalu says, were formulated for six-seven popular brands that fulfilled the major requirements of the industry.
“Fireworks have over 700-800 varieties," says the PESO official. “An anaar or a chakkar alone has 20 varieties each. If you come up with a formulation, you need to come up with one for each of the 800. Neeri has succeeded in only four varieties. We have rejected 300 other formulations." Nevertheless, a government press release on Harsh Vardhan’s press conference publicized it as a breakthrough effort to “resolve the crisis of air pollution".
“Only 28 out of 1,100 units across the country have received licences to manufacture green crackers," says the official. “These licences are only for barium-free products, not all green crackers." There is a possibility that manufacturers misuse it to make other variants too. “But if we suspend one licence, we will have to suspend all 1,100 manufacturers’ licences. People will lose their jobs and protest. We kept quiet hoping that the Supreme Court will take a call before Diwali. That didn’t happen."
It’s a multifaceted issue, the official says, and information warfare is a part of it. A few days ago, several news outlets across the country carried a report by the Press Trust of India claiming “Sivakasi was ready with green crackers". It would be a stretch to claim so, the official adds. “It would take between 5-10 years for the rules to be gazetted and the industry overhauled.
“Green crackers is a well-intentioned proposition but not well thought out. As of today, they are a myth."
The not so eco-friendly formulae
In an attempt to control air pollution, the Supreme Court bans crackers using barium, which accounted for nearly 75% of crackers sold. The ruling allows the use of only “green crackers" across the country.
It tasks the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (Neeri) with facilitating their development. The final product is subject to Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organization’s (PESO’s) approval.
Neeri claims to have come up with two formulae for green crackers: one minus barium, another with reduced quantities of barium. Without PESO’s approval, it shares the formulae with the manufacturers for bulk production.
Union minister for health and science and technology Harsh Vardhan holds a press conference inaugurating the first ever batch of “green crackers" using Neeri’s formula.
FIRST PUBLISHED25.10.2019 | 04:03 PM IST