Feudalism beyond the farmland: The Dalit workers in Sivakasi’s firecracker units

Other industries here refuse to hire them due to cateist notions of ‘purity’, forcing them to work at cracker factories.

WrittenBy:Azeefa Fathima
The site of an accident at a firecracker unit in Achankulam, alongside a map of TN showing Sivakasi.

The death of more than a dozen workers at a firecracker factory in Virudhunagar last month was yet another reminder of the hazards of working in this sector. But the horrific incident, which is the latest of many, did little to deter thousands of mostly Dalit workers like 40-year-old Mariammal (name changed) who work in firecracker factories  in the district. 

There are other industries such as food processing units in the region but casteist notions of purity and impurity ensure that Dalits are not hired, forcing them to seek out cracker factories for employment. The principal breadwinner of her family and single mother of two school-going children, Mariammal had no option but to put away her fears and return to work. 

“Witnessing charred bodies and individuals living with burn injuries has been a part of our lives since childhood. We are left with no alternative for earning a livelihood,” she said.

The accident in Rengapalayam.

Workers like Mariammal not only have to live under a constant threat of fire accidents but also lack basic employee benefits such as leave days, insurance or a provident fund. In addition, there is also uncertainty over cracker bans being imposed by some states. For close to a decade now, activists have been demanding that they be rehabilitated and given alternate livelihood options.

While an overwhelming majority of the workers are from Dalit and other lowered caste communities, the factory owners hail mostly from the powerful caste Hindu communities, particularly the Nadars. Observers say that successive governments have chosen to ignore safety and working conditions because of their proximity to the owners and the caste-capital interests they represent.  

‘We have skillmanship, but no resources’

Pointing to the control by Nadars and Naickers, Mariappan, 42, a Dalit resident of Meenampatti near Sivakasi, says, “They have full control of raw materials. If, for instance, I want to start a small-scale production of firecrackers, I have to approach them for raw materials. After manufacturing the product, I have to go back to them because they are the agents, wholesalers and dealers of crackers. It is from them that all retailers and other shops purchase goods. They fix the rate of the raw materials, as well as the end product. So, they hold the power in two critical junctions in this supply chain.”

He adds that only those who remain loyal to them would be allowed to survive in the field.

Suresh, an activist based in Sivakasi, says Dalits are not expected to sit on a chair or even enter the same room as the dominant caste dealer. 

“It is not like they will be thrown out or shouted at. They might even be given a chair and treated properly. But this act of defiance will be punished in other ways,” he says. “They would fix a very high price for the raw materials and a very low price for the finished products. They can easily reduce a  Dalit manufacturer to bankruptcy. This will not explicitly look like caste discrimination, especially to the concerned Dalit person because he was treated ‘equally’ each time he visits the dealer.”

“We have been doing this work since the 1920s, when the infamous Nadar brothers – Ayya Nadar and Shanmuga Nadar – started building the cracker hub in Sivakasi,” says Muniappan. 

The brothers, A Shanmuga Nadar and P Ayya Nadar, are credited with setting up the cracker industry in Sivakasi in the 1930s. They went to Kolkata and got to know the technique of making safety matches initially, and later went back again and learnt the process of making firecrackers.

Mariappan, a labourer in the industry.

“Now, we have the necessary skillmanship. No one can do our job, as each step of manufacturing a cracker requires specialisation. For manufacturing a single piece of seeni vedi (the smallest unit of the long sara vedi), we need 13 labourers. A small deviation in one of the steps would lead to a disaster. But, we don’t have money, land or other resources needed to own a unit,” says Mariappan. 

This makes apparent the fact that caste and class disadvantages are combined to keep these labourers in perennial economic backwardness, which also translates to social backwardness.

Vote bank politics and workers’ welfare

According to the RTI data available with Vidiyal Veeraperumal, a Dalit RTI activist, between 2011 and 2021, a total of 309 persons have been killed in accidents at firecracker units in Virudhunagar district alone. However, there is no disaggregated data on how many of them were Dalits. Veeraperumal has the caste data of two particular fire accidents that happened in Sippiparai in 2020 and Achankulam in 2021, that throws some light into the issue.

In the Sippiparai accident of March 20, 2020 that killed nine labourers, eight were Dalits and one was from the Vadugar community, an extremely marginalised community classified under Backward Classes in Tamil Nadu. In the Achankulam fire accident that happened on February 12, 2021, a total of 28 persons were killed and nearly 20 injured. Out of the 57 victims (injured and deceased), 35 were Dalits, four were Dalit Christians, and the remaining 12 mostly belonged to other lowered castes. The caste details of some victims have not been provided in the reply to Veeraperumal.

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Veeraperumal points to the data and says, “The government does not even maintain proper data of the deaths or injuries. We don’t know how many people from the Dalit communities have been killed so far. Neither do we know how many people are actually employed in the industry and the breakup of their caste locations.”

Bhimarao, district student-wing secretary of Dalit Liberation Movement, says that the owners in the industries have a tie-up with politicians and power-centres , which enables them to survive. “Take Virudhunagar, for instance. Nadar community is the main vote bank for major political parties. They will not disturb them at all,” he says. He further adds that the Dalit community is being cheated under the garb of having a ‘livelihood’ for more than a century.

“Whenever the topic of rehabilitation is taken, those at power and the owners’ association claim that the industry employs close to eight lakh people - directly and indirectly – and their welfare is paramount. If that is the case, why are the Dalits, who form a major part of the workforce, still dying and suffering, with little to no economic mobility?” Veeraperumal asks.

Vidiyal Veeraperumal, Dalit RTI activist.
Bhimarao, district student-wing secretary of Dalit Liberation Movement.

Turned away most times

When TNM met Mariammal and her fellow workers just after the Deepavali festival in November, the factories were shut for the festival holidays – the sole respite for its workers. Year after year, the schedule of the labourers has remained the same. Industries typically resume operations in January after the Pongal break. 

The start of every new manufacturing season is marked by elaborate rituals, often involving distribution of alms and animal sacrifice, seeking divine intervention to prevent accidents. The labourers also take part in the poojas, and a feast is served for them. The manufacturing, which starts in January, persists until the eve of Deepavali, at which point the units close down for the year. However, this break isn't designed for the labourers to rejuvenate but it is necessitated by rainy weather conditions. 

During this period, workers end up doing odd jobs, including wage-work under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, beedi rolling, and construction work. Mariammal underscores the compulsion they face to work each and every day of the year to put food on their table. This emerged as a common thread among all the workers we spoke to; no work for a day translates to no food.

Kanakaraj, 34, belonging to the Pallar community from a village near Virudhunagar holds a diploma in civil engineering. But he works as a labourer in a firecracker unit as it pays “well” per day. “We look only at our daily needs, even if it is at the cost of our lives. The rest can wait,” he says.

Asked if he thought about migration for a job as an option, he says that no other job pays the amount given in the industry. “We work for close to only eight hours a day, and I get Rs 1,000, my wife gets Rs 700. Do you think a MGNREGA work or an office work will pay me this much?” he asks. 

It is pertinent to note that though the industry does provide the labourers a daily wage and a pay higher than other labour works, it comes with the cost of danger, violence and exploitation.

Kanakaraj also points out that the government is not receptive to the demand of rehabilitation for the workers, which may be because they are mostly Dalits. “If people of some other community kept dying year after year, things would have definitely been handled differently,” he says.

Rajkumar, 36, who works in a unit near Inamreddiapatti in Virudhunagar, says that men earn anywhere between Rs 400 and Rs 1,000 per day, depending on their work, and women earn between Rs 200 and Rs 700. 

“We have no savings. We earn money and meet the needs of the day. If I don’t go to work for a day, then it would be difficult to even eat good food. We often get into debt traps,” he says. By working hard, he means producing more firecrackers. The workers are mostly paid a piece-rate – the more they produce, the more they earn. This is also one of the reasons for an accident to occur in the units, as a moment’s carelessness can lead to a major blast.

U Shanmugavadivu, 55, belonging to the Dalit Paraiyar community and resident of Nadusoorangudi, is one of the survivors in the Achankulam blast of 2021. She recalls that the accident took place because of one such minor carelessness of a worker.

“There was a man who was taking the finished atom bomb crackers (a kind of firecracker) for packing. We kept on telling him to slow down. As he was piling up the bombs, he took one piece that rolled away and threw it on the ground softly. The next thing we knew was that the place was on fire,” she says. 19 persons, including a pregnant woman and a college student, died the same day, with nine charred to death on the spot.

According to the data with Veeraperumal, between 2011 and 2021,  the cracker industry in Virudhunagar district has witnessed 194 fire accidents, in which 302 persons were killed and 250 injured. “However, relief amount has only been paid to 139 families of the victims, between 2009 and 2019, which is a little more than one-third of the total deceased,” Veeraperumal points out.

Achankulam accident spot.
Shanmugavadivu, standing at the entrance of her one-room house.

Shanmugavadivu sustained burns along the left side of her body, from her head till her torso and had to undergo Rs 5 lakh worth treatment for three months. 

What did she get in return? Rs 1 lakh from the Chief Minister’s Disaster Management Relief Fund and no money from the firecracker unit owner. Seven others – who sustained injuries and family members of the deceased in the accident – are still waiting for the company to clear the compensation money.

This is the case for many other victims, too, as most unit owners don’t pay them relief money, labourers have to approach them multiple times. With loans piling up, little savings and a family member who is injured or dead, workers have little option but to return to work, while the firecracker units get away by paying a meagre amount as compensation. 

“As soon as an accident is reported, the owner of the fire unit tends to abscond. The foreman and supervisor – who are employees and not owners – are handed over to the police. The owner is usually caught after the initial anger of the people dies down. The district administration then enters into negotiations with the factory for compensation which includes only a small sum for performing the funeral. The compensation is given in post dated cheques which most often bounce. When the owner is taken to court for the default, they say they have no money. They finally agree to pay some money in instalments. These instalments seldom get paid,” explains Vidiyal Veeraperumal.

“As majority of the workers are from the Dalit community, nobody bothers to enquire about the issue. The workers do not have the necessary education or tools to fight for their rights. Their focus is on getting their daily wages and trying to gain some economic stability. In the fight for their day-to-day survival, they have come to accept injuries and the spectre of death as a part of their job,” he says, and adds that despite repeated instances, there is no improvement on the safety of workers and there are no steps taken to rehabilitate the workers.

Bhimarao says the government has not been proactive in rehabilitating the workers. “We are not saying to shut down the industry completely. But we need to provide alternatives for the workers and it should be their decision to work in it. At present, the workers have no other choice but to work here, it is a forced decision. There are spinning mills and grains, oil production companies, which are mostly controlled by Nadars and Naickers, and they don’t employ Dalits. The  farming sector is limited and the only other option is to work in an industry where there’s always the danger of dying in a horrific fire accident,” he says.

While several people across the country are talking about the environmental impact of firecrackers and the need to bring green crackers, Bhimrao says that the lives and deaths of the workers are sidelined completely. 

Stating that the government is trying to bring new environment-friendly formulas for firecrackers to sustain the industry, Veeraperumal says, “There is a claim that Dalits' lives have become better and that this industry exists to provide for our livelihood, but why is something that is so glaringly obvious and horrific, remain completely unaddressed?’

This report was republished from The News Minute as part of The News Minute-Newslaundry alliance. It has been lightly edited for style and clarity. Read about our partnership here and become a TNM Member here.

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