Sivakasi, An Unlimited scourge


 Sivakasi is a curse, a blight, an abomination that India could do without. Here, workers, especially children, are routinely killed or scarred for life in fires and explosions while making crackers and bombs to feed the fireworks industry. A devastation in Sivakasi, 700 kilometres from Chennai, on September 5, 2012, claimed 54 lives. Between January 2011 and September 2012, there were at least eight explosions in or near Sivakasi, and yet all that the authorities did was to provide one to two lakhs of rupees as compensation to the next of kin of those killed and warn the factory-owners. These are, at best, cosmetic measures which do nothing to remedy the situation. The curse remains as it is, thanks to the political and police patronage enjoyed by the factory-owners. Public memory being proverbially short, both the government and the fireworks industry people know that if things are ‘handled’ properly they are unlikely to suffer any serious damage.

Some 30 years ago, a documentary film in Tamil by the name of Kutty Japanin Kuzhandaigal (Children of Mini-Japan) was made. Directed by Bangalore-based Chalam Bennurakar, the film related the stark tragedy of Sivakasi’s children without childhood. The name ‘Sivakasi’ is instantly recognizable to millions of people in this country. The place is synonymous with matches and fireworks, and calendars advertising these products. But the question is, how many people have any idea about the lives lived by the children of Sivakasi – the young ones who are largely responsible for the production and productivity of the place.

Seventy per cent of the Sivakasi children sweating it out daily in 10- to 12-hour shifts in hellish working conditions for wages that can at best be described as beggarly, are girls – girls in pigtails who should be in school learning the three R’s, laughing and running about and enjoying their childhood. Ironically, the Sivakasi film by Bennurakar was made a short while after the adult world had observed with fanfare the UN-designated ‘Year of the Girl Child’. What a laugh!

Sivakasi is called ‘Kutty Japan’ or mini-Japan by the local people. Not that they have an inkling about how things are in that country. It is just that they have got used to the label dinned into their consciousness over decades together by the local Chamber of Commerce! The roughly century-old industry, founded by two Tamil brothers who had their initial training in money matters and in the manufacture of fireworks in Calcutta, has eager consumers not just throughout India but in many markets abroad as well. Sivakasi fireworks are said to light up American skies on July 4 and have delighted audiences at more than one Olympics.

Bennurakar’s film focused on the over-worked and under-paid children through a detailed enquiry into a given situation which has driven them to the factory gates. Portraying through a series of interviews with factory-owners, farmers and workers, the film examined the pathetic existence of child workers. The morning is still dark when company buses pick up sleepy children from villages around Sivakasi. The daily grind begins once the buses deliver their human cargo at the factory gates. There is a short recess in the afternoon when the children wolf down the curd-rice they bring with them from home. It is late in the evening when, exhausted beyond description, they return home. The film’s interviews are as important as the visuals showing the children being forced to give up their childhood so that a handful of grown-ups may enrich themselves to their heart’s content.

When some, if not many, people complain of governmental indifference to the plight of working children, they forget that there is no dearth of legislation on the subject of child labour – the problem lies in the authorities failing to implement the tall promises and pious resolutions that the nation has become accustomed to hearing. Legislation in the area of child labour is nothing new. In fact, it goes back to 1881 when, alarmed at the already huge number of children employed in hazardous occupations, the British Indian government of the day drafted its first legislation. Over the years, while the number of legislations have gone up and specific Constitutional provisions have appeared, child labour has reached a head-count of millions.

The truth is that every fourth Indian child must go to work for his own and his family’s survival; that today India has the largest number of working children in the world; and that child workers form at least a quarter of the country’s total workforce, contributing more than 25 per cent of the national family income. While official sources maintain that the total number of child workers would be in the region of 20 million, more dependable independent sources claim that 50 million would be a more accurate figure. This may read like a mere recital of statistics to people subscribing to the myth of ‘India Shining’, but there’s no denying the fact that ground realities show how badly the Constitution of India has been betrayed by successive governments at the Centre and the States especially in the matter of guaranteeing children’s rights. It is immaterial whether it is the DMK or the AIADMK is in power in Tamilnadu; whether it is the UPA or the NDA ruling at the Centre. The more things change the more it remains the same. Going through the motions is the name of the game. Democracy in India is best understood by the performing parrot or the performing monkey.

Speaking specifically of Sivakasi, let a PTI despatch from Madurai dated July 12, 1991, be quoted to show, if anything, that despite governmental assurances that measures would be taken to make working conditions safer and enforce penalties on errant employers, nothing has really changed. The explosion in Sivakasi on September 5, 2012, was but a repetition of what had occurred two decades earlier and many times in between. The PTI report read thus : “Thirty-seven persons, most of them child labourers and women, were charred to death and 70 others suffered burns in a major fire at a private cracker factory at Meenampatti, about six kilometres from Sattur in Tamilnadu’s Kamarajar district… Police said 27 bodies were charred beyond recognition while 10 bodies had been identified. They said the fire was sparked by an explosion which occurred due to friction while explosives were being pushed into tubes in one of the factory’s 32 sheds. Soon the fire spread to the other sheds… Rescue operations had been delayed as the factory was difficult to reach owing to lack of proper roads. Eyewitnesses had seen people running with their clothes on fire. No one dared to enter the premises, fearing further explosions. According to the police, the explosion was heard in villages situated over a ten-kilometre radius around the factory. Several bodies were seen plastered to the wall.”

In no time Diwali, the so-called festival of lights but which has over the years degenerated into more ear-splitting sound and accompanying rowdyism than light to dispel the darkness of ignorance and injustice, will be upon us. The more level-headed will buy coloured matchsticks, sparklers and light crackers. In the midst of the mirth and the merriment, is it possible that you, dear reader, and I, the writer, with our respective families, will spare a moment for those children in Sivakasi and other places in Tamilnadu who daily risk their lives to ensure our quota of fun? Maybe we will, but it will, at best, be a momentary, fleeting thought, gone before it is allowed enough time to settle on our troubled middle-class conscience.

It is said that the labour contractors supplying children to the match and fireworks factories examine the fingers of the children closely before taking them on. The girl child with nimble fingers and supple arms is preferred because such limbs make for greater output. Can people with a more diabolical turn of mind, seeking profit in poverty and human misery, be imagined? Pained parents are on record in Chalam Bennurakar’s film that they have no choice but to send their small ones to earn for the family. These are farming people who are at their wits’ end when the crops fail, mainly due to scarcity of rainwater. While the adults have to go to work in nearby stone quarries, the children supplement their parents’ income by risking their lives in the factories, which are nothing but death-traps and infernos when fires break out. Each time there is an explosion, democracy and the rule of law, the twin pillars on which the Constitution of India is said to rest, take a beating. But, truth to tell, things have come to such a pass that the machinations of the political class in particular and the indifference of society at large have combined to reduce Dr. Ambedkar’s vision of equality and justice, to nothing.

Mercifully, the periodic devastations in Sivakasi are noticed by the media, but equally condemnable is the unreported plight of child workers in other industries located in other parts of the country. According to a UNICEF report dating back to 2003, nearly 1.5 million children were employed in hazardous occupations in the glass, carpet and lock-manufacturing industries in Uttar Pradesh which, incidentally, has the largest number of ‘people’s representatives’ in the Houses of Parliament. The most hazardous of these is the glass-making industry where more than 50,000 children below the age of 14 are employed in Ferozabad. It is a fact that the efforts of groups of social workers to alleviate the working and living conditions of these child workers have come to nought as a result of the exertions of the powerful ‘glass lobby’ in the UP Vidhan Sabha.

More than a quarter of a century ago a Calcutta filmmaker had made a commissioned film on the Ferozabad glass industry where the inhumanity of the glass barons towards the helpless child workers had been so diluted as to produce a document sanitized beyond belief. By his own admission, the director of the film had left out shots of small boys unable to stand still on the floor of a factory on account of extreme heat. On being asked why he had deleted such important shots, he blithely replied that the people who had financed the film would not have allowed them to be included. So much for the artistic independence and the moral strength of our creative geniuses!

But if the record of the glass goons of Ferozabad is bad, that of the carpet cartels of Mirzapur is worse. According to the UNICEF report, there were at least 900,000 children between five and fifteen years of age who were employed in the carpet industry which mints hundreds of crores of rupees in profit every year from sales at home and abroad. The report was not certain about the number of children aged around five years employed in the industry, but said it was almost certain that the figure would run into hundreds of thousands. If this is the situation in the State that has produced a succession of Prime Ministers and Presidents, and thousands of parliamentarians of all complexions and persuasions, what must be the scenario in the far-flung corners of the country.

Bennurakar has one shot in his Sivakasi film which speaks at least a thousand words about the plight of child slaves – child ‘workers’ or child ‘labourers’ are but euphemisms which one’s sense of morality should prevent one from using. The shot shows a statue of Gandhi at a village crossing in the Sivakasi area which has had to be encircled by a wall and kept locked, presumably in an effort to protect it from thieves or other malcontents. In a country where the Mahatma has to be rescued from the evil eye, what hope is there for thousands of his youngest children – many of them no higher than a hammer and no lighter than a flower – to be saved from the depredations of a System gone to seed? Sivakasi is a nightmare that is not likely to go away for a long time to come, for there are greedy, powerful people to nurse it and to perpetuate it.

Vidyarthy Chatterjee writes on cinema,society, and politics.)



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