Fireworks are a socio-environmental tragedy, not an economic opportunity

By Rishit Jain

In recent years, in light of concerns about child labour, public health and environmental degradation, the Supreme Court has taken a tough stance against the sale and use of fireworks. This year, the Supreme Court has once again enforced strict curbs on the sale and use of firecrackers during Diwali.

Naysayers of the decision point to the economic repercussions that will adversely impact the Rs 10,000-crore industry and which employs five lakh families directly or indirectly.

A shop selling firecrackers in Kolkata. Credit: Indrajit Das/Wikimedia Commons. License: CC BY-ND 2.0

Furthermore, the Diwali season, among India’s biggest is often described as the ‘barometer’ for gauging the strength of Indian businesses and economic performance as a whole. Differences of up to 50% between the festive and non-festive months in terms of consumption of apparel, and up to 100% in lifestyle and fashion accessories, means the Diwali period is a big boon for businesses. But apart from just buying goods, families across the country mark the festival with great pomp and style, turning to lights and crackers to celebrate. In such a scenario, banning or curbing the sale of firecrackers would bankrupt the industries and the producing hub, Tamil Nadu’s Sivakasi.

However, these economic concerns ring hollow in the face of the atrocities that have prompted the Supreme Court’s decision. Sivakasi, which reportedly accounts for more than 90% of all of Indian firecracker production, is known as being one of the worst offenders where child labour is concerned. About 90% of Sivakasi nearly 2.5 lakh large population is engaged in the production of firecrackers; 30% of this workforce comprises children, 90% of whom are girls. According to unofficial reports, there were more than 125,000 children working in the Sivakasi manufacturing belt. The children who work in these factories are deprived of an education, and thus of potentially economically better and safer opportunities. This deprivation is compounded over generations.

The working conditions in these firecracker factories are atrocious. Fatal accidents are frequent—on an average, 25 people die in these factories every year. Most workers have chronic respiratory problems and broken limbs and bones, and burn-littered bodies are common. Medical services are not always economically feasible for these workers who often earn less than the minimum wage in underground markets that are unaccounted for and illegally managed. If they manage to get medical care, it is at a tremendous financial cost.

The nexus of lack of education, accumulating medical bills, and generational involvement in the industry augments economic inequality.

But even the ends cannot justify the means in this case. The use of firecrackers has been associated with a 30-40% rise in breathing problems in India. This increase is concomitant to a 300% rise in atmospheric black carbon. Such figures prove how harmful the impact of fireworks can be, poisoning the very air we breathe. The bursting of firecrackers has been directly linked to exponential increase in respiratory disorders during Diwali.

Government expenditure on improved healthcare resources—resources that could have been utilised elsewhere had the situation not deteriorated to such an extent—is an opportunity cost that the Supreme Court seeks to mitigate. Furthermore, not only does this asymmetric expenditure by individuals on healthcare prevent expenditure in other areas such as ‘apparel’ and ‘living and fashion and accessories’ that would help small businesses, it also dampens the sense of festivity that drives retail sales through the roof in the first place. The presumed Diwali boost to the economy is inhibited by worsening health and environmental conditions.

The purported economic benefits of the fireworks industry are thus eroded by the social, public health, and environmental costs of firecrackers.

Rishit Jain is a writing analyst at Qrius

Child LabourDiwali