Diwali, the festival of lights, is the most celebrated and best known of India's many festivals. For centuries, Indians have marked the harvest festival with family get-togethers and carnivals, and lamps, fireworks and bonfires illuminate this merry time. But this 'festival of lights' has a pervasive dark side.
The firecrackers that are a symbol of celebration are also striking reminders of hazardous child labour. The firework industry that lends 'light' to this festival itself seems to have seen little light over the years. A majority of the firecrackers sold in India are manually produced in the labour-intensive cottage industries of Sivakasi, a town in southern India marked by excruciatingly difficult working conditions and lax safety standards.
In the past, Sivakasi was infamous for child labour employed at a meagre fraction of adult wages. The industry is also known for poor safety standards, inadequate infrastructure and breaking industrial safety codes.
In the 1990s, child labour was more common, and multiple surveys revealed that more than 1,000 cottage units in the district were employing children. Even though the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1996, and fervent NGO activism helped clamp down on the practice, child labour is far from extinct, as evidenced by the recent crackdown on two large-scale units employing children below the age of 14.
While there have been efforts to eradicate child labour in India's fireworks industry, the industry has adopted evasive tactics to reduce the effectiveness of these measures.
Licences are not granted to units that employ child labour or do not comply with safety standards, so licensed companies began outsourcing the production of explosive material to unlicensed factories to cut costs, inevitably rendering licensing norms ineffective.
Taking heed of the situation, the Madras High Court in 2013 ordered the shutdown of all unlicensed units in and around Sivakasi. Though the unlicensed units have been closed, the incentives to produce cheap fireworks reman strong: many factory owners are reported to have shifted production to villages where the threat of inspection is rare.
As the cottage industry moves to the interiors with scant surveillance, lack of safety standards might still be the norm and child labour could continue unabated for years to come.
The issue of child labour in the firework industry is directly linked with the state of manufacturing in India, which is still heavily dependent on manual labour.
Though there are large-scale units in the cracker industry that strive to ensure safety standards, mechanisation is still not considered viable, owing to power shortages and other infrastructural constraints.
Sadly, the recent crackdown on unlicensed units shut only 80 units, leading to the loss of about 20,000 jobs in the past year, according to the Business Standard. Yet, a part of the industry managed to conceal its activities by relocating.
Efforts by the Indian government and NGOs to curb child labour are welcome, but the situation in India's villages is depressingly unlikely to improve until there are wider changes in lifestyle and infrastructure, and a more prosperous, confident country can consign these dark factories to the history books like the civilised nation it is.