Traditionally, we speak of Deepavali as the festival of lights, when we celebrate the triumph of good over evil, of light over darkness, of the divine over the base.
And, yet, in celebrating it with fireworks, we are bolstering an industry to which evil is intrinsic.
No, I’m not talking about the noise or the smoke or the pollution, which terrorise asthmatics, or the choking of rivers and landfill sites with toxic waste that ruins the ecosystem. I’m not even talking about the acts of mindless cruelty – strapping crackers on to the tails of cowering dogs, for instance – though we know there are plenty of those.
But, as people flock into temporary stalls in a last-minute frenzy of shopping for fireworks, complete with their privileged children, I want to stop and ask them whether they know that for decades these fireworks were made by little children who were paid ridiculous wages and often lost their lives and limbs to gunpowder explosions.
And though fireworks manufacturers in Sivakasi claim that no children are employed in their factories, evidence suggests otherwise.
In the wake of the horrific fire accident which claimed 38 lives and left 50 injured, in 2012, raids were conducted in fireworks units which resulted in more than 25 licences being cancelled for various violations. These included the employment of children aged under 14 years.
Devastating accidents have been reported at fireworks units in Virudhunagar district in 2011, 2012, and 2013, and in Andhra Pradesh in 2014. In every case, the victims included children. A Google search turns up pictures that stand testimony to just how young some of these children are.
Over the last decade, more than 200 people have lost their lives in 91 accidents.
Nearly twenty years ago, in 1996, the Supreme Court ordered the enforcement of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act. But reports show that this is not followed even today.
In 2013, a National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) report made alarming findings. In a survey of the fireworks, matches, and incense stick producing factories of Sivakasi, which numbered nearly 10,000 and employed 1.5 lakh people, it was discovered that children aged 5-15 were working for more than 12 hours a day. Children wearing school uniforms were seen working in factories after school hours.
For fear of discovery, many manufacturers who have not mechanised their production outsource work to contractors and subcontractors. Children often work out of tiny sheds, and sometimes even their homes, with few safety measures in place.
The report found that the fireworks industry in Sivakasi was exploring foreign markets and had even set up manufacturing units in China.
With children being paid on a piece-rate, they are encouraged to work fast and long to supplement their paltry wages, which range between Rs 30 and Rs 50 a day.
The investigation team also found that children were loading flower pots, fixing fuses, making paper pipes, and filling rings without wearing protective gear.
They handle materials including sodium and potassium nitrates, with charcoal and sulphur for fuel, along with aluminium, iron, steel, zinc, or magnesium dust to enhance the explosion.
Not only are their clothes and skin covered in chemicals which eventually cause asthma, eye infection, and tuberculosis; but they are also unsupervised as they pack tubes.
Unaware of the danger of getting the proportion wrong, and untrained in methods, they often pack the chemicals too tight or in the wrong amounts, causing explosions at worst and scalding at best.
While local governments insist that child labour has been stemmed, and is now at less than one percent of all employment, Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi has said more than 1 lakh children are employed in fireworks factories, not just in Tamil Nadu, but across Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Chattisgarh, Jaipur and Assam.
The NCPCR report cited instances of verbal, physical, and psychological abuse of these children.
An industry that is estimated to be worth Rs 2000 crore has made its money off nimble hands which should be turning the pages of schoolbooks and not stuffing gunpowder into paper.
There is photographic evidence of children being employed in these factories. Some of these horrific pictures, including those of severe injuries, may be found here. In one, heartbreakingly, a child wearing a ‘Being Human’ shirt is seen packing crackers, unaware of the irony.
Even if some of these factories have done away with child labour, as they claim, it is undeniable that every one of them exploited children in penury at some time. As we watch our children playing about in their new clothes, we should remind ourselves that an accident of birth could have had these very same children making those very same crackers in little huts.
We should remind ourselves that the festival of lights could just as easily and far less ruinously be celebrated with lamps instead of fireworks.
Because the only way we can eradicate child labour from dangerous industries is to eradicate the industries themselves.
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