Sivakasi/Chennai: This time last year, as always around Diwali, India’s night sky was illuminated with fireworks and reverberated with the noise of a million crackers going off. But seven-year-old Arvind Karuppusamy, whose family helped produce those fireworks in Sivakasi, could not join the revelry. He died last year in a fire caused by a pile of firework raw material that his mother had brought home to work on.

It’s Diwali once again and the Tamil Nadu town of Sivakasi, the hub of the fireworks industry in India, is humming with the sort of frenzy that’s customary at festival time. But, given that every home has people making fireworks in the house, accidents are simply waiting to happen.

“This is happening all around Sivakasi," says Arvind’s father K. Karuppusamy, against whom police have registered a case for keeping explosives at home, speaking last week in the village of Kodainachiarkuppam, at the end of his day’s work as a painter.

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Sivakasi, about 500km south-west of Chennai, has turned adversity—its lack of suitability for agriculture due to water scarcity—into advantage, developing into a hub for printing and matchstick production, besides its 1,500 crore fireworks industry. Some of the large Sivakasi companies, seeking new markets and facing security hurdles in shipping fireworks out of India, have even set up manufacturing units in China.

Along with growth and wide renown has come widespread criticism for the employment of child workers. Sustained campaigns by human rights activists have seen that practice come to an end. But at a time when companies are seeing skyrocketing costs, the employment of children may be re-emerging in a different guise, according to social workers in the area. The practice of home-based firework production, enabled through a network of contractors and sub-contractors, has gained strength in the last two years, and is not just creating fire hazards at homes, but is also pulling children into the industry, they say.

“Some may say there’s no harm in home-based work," says P. Raja Gopal, president of Nether’s Economic and Educational Development Society (NEEDS), a non-governmental organization (NGO) that helped produce a report released this month by another NGO, the Campaign Against Child Labour, cataloguing child labour in home-based fireworks production. “Some may even say it’s good, because it generates income for the people. But it creates a process that eventually turns children into full-time labourers."

Children sit in their uniforms making fireworks after school; their earning power leads to their dropping out of school to work full-time, Gopal says.

Childhood lost? A child dries paper tubes used for making crackers. R.S. Kumar/Mint

“Labourers are not legally bound to the job," says J. Tamilselvan, president of the Indian Fireworks Association. “There are no guarantees they will turn up to work. So only the ancillary work is now being outsourced. This does not have anything to do with the explosives, but basic things like rolling paper tubes and dyeing them."

Raw material prices have risen because of the increase in fuel prices, says Rajasingh Chelladurai, director of Standard Fireworks Ltd, which produces fireworks worth nearly 250 crore every year with 32 factories in India and two in China.

He also cited as challenges the decreasing value of the rupee—which has been sliding since August and touched two-year lows in recent weeks— making the import of raw materials more expensive, and a mandatory annual 10% labour wage hike.

The company has seen input costs rise 20-30% each year in the last few years, according to Sampath Kumar, Madurai sales manager at Standard Fireworks.

NGOs dispute manufacturers’ claim that only non-hazardous operations take place in homes. Explosive material is also packed into paper tubes in some homes, endangering the lives of people in the entire neighbourhood, says Gopal of NEEDS. “Wherever you are in Sivakasi, your life is not guaranteed," he says.

The violation of safety norms—which has caused around 1,000 deaths in the last 10 years by Gopal’s estimation—continues unchecked due to insufficient government regulation of the industry, social workers say.

M. Muneersamy, special tehsildar for matches and fireworks in Sivakasi, says more staff would make his job easier. According to him, he’s the only officer in the entire state in charge of inspections for the matches and fireworks industry, and operates with just one assistant. When he goes on inspections, he visits six-seven factories in a day, covering each of the 680 licensed fireworks factories in the area three-four times a year, he says. Home-based fireworks production is not officially permitted, but offenders are generally not prosecuted because it is non-hazardous, according to him, and helps local residents make a living.

“This industry has more than 2.5 lakh beneficiaries, and we definitely don’t want to hurt their livelihood," Gopal says. But some manufacturers sell their products at four times the cost price, and could afford to invest in safety procedures and qualified staff, he says, adding that the government has to enforce a tougher regime.

Unsafe conditions in homes and factories also indirectly lead to child labour, as in the case of K. Mariamma of Mangalam village. After she suffered second-degree burns in an accident at a small-scale factory run by Sri Krishna Fireworks Industries, and her husband left the family, her teenage sons had to drop out of high school and go to work in paper mills to help run the family. “They need to go to work for us to eat," she says. “I have a daughter who is in class VIII. Without these boys working, running a family would be difficult."

Many parents in Sivakasi depend similarly on their children’s income to run families, according to Maria Mathelammal, director of the Virudhunagar chapter of the National Child Labour Project, a government initiative to redirect child workers into education. Often, a home would offer evidence of child labour, but parents would say that the child was unwell and on leave from school for just that day, Mathelammal says.

Virudhunagar district, where Sivakasi is located, has school enrolment rates equivalent to that of the state at large, according to a 2010 survey by the education non-profit organisation Pratham. However, according to a 2005 survey by the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan—the government programme that aims to ensure that all children get an elementary school education—Virudhunagar had the highest percentage (45%) of families with out-of-school children, citing a compulsion to earn as the reason for not going to school.

The young workers themselves may be ambivalent about change. “I have been rolling firecracker tubes for the past four years," C. Pandi, 16, of Vijayakarisalkulam village, said last week. “I don’t want to go to school." For now, an income of 500-1,000 a week trumps concerns about safety and education.