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The shame of Sivakasi: Dead eyes in its living children

September 13, 2012 16:19 IST
That Sivakasi has also killed over time, albeit very slowly, numerous child-workers engaged in matchbox production is scarcely registered on the national conscience, says Shreekant Sambrani

Every so often, Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu, the firecracker and calendar printing capital of India, breaks into national news because of an accident in one of the factories causing many fatalities, as happened on September 5. This is soon forgotten in a country inured to such safety lapses, however horrific they may be.

That Sivakasi has also killed over time, albeit very slowly, numerous child-workers engaged in matchbox production is scarcely registered on the national conscience. Current media reports just barely mention Sivakasi's connection with exploitation of children, even in this age of heightened awareness of social evils. In the same week, the Lok Sabha passed a bill banning child labour amidst the prevailing din.

Sivakasi and the surrounding districts of Tamil Nadu are particularly suited for manual match production because of the hot, dry climate and large labour availability due to paucity of occupations. The first match units came up in the 1930s. The activity picked up after the 1960s for two reasons. First, the government policy favoured small, manual manufacturing facilities over large, mechanised ones. Second, India's sole mechanised match manufacturer, Wimco, faced daunting restrictions including frozen capacity.

It was a FERA company, a subsidiary of the pioneering Swedish Match, which refused to dilute its ownership below 40 per cent. Wimco's market share dwindled from 75 per cent in the 1950s to under 20 per cent by the mid-1980s. Manual units, using no machinery and comprising small scale and cottage categories, grew in numbers and capacity. Cottage firms could employ no more than 10 workers each and produce no more than 50 million matchboxes a year. By contrast, Wimco's five factories together had an annual capacity of five billion boxes.

The cottage sector is estimated to have over 10,000 units, 60 per cent of which are in the South. It is common knowledge that most of these are fronts for the 18 dominant middle segment firms, formed under benami ownership or as co-operatives to avail of the benefits offered.

The smaller units were always charged a lower excise duty as compared to Wimco. The 1979 Charan Singh budget increased the difference substantially: Wimco had to pay Rs 7.20 per gross while cottage units were taxed at Rs 1.60. The gap was later reduced by ND Tiwari but was still considerable at Rs 5.80 for Wimco and Rs 1.60 for cottage companies. State sales taxes also discriminated in favour of handmade matches.

The heart of the handmade process is dipping sticks first in wax and then in the hazardous "head" mixture of potassium chlorate and other incendiary chemicals. The sticks are fitted into a wooden frame with 50 grooves (one for each match in a box). After air-drying, the matches are removed, sized and filled in boxes. This requires dexterity and small fingers. The obvious option is to employ small children, many under 10, or young women. Boys and girls above 15 are deemed unsuitable because of larger fingers.

Almost all manual units depend on juvenile workers for this delicate yet dangerous operation. The growth of the firecracker industry has reduced the availability of adult workers and pushed up their wages, making a recourse to child labour even more attractive for the match factories.

Swedish media, obviously not unbiased, published accounts of children's employment to persuade their government to protest to India. Indira Gandhi ordered a crackdown on children's employment in the early 1980s. Within a week, massive demonstrations by child workers and their families in Sivakasi and Delhi, demanding dole as an alternative, made the government backtrack.

Kamaljit Singh, the long-time Wimco managing director, asked me in 1987 to make an independent assessment of the situation (without consulting the Wimco staff) for a presentation to the Swedish Match board. I travelled extensively in the area and visited dozens of units. No one made any effort to hide the children or withhold information.

What I found was too stark for even one who had spent over 15 years researching rural poverty in all corners of the country. A typical unit was a 20 sq m shed, which also stored raw materials. About eight children and two adults was the labour complement. They worked from dawn to dusk, with two 15-minute breaks for meagre refreshments. Most children were under 10, and worked squatting on the floor, bent from the waist.

No one spoke. They answered in monosyllables when interviewed. Almost all had racking coughs and scabbed, calloused fingers from their exposure to the chemicals. Mention of schools brought forth wistful shy smiles, implying that they were not for them. Everyone was worried as to what they would do in a few years even as they were still children.  Many parents said that older children often fell sick. Nearly all the families had histories of early deaths of their children.  

For all this, the children were paid piece rate wages, seldom exceeding Rs 5 a day. Many had a part of this grand sum deducted towards repayment of the advance or loan to their families.

I told the Swedish Match board that not just the duty differential but even the basic cost structure of the handmade sector put Wimco at a disadvantage. Massimo Rossi, the managing director, recalled that a similar situation existed in his native Sicily half a century ago, but the efficient large scale Swedish Match mechanised manufacturing overcame that handicap. "No machine yet invented is more cost-effective than the nimble fingers of a 10-year old paid starvation wages," was my answer.

I have since revisited the area, the last being in 2002, and found no significant changes.  The Swedes finally pulled out of Wimco, now a subsidiary of ITC. Its production stagnated and caused losses. The cottage units continue as before. Perhaps fewer children work now, in view of the overall prosperity and better relief programmes such as MNREGS. But I am sure I would still find numerous children dipping those frames in the explosive mixture day after day.

Of the many blemishes on our record, none is worse than the ill-treatment of children. It is bad enough that 42 per cent of them under the age of five are undernourished.  Continued child employment in such inhuman and dangerous conditions is decidedly shameful.

The publicity material for Sivakasi calls it "kutty" (mini) Japan, as a testimonial to its enterprise. I shudder to think how the diligently law-abiding and safety-conscious Japanese would react to this empire based on sweated child labour and disregard of even the rudimentary precautions.

A haunting picture of a dead little girl, her unseeing eyes wide open, appeared on the cover of Time Bhopal gas tragedy issue. I have seen the same dead eyes, devoid of all hope, in the living children of Sivakasi.

Shreekant Sambrani