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A “sparkling” legacy spanning 135 years has hit a roadblock!
Suffering a double whammy - the lack of demand for its brand of handmade, “high-quality” firecrackers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with a consistent slide in business in recent years - Assam’s firecracker hub, Barpeta stares at a “dim” future amid alleged government apathy and rising input costs.
Now with just three days left for the “Festival of Lights” – Diwali – there is hardly any buzz or activity in the manufacturing units of the lower Assam town.
“For the first time in many decades, we have had no bulk orders for our brand of handmade firecrackers, that too, three days ahead of the festival. Such demand, in the earlier years, used to be at a peak by October. Our business hinges and thrives on Diwali. But not this year, as the pandemic and the little to no demand for our products, has hit us very hard,” rues Gunajit Pathak of Manoranjan Fireworks at Brindabanhati in Barpeta town.
The fireworks industry in the lower Assam district operates under the Barpeta Atasbaji Silpa Somobai Samiti. About 60 workers are engaged in the five manufacturing units, set up in residential areas.
“There are hardly any workers in the units now, as we cannot afford to pay them in these trying times. Whatever small orders we get from local areas, other towns and cities are from families, not from institutions. So you can imagine our plight. The government too has not given us any subsidy regarding the raw material required to manufacture the firecrackers,” Pathak said.
The units buy the primary ingredients such as sulphur, potassium nitrate, cast iron particles and charcoal through distributors who bring them from Kolkata and other places.
“Umpteen requests for subsidy on raw materials have not been responded to by the state industries department over the years,” he said.
Worse still, the restrictions imposed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) this year against pollution caused by firecrackers in the pandemic's wake have affected the fireworks market.
The Assam Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation under the state commerce and industry department had implemented a Rs 7 crore project – Fireworks Village – at Ganak Kuchi a few years back.
“The Atasbaji Village (as they call it) remains a non-starter, even as the industries department has asked the five units to operate from the facility. But how can we operate in the absence of power connections, water supply, and of course, security at the facility, as thefts have been committed over the years,” he reasoned.
The livelihoods of many families linked to Barpeta’s fireworks industry have been at stake for a few years now.
In the earlier years, the flooding of cheap Chinese products, and cheaper, “inferior-quality” firecrackers from Sivakasi had dented the market for the higher-priced firecrackers somewhat.
Going by the turn of events in this pandemic year, a turnaround for the industry does not seem to be likely, at least soon.
“We can only hope that the situation improves next year, and the government addresses our issues to bail us out from this slump,” Pathak said.
(Edited by Andre Kongri)