Chinese, Shivkashi Onslaught Making Barpeta Fireworks Industry Struggle
“The floods have washed away everything this year. From the raw materials to our utensils, bamboo, timber, our land, everything gone!” said the owner of the century old Assam Fireworks Industries of Barpeta during a telephone conversation with this reporter of G Plus.
An industry that was the pride of Barpeta district for decades with a number of families dependent on the business that it generated is now facing near extinction.
“Last year it was the rains and this year the floods have finished us; in my lifetime I haven’t seen any government support coming our way. The roads leading to our factories and offices have deteriorated so much that the business environment is totally lost today,” lamented Dipmoni Pathak, the current proprietor of Assam Fireworks Industries – an enterprise that was started way back in 1885 by entrepreneur Lakhiram Pathak.
Fanoos, Chereki, Kamrup Express, Toramai, Radhachura are some of the products from China and Tamil Nadu’s Shivkashi that are today flooding the markets of Guwahati and the rest of the state.
Fireworks of Barpeta, Assam
Fireworks of Barpeta date back to about 130 years and are locally called 'fotoka'. Late Lakshiram Pathak of Mojorhati was the founder of the fireworks industries in Barpeta. He started the industry after going through a Bengali book on Chinese fireworks published in 1885 which gave an idea of cracker‐making techniques. The industry was also patronised by Queen Victoria who was satisfied with the work of Lakshiram Pathak and awarded him a gold medal and donated two bighas of land at Bilortarihati Barpeta to ply his trade. In 1910, Pathak was awarded a licence from the British government to carry on with his trade. After Pathak’s death, his son Late Narahari Pathak continued the legacy of traditional firework production process. Within the family other entrepreneurs like Late Monoranjan Pathak of Brindaban Hati, Nalini Pathak and Achinta Pathak of Majorhati, Late Amrendra Pathak, Late Niren Pathak, Gopjit Pathak and Deepmani Pathak of Bilortarihati all established firework industries separately. Two grandsons of Late Lakshiram Pathak through his son Late Ananta Pathak took up firework making even though their own father had not. There are altogether five Pathak families today at Majorihat near Barpeta town. They engage local labourers and around 30 to 35 potter families in the trade.
The firework industry of Barpeta today bears a distinctive mark of excellence and identity. Customized fireworks are manufactured as per the needs and objectives of their special clients, best suited for the occasion. Especially before the clients decide to place their orders, the cracker‐makers send representatives to them to place the particular idea and variety of the product. These aspects gave these crackers an extra edge over its competitors as the service provided by the cracker‐makers was exclusive to their customers. During Diwali, marriage seasons, festivals or ceremonies, prominent clients who want special pyro‐shows only have to put forward their needs. But, somewhere down the line, the much‐expected growth in the sector is not being achieved due to acute financial crisis and other issues.
Barpeta’s proposed Atosbaji Village
The Assam government, under Chief Ministers’ development fund, has sanctioned Rs 7 crores to District Industries and Commerce Centre along with allotment of total 30 acres of land to set up Barpeta Atosbaji Village. After a rough patch in 2012, the 127‐year old industry is set to have a common facility centre along with other facilities. From the seven crore rupees, the government has sanctioned Rs 3.5 crores to Assam Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (AIIDC) on March 2013 and Rs 1 crore has been released for construction of boundary wall and land filling. Each of the five firecracker units has been allotted two acres of land. According to the scheme, all necessary infrastructures will be provided by AIIDC and handed over to the firecracker units. Gopjit Pathak, along with four others, was oriented in Shivkasi. They supply these firecrackers to the northeast with prices a little higher than those fetched by the Shivkasi ones. This industry procures most of its raw materials from Kolkata.
The following seven raw materials are procured from Kolkata which are not available in Guwahati.
With combinations of different proportions of the above materials, different products of fire crackers are manufactured. For example bombs require Aluminium power, Sora and Sulphur.
There are about 50‐60 agents, traders and shopkeepers spread across different locations mainly in the northeastern states with whom the unit proprietor has a business tie‐up. The retail shop owners and the firework traders deal with marriage ceremonial items, gifts, cards, Bihu festival items etc. There are seven of them in Guwahati, three in Dibrugarh, one in Shillong, one in Nagaon, one in Biswanath Chariali, one in Tezpur, one in New Bongaigaon, one in Kokrajhar etc.
Dipmoni Pathak of Assam Fireworks Industries talks to G Plus
In the opinion of Dipmoni Pathak, Barpeta’s fire crackers are of good quality as compared to other brands in the market. The entire production process is very manual labour intensive; there is no mechanized production process. The cost of Barpeta firework products is higher than Shivkasi. Waste paper is a major crisis and not easily available locally. In Shivkasi, it is available at a fixed procuring source at a competitive price. Wages to the labour is high in Barpeta (Rs 250 in addition to refreshment and lunch). In Shivkasi the entire family of 5‐6 members including small children gets involved and earns Rs 150‐200 per day. There the children also earn Rs 30‐40 per day.
Barpeta has only 5 firework units and as compared to Shivkasi which has more than 800 units and is supported by state government schemes and guidelines. So far there has been no support provided on marketing by the state government. Some fixed retail stalls in Guwahati and other NE state capitals will be of good support.
The products are sold at wholesale rates in most of the districts of Assam from 15‐20 locations such as Dibrugarh, Tezpur, Guwahati, Laxmipur, Odalguri, Kokrajhar, Goalpara etc. During festivals, a few products are also sold from 8‐10 locations of Delhi and Haryana. Locally it is mostly sold during marriages and Diwali. The unit has a permit license but during Diwali, the state also issues temporary licenses.
What does Shivkasi have that Barpeta does not?
In Shivkasi, there are more than 800 registered and unregistered firework units as compared to five in Barpeta, Assam. Hence they have the advantage on quantity across the country.
All Shivkasi products have small varieties with good attractively coloured labels and packaging and hence are transported well across the country. The customers directly use the product. Barpeta fireworks, on the other hand, are mostly large in size and transported in bags, boxes or cartons carried by 1‐2 unit staff members.
The Shivkasi products have good packaging and instructions. The chemical formulas of Shivkasi and Barpeta are same but the major difference is Shivkasi products last for two years as they use aluminium and silver dust but in Barpeta the units use cast iron dust which gets affected after one year.
In Shivkasi, the local DIC office has a full‐fledged training centre that offers regular training modules on technical and technological issues by experienced engineers and subject experts.
Weather in Shivkasi is hot and there is no agricultural land. Hence, firework activity is the key source of livelihood. Labour is easily available at competitive wages. A family of 5‐6 members with two adults and 3‐4 children earn Rs 150‐200 per day.
Product wise, Shivkasi fire rockets have been banned in many places as the burnt residue damages when it falls on the ground. As compared to those rockets Barpeta Asman Gola is safer. The entire casing stays back in same place on the ground and the explosive materials get burnt in the sky.
Barpeta has no licensed supplier for explosive materials. The local government should provide license to start a unit locally. It is expensive to source explosive materials from Kolkata. Locally in Barpeta town there is one license retailer selling all varieties of fireworks along with gifts and stationary.
Barpeta Traditional Firework clusters
There is a huge demand of firework products with wholesale and assured market channels for bulk products within Assam and northeast region which is estimated to be approximately Rs 200 crores.
The demand for Barpeta fireworks is more than the units can collectively supply.
Barpeta firework products over the years enjoy goodwill and are known for quality as compared to Shivkasi or cheap Chinese products.
The five units are the one of the oldest firework manufacturers in the region and hence also enjoy the price monopoly.
Apart from the key chemicals and explosive materials, the rest of the raw materials – bamboo, terracotta pots, papers, jute, charcoal and other materials are easily available locally.
The units customize manufacturing of fireworks as per special needs of clients, best suited for the occasions like marriages, inauguration & closing ceremonies, festivals, special ceremonies like birthdays, marriage anniversaries etc.
Though engagement of manual labour is an issue, the units have their own young and trusted workforce that seems willing to be fully engaged with this activity.
The state government is interested to revive, expand and invest on traditional firework industries of Barpeta. It has already invested on allotment of 30 bighas of land to accommodate 10 firework units in the first phase with construction of complete facilities and infrastructure.
Barpeta product range does not focus on standard fireworks that can be executed by individual consumers (i.e. consumer/household fireworks) – while the mainstay of the market supplies from other cluster appears to be such products. Most of the Barpeta traditional firework products are large in size and expensive for the common man. There is no smaller size of the same product line such as Charkhi, Sun Bazi, Fanoos, Letter Gash, Asman or Matar Gola which can be purchased by a common end user.
Since the units have not dealt with consumer fireworks, there is limited understanding of likely or unforeseeable misuse in hands of consumers. So while shifting to smaller size products is feasible, cautionary labeling which warns consumers of the potential dangers associated with that firework and tells them guidelines for use do not exist with the manufacturer.
The mainstay of Barpeta Atosbaji is pyrotechnic display (execution of the fireworks) – but capability to execute large displays is not there. Exposure to execution at such scale is also not there.
Poor infrastructure on work stations, workspace, storage, low on resources and poor manufacturing facilities of all the units is another weakness.
The Barpeta firework products are known for their good quality but lack finishing and standardization and hence, since last several years, have not developed an established brand identity.
During monsoons, due to high moisture and humidity content, the production stops completely.
Products cannot be transported by train due to safety laws. For transporting by road there is no proper packaging effort and approach to minimize the damage of products. This lack of appropriate packaging also limits the products transportation to long distances to other north eastern regions or even few pockets of India.
The five units do not have a standard registration or updated valid explosive license either from DIC or under the Explosives Act once issue of explosive license was stopped from Guwahati after Assam disturbances from 1980 onwards.
Unit workers work in open field without any dedicated workstation. There is no proper system of storage of explosive chemicals, raw materials, hand‐tools, finished products, with any safety measures or gears for workers making the entire premise vulnerable to accidents.
The firework products look unfinished and rudimentary. The finished product is just wrapped with simple coloured paper with no identity, logo, instructions, product code and specifications etc.
The next generation is less interested in practicing the activity. So skill erosion is likely after the present generation.
Where do the Barpeta firework products go?
5% of the products of Barpeta are sold loose to stationary and gift shops of the state. 60% of the products find their way to the wholesale markets of Assam and other northeastern states. It is worth mentioning that 10% of the products are sold to various government departments of Assam and other northeastern states. 5% of the products are retailed and customized for various festivals, marriage ceremonies and various other occasions.