India’s firecracker hub hit by anti-pollution drive

Sivakasi district in past years supplied 90-95 percent of India’s firecrackers with revenues of around $800 million. (AFP)
Updated 25 October 2019

India’s firecracker hub hit by anti-pollution drive

  • Just before Diwali last year, India’s top court ruled only ‘green crackers’ that emit fewer pollutants could be used

SIVAKASI, India: With thousands of workers painstakingly handmaking vast volumes of firecrackers, Sivakasi in southern India is usually at full tilt before Diwali. But due to efforts to curb air pollution, the pyrotechnics epicenter is fizzling out.
In addition to gifts, elaborate feasts and family get-togethers, the Hindu mega-festival of lights, which falls this weekend, has in recent years also meant setting off firecrackers — millions of them.
Their smoke combines with other emissions to turn the air of India’s cities — among the world’s most polluted — into a deadly, sickly yellow cocktail that one study says kills a million Indians prematurely every year.
Just before Diwali last year, India’s top court ruled only “green crackers” that emit fewer pollutants could be used.
But although the police tried to enforce the new rules, most people set off the old type regardless.
Confusion still surrounds the regulations, but signs in Sivakasi district, which in past years supplied 90-95 percent of India’s firecrackers with revenues of around $800 million, suggest the 2019 blowout will be quieter.
“Usually after Diwali the people come to us and place orders for the next Diwali and even give some advance payment,” said D Mathan, director of Lima Fireworks — one of around 1,000 manufacturers in Sivakasi.
“It didn’t happen this time around,” he said. Production at his company has plunged almost 60 percent.
The industry is the biggest local job creator, directly or indirectly employing hundreds of thousands of people, many of them uneducated women, churning out boxes of crackers with names like “Napoleon Total War.”
Now many don’t know what they will do.
“Some people migrated to other jobs like daily wage laborers, farm laborers and construction workers,” Arvind Kumar, a factory employee in the district in Tamil Nadu state, said.
Many producers switched to manufacturing the “green crackers” after receiving training and assistance from the government. But being more expensive, sales have been slow.
G Karuppasamy, 65, a Sivakasi firecracker shopkeeper and wholesaler, said that sales have slumped almost 50 percent as orders from around India have dried up.
“Authorities talk about pollution but we don’t pollute much compared to others. And one day doesn’t make a difference for the rest of the year,” he said.
“The government shouldn’t clamp down on us. Everyone in a 30-kilometer radius is dependent on this sector. Sivakasi’s existence isn’t possible without this sector,” he added.

Thai rice farmers shun ‘big agribusiness’ and fight climate change

Updated 29 min 49 sec ago

Thai rice farmers shun ‘big agribusiness’ and fight climate change

  • Traditional Thai rice farmers earn around 3,000 baht a month ($100)
  • Rice is a staple in the diet of around three billion people globally

MAE RIM, Thailand: Battling drought, debt and ailments blamed on pesticides, rice farmers in northern Thailand have turned to eco-friendly growing methods despite powerful agribusiness interests in a country that is one of the top exporters of the grain in the world.

Walking through a sea of green waist-high stalks, farmer Sunnan Somjak said his fields were “exhausted” by chemicals, his family regularly felt ill, and his profits were too low to make ends meet.

But that changed when he joined a pilot agricultural project for the SRI method, which aims to boost yields while shunning pesticides and using less water.

“Chemicals can destroy everything,” the 58-year-old said, adding that the harvest in his village in Chiang Mai province has jumped 40 percent since employing the new method.

There have been health benefits too. “It’s definitely better, we don’t get sick any more,” he added.

SRI was invented in the 1980s in Madagascar by a French Jesuit priest, and the technique has spread globally.

It works by planting crops wider apart — thus drawing in more nutrients and light — and limiting the amount of water that gets into fields, which helps micro-organisms flourish to act as natural fertilizers.

In a plus for debt-laden farmers, it also uses fewer seeds, and they are encouraged to use plants and ginger roots that naturally deter insects rather than chemical alternatives — meaning fewer expenses.

Traditional Thai rice farmers earn around 3,000 baht a month ($100) but Sunnan was able to increase his income by 20 percent after adopting the SRI method.
“I’ve finally got rid of my debts,” he told AFP.

Rice is a staple in the diet of around three billion people globally. But agricultural workers are locked in a vicious cycle: beset by drought and floods brought on by climate change, the farmers contribute to the disruption as their fields release methane and nitrous oxide, two greenhouse gases.

With SRI, paddy fields are not permanently flooded, which reduces methane emissions by 60 percent, according to Tristan Lecomte, founder of Pur Projet, a French company supporting the technique.

The project also helped Sunnan plant trees around his crops to reinforce the water table.

According to Lecomte, rice yields can jump from 20 percent to more than 100 compared to the traditional method.

Southeast Asia, where agriculture supports millions, is slowly embracing SRI.

The US-based Cornell University created a center specializing in the technique in 2010 and more than two million farmers in the region — especially from Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos — have been trained.

In Bac Giang province in northern Vietnam, net profits for farmers were as much as 226 percent higher after adopting the SRI method than when using traditional ones, according to Abha Mishra, who led a large project on behalf of the Asian Institute of Technology.

The Philippines, which grows rice but is also one of the world’s leading importers, is also interested in this method and the Ministry of Agriculture has started training farmers.

The method is also used in parts of India, China, and Africa. But, while there is support from NGOs, as well as some scientists and authorities, it still has a long way to go before widespread adoption.

It faces resistance domestically from agribusiness as there is no new hybrid seed or fertilizer to sell.

Industry lobbies are very active in Southeast Asia, particularly in Thailand, one of the largest users of pesticides in the world.

And they recently won a big battle over chemical use in agriculture.

Thai authorities, who had committed to ban controversial glyphosate, backtracked at the end of November, deciding that “limited” use would eventually be allowed.

The use of two other herbicides has also been extended. Lecomte says the other challenge potentially impacting the rate of adoption is the SRI method is quite complex to learn and it is labor intensive.

“You have to plant one by one and closely control the amount water,” he explained, adding that the extra manual effort required means some farmers don’t want to try the method, and others give up early on.

Sunnan admits that his workload is heavier but the financial and health benefits make it worth it in the end. He added: “It is safe for our body, and the environment.”