By Saurav Bora
They have braved the odds to protect a “sparkling” legacy spanning over 13 decades.
But lack of government support, as claimed by the fireworks artisans here, has been harming them commercially for years now, especially when “inferior quality” crackers from Sivakasi (in Tamil Nadu) and a chunk of eye-catching imported items are literally invading markets in the North East.
“We have not been able to make much headway economically primarily because of the lack of access to subsidised raw material, which increases our cost of production and subsequently reflects on the selling price,” Ramani Mohan Pathak, co-proprietor of Manoranjan Fireworks, one of the five major firms engaged in the trade in Barpeta town, told The Shillong Times.
“The point here is that the quality which characterises Barpeta’s fireworks cannot be compromised despite high input costs for which we have to sell our products at relatively higher prices. Thus, cheaper, comparatively inferior quality crackers from Sivakasi have overtaken us in the Diwali market,” Pathak said.
The fireworks industry in the lower Assam district operates under the Barpeta Atasbaji Silpa Somobai Samiti. At present, about 60 workers are engaged in the five units.
The fireworks here are handmade unlike the better packaged variety from Sivakasi.
Over the years, umpteen pleas before the state government for making raw materials such as sulphur, potassium nitrate, cast iron particles and charcoal available at subsidised rates have fallen on deaf ears.
“The major raw materials are procured from Kolkata for which we are paying three times more to bring them here. This eats into our profit margins. It hurts us because we are yet to be better off economically,” Pathak rued, as he dexterously demonstrated the mixture prepared manually inside a flowerpot in the backyard of his Brindabanhati residence.
Worse still, over the past five years or so, a section of manufacturers in neighbouring Nalbari district have allegedly been imitating the trade, manufacturing inferior products and selling them as “Barpeta firecrackers”.
“This is a real worry as we value our products and the fact that we have not deviated from tradition and principle for profits is testimony to our unflinching conviction to preserve our legacy. But a section of unscrupulous traders are compromising on the raw material mixture, using sand to save on input costs, which affects quality and maligns our image,” Gunajit Pathak, another member of the firm, said.
The prices of the products range from Rs 25 to Rs 2000 in the retail market.
It may be mentioned that the fireworks industry here was given a logo designed by the National Institute of Design a few years back but he manufacturers have not been able to capitalize on it.
“We have used the logo only on the receipts to buyers but not been able to use it on the products as a result of which out items are being imitated. We have requested authorities to provide suitable packaging material so that the logo can be printed on the products,” Gunajit said.
The Assam Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation under the state commerce and industry department had implemented a Rs 7crore project – Fireworks Village – at Ganak Kuchi here a few years back but nothing has changed since.
As on date, a locked, unused modern complex with a handful of cattle grazing in the portions left for grass to grow is what one gets to see.
“Spaces for five units were allotted at the Fireworks Village but with no active power and water supply connections we have preferred not to go there. Worse still, a water pump has been stolen. Besides, there is a whopping power bill pending as one of the firms had occupied the space for a brief period,” said Gunajit, as he shared a letter from AIIDC in March last year asking the firms to complete the formalities for the lease deed within 20 days.
“There is a need for grooming the artisans with packaging skills so that the products appear attractive,” he added.
Now with Diwali just about two months away, the artisans will take fresh guard by the end of August so that the products ready for retailers on time.
“Diwali is our peak season but we also prepare items for the Raas festival and for occasions such as weddings,” Gunajit said.
However, barring Assam and some pockets in Northeast, the fireworks have not been able to penetrate markets outside the region.
Barpeta Atasbaji Silpa Somobai Samiti president, Gopjit Pathak lamented that despite being a local industry and a tradition nurtured over a century now, the government has not paid attention to their needs.
“It is a shame that outsiders have taken away a major chunk of the market. Our products, which comprise only a minuscule portion of the Northeast market, are of superior quality and do not cause pollution as the casing material primarily comprises natural ingredients,” Gopjit told this correspondent at his Bilartari Hati residence here.