Rampant child labour in Sivakasi is not a new thing, nor are the frequent accidents in the fireworks factories crowding the parched Virudhunagar district. But a heart-rending 25-minute film, Tragedy buried in Happiness by a Korean broadcaster, Teagu Broadcasting Corporation, on the exploitation of children of Keezhapatti village and the gruesome accidents that left teenagers, Chithra and Karuppusamy, deformed for life, has brought back into focus the administrative apathy to Sivakasi’s children.
Keezhapatti village near Sivakasi hides a dark secret. Four years ago, Chithra was involved in an accident while working in a fireworks factory. Cowering behind a bath sheet, Chithra tries to hide from Hyuk Soo Seo’s camera. Naturally, she does not want the world to see her scarred face and the deformed mass of flesh that constitutes the top portion of her body. But the camera catches her expressive eyes.
Doomed to live within the four walls of her home, Chithra has not received much compensation, either from the company where she worked or from the district administration. Her mother, Sunderambal is apprehensive about even discussing the issue. She does not want to mention the name of the company. All that she laments about now is that it would have cost just Rs 2 lakh for a plastic surgery, and a new life for her child.
When asked what’s her ambition is in life, Chithra says, “I want to work again and pay back all the debts taken for my treatment,” she mutters from behind the sheet she clutches tightly to her face.
But there are many like Chithra in ‘Kutty Japan (Little Japan),’ as Sivakasi is called, where the fireworks business generates an annual business of around Rs 1,000 crore.
Karuppusamy, sits with members of his family in front of his hut, packing gun powder into cylindrical tubes. The camera pans to his face, grabbing the sight of his totally scarred and deformed face and hands. Does it hurt now, he is asked. “No,” says 14-year-old Karupussamy, flexing his shriveled hands.
His father, Lingam, says that a small compensation was given. But the father was made to sign a statement which said the accident in which Karuppusamy was involved did not take place in the factory where he had worked earlier.
Muneeswari (13) has been working for the last two years in a match factory. Her little brother, barely eight years old, accompanies her. Her hands are coarse and have a yellow tinge. Nothing to do with ‘maruthani’ or henna. The camera next catches a factory worker showing cyanide powder being added in the gum preparation used to seal the match boxes with the blue-coloured paper.
“Just because the kids who work in the factories got into the habit of eating the paste when they were hungry, the factory owners began to add cyanide powder to the gum preparation. This stains every hand that works for this industry,” says G Subramanian, executive director of Manitham, a human rights organisation, which helped the Korean company to shoot the film.
Muneeswari tells her visitors that she gets paid Rs 100. “For a day?” she is asked. “No, for a week. I work from 7 am to 6 pm,” she says. She is an important breadwinner for her family of five. Suhasini (13) makes 4,000 match boxes a day from 8 am to 5 pm and gets paid Rs 40. The Manitham activists claim that while the district administration says that there are only 1,700 children working, there could easily be 100,000 children toiling in the fireworks and matches factory blatantly ignoring safety precautions.