This Diwali, Chinese Firework Makers See Little to Celebrate

2017-10-19 10:38:35

As cities across India celebrate the Hindu festival of lights today, many Chinese traders are resigned to a dim Diwali.

Zheng Yi has been supplying raw materials from her hometown in central Hunan province to Indian fireworks manufacturers for the past five years. Recently, however, the slowing Indian economy and stricter government regulations have put a strain on her business.

“This year, orders are down by 50 percent,” the 45-year-old from Liuyang, China’s fireworks capital, told Sixth Tone.

On Oct. 9, India’s supreme court reinstated a ban on the sale of fireworks until Nov. 1 around New Delhi in order to safeguard the air quality of the capital, which has become one of the unhealthiest cities in the world. The court first issued the ban last November, after the New Delhi was enveloped in thick smog exacerbated by fireworks set off during Diwali celebrations.

Millions of people in India, neighboring Nepal, and other parts of the world celebrate the festival of lights, which honors Lord Rama, a hero in Hindu mythology, for vanquishing the demon king Ravana and returning from 14 years of exile. Hindus traditionally lit oil lamps in clay vessels to welcome Rama upon his return. Though this ritual is still widely practiced, fireworks were thrown in at some point for a little extra pomp and pizzazz.

Though India is the world’s second-largest producer of fireworks after China, an estimated 40 percent of domestically available products still come from its closest competitor. The Chinese versions are cheaper and give a bigger bang because many of them contain potassium chlorate, a chemical banned in both countries. But despite the Indian government placing restrictions on imports and Indian politicians calling for greater protections for homegrown products, some $230 million worth of firecrackers were smuggled from China ahead of last year’s festival.

“Instructed Secy. Environment to ensure complete Ban on Chinese Crackers in Delhi as these are hazardous,” Kapil Mishra, then India’s interim environment minister, posted on Twitter in September 2016 during a government crackdown on smuggled firecrackers.

This year, the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India predicted that the amount of Chinese goods — including fireworks — sold during Diwali is likely to dip by 40 to 45 percent because of quality concerns and a preference for domestically made products. Last year, over $1 billion in festive holiday items from China, such as electric lamps and other decorations, were sold in India.

Another potential damper on trade between the two countries is lingering resentment from a border dispute over the summer that spawned social media campaigns in India to boycott Chinese products.

From the Chinese side, Zhen is aware of the situation and said she only exports materials allowed under Indian law. On her trips to Chennai, India’s own fireworks hub, the businesswomen said she often came across Chinese products. She added that she knows of at least one factory in Liuyang that still manages to ship dozens of consignments to India.

But for most of China’s fireworks makers, changing regulations abroad and at home have caused their fervor to fizzle. Hundreds of Chinese cities banned fireworks during the lunar new year celebrations in February, leaving the communities whose livelihoods depend on the industry at a loss.

“It’s becoming more difficult to do fireworks-related business in China,” Zhen said matter-of-factly. “That’s why I expanded to India and other countries in the first place.”

Additional reporting: Lin Qiqing; editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: An Indian woman holds her child and watches fireworks during Diwali, the festival of lights, in New Delhi, Oct. 23, 2014. Altaf Qadri/IC)