Diwali is around the corner and Chinese-made crackers are doing roaring business in India. Government restrictions imposed two years ago on the import, possession and sale of firecrackers of foreign origin have made no dent on their sales. Nor has a social media movement over the past month calling for a boycott of Chinese goods as a way of protesting against Beijing’s continued support for Pakistan.

It's an old story. Every year, before Diwali, state governments, including Delhi, issue notifications against the sale and purchase of Chinese crackers, claiming that they cause greater environmental damage than other kinds of fireworks. This is special concern at a time when several Indian cities have made it to the top of the World Health Organisation’s list of most-polluted cities.

According to experts, Chinese firecrackers release sulphur dioxide and nitrogen monoxide, both considered to be hazardous to health.

This year, the Delhi government has formed 11 teams, each led by a sub-divisional magistrate, to crack down on traders dealing in illegally imported firecrackers.

Earlier this month, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, a customs department wing, seized eight containers full of Chinese firecrackers valued at Rs 11 crores.

Across the country, Chinese firecrackers valued at Rs 20 crores have been seized this year, the agency said in a statement last month.

Seizures were reported at ports in Mumbai, Chennai and Gujarat apart from inland container depots in Delhi and Ludhiana, officials said.

While government agencies claim to have strengthened vigil, an association of firecracker manufacturers in Tamil Nadu’s Sivakasi town – which produces 80% of the crackers sold in the domestic market – said the government figures were just the tip of the iceberg.

Year-long import cycle

Domestic manufacturers said that such crackdowns just before the festival season do not help because smuggling occurs through the year.

“Traders place orders by the end of Diwali to ensure sufficient stock for the next Diwali,” said a fireworks dealer from Assam who did not want to be identified. “The order can be placed either by visiting China or through agents. It usually arrives in India in April in the garb of legitimate shipment consignment.”

He said it was a misconception that the entire stock is sold during Diwali, when vigilance is at its highest. “Traders focus more on wedding seasons and occasions like New Year, when there is almost no competition from local brands and they can ensure a profit margin beyond 500%,” he added.

He said there are traders who sell 70% of their stock by the time Diwali arrives.

Getting the goods in

Despite the many restrictions, smuggled crackers seem to make it into the country with ease. Custom officials, traders and revenue intelligence officials said that fireworks are often concealed in consignments of consumer goods such as sports items, furniture, children’s toys and coffee mugs.

The trader in Assam said there are syndicates in various parts of the country that engage agents on both sides and help the cracker consignments clear customs illegally.

“A lot of importers create sham companies for the purpose," said a senior official in the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, who did not wish to be identified. "They use dummy import-export codes and are well connected with customs brokers.”

The agency has a risk management division that keeps track of such developments and works round-the-year on finding ways to improve the detection of restricted items, including firecrackers.

Desi versus foreign

However, the seizures are just a minuscule proportion of the foreign crackers making their way into India, said G Aribuben, president of the Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers Association. “The Chinese firecrackers have eaten up a significant portion of the domestic market and today, the size of the industry is assumed to have crossed Rs 2,000 crores.”

The domestic market is estimated to be worth Rs 3,750 crores.

Aribuben said the large market for Chinese crackers in India is not necessarily because of high demand. “There is a general misconception that people specifically ask for China-made firecrackers and that they are very cheap,” he said. “Traders sell them because they get huge margins owing to the low cost of production, attributed to both labour and cheap materials used.”

Pollution watch

As they light up Diwali night, these colourful crackers also fill the air with pollutants.

Polash Mukerjee, research associate at the Clean Air and Sustainable Mobility unit of the Centre for Science and Environment, said firecrackers inherently cause severe pollution but the ones made in China are often worse as they contain potassium chlorate, potassium chloride and sulfates, which on combustion release sulphur dioxide and nitrogen monoxide. Both byproducts are considered hazardous to health, contributing to a range of respiratory and pulmonary diseases.

“It is surprising that several cities in China, from where our traders illicitly import firecrackers, have imposed bans and stringent restrictions on the use of firecrackers,” he said.

By early 2015, 138 cities in China had banned fireworks while another 536 cities had imposed restrictions, according to the Ministry of Public Security. The decision was attributed to the steep rise in pollution levels in the country, the Xinhua News Agency reported.