Colourful festivities get under way as communities around the world celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year.
Kimbulapitiya, Sri Lanka – The heavy, metallic apparatus standing in R Lorrence’s garage seems out of place. Its design is simple: a pneumatic pump to help pack a mix of explosive chemicals into a slender plastic tube, exerting a powerful pressure.
It is the only machine in this little cottage firework factory – everything else here is made by hand.
“My son designed this,” Lorrence says, explaining with pride that the boy studied science in school. When the rocket is lit, it explodes upwards, whistling its way towards the sky.
Having made its debut just last year, it is the most sophisticated technology Kimbulapitiya manufacturers have access to.
This little village in the south of the island is known all over Sri Lanka as rathinna gammanaya – literally, the “fireworks village”.
However, when Kimbulapitiya makes headlines, it is rarely good news. Each year, on average, four or five people die in this rural community, says Lorrence, the founding chairman of the Fireworks Manufacturers Association of Sri Lanka and its current vice chairman.
This year alone, three young men succumbed to severe burns after an explosion flattened their workshop.
According to Lorrence, only 175 people have licences to produce fireworks in Kimbulapitiya. But he says the actual number of people involved is considerably larger.
This industry is the lifeblood of the area, and almost no household is exempt. When demand soars during such events as the Sinhala and the Tamil new year, or during the election season, villagers will churn out hundreds of thousands of fireworks.
Disregarding government regulations, people take the work into their bedrooms and kitchens. Labour laws are more strictly enforced than they used to be, but even children help with simpler tasks.
“Gunpowder for us is like a relative; it is a friend. We have lived closely with it for a long time,” Lorrence told Al Jazeera. “If there is an accident, we remember it only for a week and then we go back to work. It is in our blood.”
The majority of “factories” are small-scale operations, typically hiring six people or fewer during the off-season and expanding to a dozen or more at peak times.
Most are family businesses, with premises passed down from generation to generation, along with the knowledge needed to make the fireworks..
This is true of Surin Fernando, whose family has been in this business for 50 years. He owns the Mua brand of fireworks, while his sister Chamila produces her own range under the name Speeder. Both operate their businesses from their homes.
A dangerous process of trial and error
When Sri Lanka’s nearly 30-year civil war ended in 2009, the villagers spontaneously emptied their stores of fireworks as they took to the streets in celebration. It heralded a boom in their previously flagging industry, and the demand for their products has only increased since then.
But today, they are struggling under the burdens of labour shortages, poor technology and expensive raw materials.
Chinese manufacturers who visited the village were astonished, says Lorrence, to discover that where they utilised some 125 chemicals in their products, their Sri Lankan counterparts used only seven. And what they do have can prove extraordinarily volatile.
Fernando admits that they do not always know the properties of the chemicals they work with. When they are experimenting with something new, it is a hazardous process of trial and error, he says.
In the workshops, people are in constant proximity to substances such as potassium nitrate, barium nitrate, aluminium powder, potassium chlorate and sulphuric powder. Factories produce around 24 different kinds of fireworks by hand. Often, the workers gather all the raw materials within easy reach, piling the finished goods on the other side.
This is why the “mixers” tend to be the most experienced workers in the community.
Suresh Prasanna Fernando is trusted by his employers at Jayahanda Fireworks to mix the chemical powders that others will use to fill the crackers.
Suresh is 24, but has been working in this industry since he was 14. With no formal training, he relies on the sight, smell and the texture of the powder as it is sieved to know if he has the proper mixture.
“You have to be very careful,” he says, in something of an understatement.
Today, however, he has been set to work churning out three triangular firecrackers. He sits with a pile of explosive powder between his legs with no mask or gloves, coughing from the gunpowder he inhales.
The powder settles all over his body, turning his skin silver. Each firecracker takes him just under 30 seconds to fold, fill and knot.
Suresh’s efficiency is not unusual. Next to him, a man he calls Uncle Sarath produces some 10,000 to 15,000 of the smaller crackers in a single day. Sarath has been making fireworks since he was 11.
“This is hard work,” he says, “but this is what I know to do, so I do it.”
Workers such as Suresh and Sarath earn anywhere between 1,000 and 3,000 rupees (around $7 – $20) a day working from 7am to 5pm.
Sona Ramesh, another part-time worker, says he is usually paid for every 1,000 skyrockets he produces.
“The main problem is that we have no life insurance,” Ramesh says. “But even people who have lost family members in accidents keep coming back because there is no other way to earn.”
He explains that it is not only the locals who are employed in the industry. Itinerant workers who appear at high-season are given a day or two of training and then sent to work, many not yet grasping that even a small spark is enough to level an entire workshop, says Ramesh.
A precarious business
KPN Jayatilaka and his wife, Lashika, own Jayahanda Firecrackers. As stipulated by government regulations, their workshop is on a 2.5-hecare property, and their home is some 150 metres away from where the firecrackers are made.
“It’s hard to meet the demand because the cost of the chemicals keeps going up, but we have to sell the fireworks at the same price,” Lashika tells Al Jazeera.
They say their business is precarious due to unreliable labour. Also, when accidents happen, it is the owners who bear the full cost of compensating workers and their families. They are desperately in need of mechanisation, training and support from the government, which they hope will lead to safer chemicals being imported.
“There is no lab for us to test the quality of the chemical, and so we have to just mix it and see. Sometimes it is a waste and we have to throw big batches away. But we have to be very careful because things like exposure to sunlight or even morning dew can trigger a fire or explosion,” says Jayatilaka.
The manufacturers in the village were at the forefront of a drive to block fireworks imports into Sri Lanka, but Jayatilaka had a chance to look at the products that slipped through into local markets. There were skyrockets that exploded in many colours, and smaller crackers that went off like popcorn.
“The packaging looked like beautiful chocolates. You couldn’t even tell it was a firework,” he says. “We can’t compete with that, but we are always trying to take things apart and learn how they work.”
Manufacturers told Al Jazeera that they test their products frequently, but that the fireworks are so commonplace that they take little joy in them.
The only exception is the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, an annual celebration held at the local Catholic church in February.
In the weeks leading up to the event, local manufacturers step up production but do not sell to distributors. Instead, they bring everything they have to the procession where they seek to outdo one another with large displays and a debut of new designs.
Whatever challenges their work throws at them, the villagers of Kimbulapitiya say they cannot imagine life without fireworks. Despite the deadly toll it takes, this industry has become inextricably tied to their notion of home, family, faith, tradition and identity.
Back at Thushara Fireworks, Lorrence remains optimistic about the industry’s future. His children are internet savvy, he says, and he is eager to see what other innovations they can help him roll out.
Will his sons take up the family business? Lorrence says he thinks they will – “Just hopefully in a better way than we have been able to do.”