The recent accident in a firecracker unit in Tamil Nadu’s Sivakasi on February 12 has claimed 21 lives so far, while another accident happened the day after but did not kill anyone. The frequent accidents in firecracker units in Sivakasi and its surrounding areas have raised severe concerns over the brazen violation of rules and lack of safety measures.
The firecracker industry in the region is accused of violating the safety measures laid down by different acts, including the Explosives (Amendment) Rules, 2019, leading to tragic accidents, which has claimed around 100 lives since 2017.
The inspection by the officials of the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO) has almost died out for want of administrative set-up in the office of the Deputy Chief Controller of Explosives in the Sivakasi sub-circle. The officials of the revenue, police, fire service and health are also accused of providing licenses without inspecting the units.
After the recent accidents, the trade unions have urged the state government to form inspecting panels with the participation of trade union representatives to avert the alleged violation of norms by the industries and officials.
LICENCE LEASED AND SUBLEASED
There are around 1,075 units functioning in the district, of which 731 operate with the ‘Nagpur license’ issued by the PESO headquarters, while 265 operate with license issued by the district revenue department. Few units are reportedly functioning without any valid license.
The licence issued by the authorities is non-transferable, which is allegedly being violated by the owner of the ‘Mariyammal Fireworks factory’ where the February 12 accident took place.
S Mahalakshmi, general secretary of Virudhunagar district Firecracker and Matchbox Workers Union told Newsclick, “The illegal leasing and subleasing of licences have led to many tragic accidents in the past. In this case, the licence holder has leased the factory to an individual, who in turn subleased to four other people. In such instances, they tend to employ more people with more stock of chemicals, which is the cause for such accidents”.
The factory had around 60 rooms and employed more than 400 workers. The blast took place during lunch time, which reduced the casualties. Around 13 rooms were reduced to rubbles after the blast, which lasted for several minutes.
VIOLATION OF RULES
The factories appear to be at ease with violating the prescribed safety measures. The rules mandate that a room for manufacturing crackers must have four doors and employ four people and only two persons can work in the mixing room. The factories must install copper plates at the entrances for the workers to discharge the static energy from the human body.
But the workers sitting on the floors without gloves and masks, their hands and face coated with explosive powders are the most commonly seen images representing the firecracker workers.
P N Deva, Virudhunagar district secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), said, “Apart from the restriction on number of workers, the workers must be issued with masks and gloves, while the floors must have rubber mats. The concerned officials are instructed to hold frequent inspections to ensure such practices, but both do not happen”.
The absence of water tanks inside the premises and fire extinguishers are other conditions casually violated by the factories. The PESO sub-circle office, entrusted with conducting inspections, is refraining from doing so, the trade unions allege.
“The sub-circle office is manned by the deputy chief controller of explosives and four inspectors. But the office has no vehicles for them and they cite this as the reason for not conducting inspections”, said Deva.
The licences are issued by PESO on submitting no objections from district authorities of police, fire and rescue, health and revenue department. However, bribing the officials could easily get a licence issued without following the rules, claim the trade union leaders.
LACK OF SKILLED WORKERS
The factories are expected to appoint a foreman, who has passed the necessary exams and possess complete knowledge of all the explosives and mixtures. The factories used to recruit people directly without any formal training until recently.
“There have been around 12 major accidents in the last five years. Violation of rules and corruption are the major factors while lack of training to workers by the recruiting companies is another important aspect. After a prolonged struggle, a few big factories have started training the people”, said Mahalakshmi.
The CITU has insisted to conduct awareness programs on the health issues of the workers and steps to overcome such issues.
“The state and Union governments have announced Rs 3 lakhs and Rs 2 lakhs as ex gratia amount to the kin of the deceased. Since the election is closer, the state government has increased the amount. But the compensation from the factories are hard to reach the affected, as the family of those who died in the March 2020 accident have not received the compensation so far”, said Mahalakshmi.
The trade unions have stepped up their demands on ensuring safety measures in the factories while the state and Union governments have larger responsibilities in ensuring the same. The workers risk their lives to bring foreign exchange to the country, but the benefits including minimum wage, social welfare measures and even safety remain elusive.
The Sivakasi, Sattur, Vembakottai and parts of Virudhunagar taluks are known for the manufacturing of firecrackers. The Virudhunagar district, once known for its agricultural wealth, had turned to cracker manufacturing, which now employs around 5 lakh workers directly and indirectly.