Sitting on a powder keg of violations

21 people lost their lives and several others suffered grievous injuries, in an accident at a fireworks unit at Sattur, last Friday. But this will by no means be the last such accident, caution industry watchers as they point to blatant, unchecked violations that continue in the factories in and around Sivakasi

It was 2 p.m. on Saturday (February 13). Hundreds of men and women had gathered outside the small Ignasiyar Church at Nadusoorangudi, a hamlet some 12 km away from Sattur in Virudhunagar district.

Every morning, this is the busiest spot where scores of vehicles of fireworks units queue up to ferry workers to the workplaces. But, on Saturday afternoon, an eerie silence prevailed, and the air was occasionally rent by some cawing and mooing. It has been a long and painful wait for the villagers since Friday afternoon.

Even the faintest noise of a vehicle passing on the main road swivels all heads towards the entrance of the village, a sign of the crowd eagerly waiting for someone’s arrival. When the white hearse moves into the village, the crowd surges forward. The silence is finally broken as women burst into tears, and the sound of wailing reverberates in the air.

After a brief halt, the vehicle moves further for the final rites for R. Karpagavalli, 22, a pregnant woman, who was one of the 21 killed at Sree Mariyammal Fireworks at Achchankulam, some 10 km from here. While the men follow the hearse, the women do not disperse, and the wait continues. For, the small village had lost four of its residents to the Friday’s gory fire. More than 12 from the same village, mostly women, had suffered injuries. Next come two more bodies.

Nandini, 12, who had lost both parents Backiayraj and Selvi in the accident, is inconsolable. However, her tears have dried up as the girl has spent painful moments shuttling between different hospitals in Sattur and Sivakasi as the couple were physically separated within minutes after the blasts at 1.20 p.m. on Friday.

“We could feel the tin-sheet roof trembling in our neighbourhood. We thought that the children playing around were up to some mischief until the news broke about the blasts at the cracker unit,” said G. Samuthrakani, 36.

When Selvi bid goodbye on Friday morning before going to work with her husband, little did the girl think that it was for the last time she would hear her voice. After the accident, when she anxiously made calls to her mobile phone, they went unanswered. At least 10 years after their marriage, the couple was blessed with Nandini. Who knew the young girl will be left alone all of a sudden, says A. Annalakshmi, an elderly woman.

Had M. Gopal, 30, a worker at the cracker unit, showed some patience while dumping pellets on the mat, 21 lives would not have lost and 36 others would have not suffered burns, in one of the more serious accidents at a cracker factory in recent years. Twenty-five of them are still at hospitals. However, he is not the one to take all the blame.

While his action sparked the fire, dumping of chemicals all around the work-sheds in the unit, in blatant violation of safety rules, aggravated the impact. Within a few seconds, the fire was all over after a series of explosions. Fifteen sheds were razed and many more partially damaged. The fire was so severe that many of the bodies were charred beyond recognition.

After 24 hours of wait for Karuppasamy’s family at the government hospital at Sattur for post-mortem, the doctors found that the body which was thought to be that of him was that of a woman. Then the family rushed to the government hospital at Sivakasi to identify the body.

Amid such a gory incident, a few people of the village count themselves lucky to have been able to return home, with bruises and minor injuries, after having run for their life. Among them were G. Mariammal, 36, and her daughter Swetha, 17. “I could see the fire chasing me even as I was running,” Mariammal said. For Swetha, the death of Santhya, who was working with her in the same work-shed, will haunt her for long. “I saw her running behind me. Suddenly, she collapsed,” she said. Santhya, a nursing course aspirant, was almost 200 metres outside the boundary of the unit when a flying brick (after one of the explosions) hit her in the head.

“She had been working only for the last one week,” said her father B. Dhanasekaran, 44, who has been in the industry for over 30 years. It was his younger brother who had taken a part of the fireworks unit on contract.

Leasing out

The cracker unit had a valid licence issued by Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO) to M. Santhanamari, 55. But he had leased it out to five persons — identified as M. Sakthivel, 38, and his wife Jayaramu; I. Raja, 46; B. Sivakumar, 50, and his son S. Ponnupandi, 21; and A. Velaraj, 59. The initial investigation by PESO revealed that the leasing out of the unit was the major cause of the accident.

The leasing out is the mother of all violations of safety rules, said K. Arjunan, Virudhunagar district secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). “Officials encourage the violations of safety norms in the name of implementing them,” he said. Many of the workers echoed his view.

Indian Fireworks Manufacturers’ Association general secretary T. Kannan said most of the accidents at the fireworks units were caused by the leasing system. “When leasing itself is illegal, I wonder how sub-leasing takes place.” He said the association could not curb such practices and wanted officials to take stringent action to stamp out the system.

“Will not someone who has invested ₹5 lakh-₹10 lakh in one or two units try to violate all rules and employ most number of workers to get the maximum returns,” he asked. “No accident will occur if the operators make only those products for which they have the licence and infrastructure,” he said.

He wondered how many units with the licence issued by the District Revenue Officer continued making fancy fireworks. Officials concerned should be better trained in the working of the industry for effective monitoring, he said.

Of the 980 licensed fireworks units functioning in Virudhunagar district, the majority — 495 — are located in Sivakasi taluk. Vembakottai taluk has 268, Virudhunagar 127, and Sattur 60. Among them, 731 have been licensed by PESO, while the rest 249 by the District Revenue Officer.

With most parts of the district being arid with little assured irrigation, the dry condition has helped in the growth of the fireworks industry over a century. Fast mechanisation of the match industry has forced more people to seek work at the fireworks units. Free transport, weekly salary, limited working hours and bonus twice a year have also attracted more women to these units. “Those who are running them professionally have all safety norms in place,” says M. Daniel, 37, a CPI(M) functionary, who has worked in the industry for 15 years.

The process to be followed

Different processes of fireworks manufacture are followed in different work-sheds — chemical stock room, chemical mixing room, pellet making room, chemical filling room and black fuses dipping room. Each process is handled by experienced workers; unskilled workers are put in charge of easier processes like tube-filling (with mud), sticking labels and packing boxes.

“The supervisor comes around periodically to check if only the permitted number of persons and the permitted quantity of chemicals are there at each work-shed,” Mr. Daniel said. “This ensures that even when there is an accident, the impact is confined to a particular work-shed. Casualty is also limited,” he said. But, under the leasing and sub-leasing system, each work-shed is given on contract to different persons for ₹5 lakh-₹10 lakh. The contractor violates the rules while attempting to make the maximum out of his investment. He employs at least 20 persons in each room.

Violations galore

Chemicals are stocked in huge quantities and workers sit outside, under the shade of trees, to make crackers. Semi-finished goods and pellets are kept around, making it dangerous for the lives and limbs of workers. “A small spark will end up in a series of blasts that would gobble up the entire unit in a few seconds,” he said.

The raw materials (chemicals) are supposed to be stocked at a distance from the work-sheds. But under the lease condition, each contractor keeps the stocks in his/her room, increasing the danger. “The leasing out of the factory leads to crowding and overstocking of chemicals in and around the sheds, and has resulted in a higher number of lives lost,” Deputy Chief Controller of Explosives K. Sundaresan said.

Another accident at a different cracker unit near Sivakasi the very next day had only one person suffering minor injuries. “This was because the unit had followed all safety norms,” he said.

Even one granule of sand that gets mixed up with the chemicals while being dried could lead to a blast. But the contractors do not mind whether the workers allow pellets to dry on gunny bags on the ground instead of on platforms, Mr. Daniel said.

Poor monitoring

The lack of official monitoring and negligence on the part of owners are making the lives of poor workers vulnerable. “Even after seeing their co-workers or relatives die with their bodies ripped apart, the hunger among the workers forces them to go back to the cracker units,” Mr. Arjunan said.

Another aspect that puts the safety at peril is the piece-rate job. “The workers are paid on the basis of the quantity of work done. In their attempt to earn more, they tend to violate the rules. They keep more chemicals by their side as walking to the mixing room to get a fresh stock will result in a few minutes wasted,” says Tiruma Xavier, affiliated to the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi.

There is no surprise inspection, he claims. “The owners are alerted before an inspection so that additional workers are asked to run away through the back door. All work-sheds are kept in order until after the inspection is over. When they get alerts at short notice, the contractor locks the main gate to make it appear that the unit is closed for a holiday,” Mr. Xavier said.

The contractors employed more women as they were paid a paltry ₹200-₹250 each as against ₹450 paid to each man, said Dravida Selvam, a worker.

No attendance register

Both workers complain that most of the leased factories do not maintain attendance registers. “The workers keep switching the units whenever they get a higher amount of advance from the contractor. Only when someone is killed, the worker is accounted for. Even those who sustain minor injuries do not come into picture,” Mr. Selvam said.

The contractors also benefit a lot as they do not pay towards the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation and the Provident Fund. Most of the workers are illiterate and poor, and their poverty is being exploited, Mr. Arjunan said.

A leading fireworks manufacturer says pyrotechnic courses are being offered at polytechnic colleges to bring educated youth into the industry. With more political awareness, the manufacturers, for the past one decade, have been paying ₹5.50 lakh in compensation (₹5 lakh in cheque and ₹50,000 in cash for the final rites) to the kin of a deceased.

However, a mere payment of compensation cannot justify the wrong doings as they claim precious lives.

“The government’s role is very important as hundreds of lives are at risk. It is the government’s responsibility to ensure the livelihood and safety of workers,” Mr. Arjunan said. After getting income tax and Goods and Services Tax at a higher rate of 18%, the government could not shirk its responsibility, he said.

Pointing to the 2012 accident at Om Sakthi Fireworks, Muthalipatti, that claimed more than 40 lives, Mr. Arjunan said the government had not learnt any lesson.

However, Mr. Sundaresan said the number of accidents and the lives lost had come down after a series of measures taken by the government after the Muthalipatti accident.

Intensive training, right from weighing of chemical to the mixing of chemicals, has fetched good results. “Special attention was also paid to making load-men who handle finished goods aware of the impending danger and of the way to handle fireworks with caution,” he said. The programmes held in the local language had increased in the last six years, he added.

What needs to be done

Virudhunagar MP B. Manickam Tagore demanded steps to make the industry safer by eradicating the common flaws that claimed lives. “This is a labour-intensive industry that employs 8 lakh workers. We need to protect it for the job opportunities and the local economy,” he said. The skilled-labour for fireworks units is available only in Sivakasi, he said.

Stating that the industry has a high potential for earning foreign exchange through exports, he wanted the Centre to make Virudhunagar an export hub for fireworks. Since PESO had a shortage of manpower and vehicles for inspections, he said he would urge the Centre to take corrective measures. With just four officers here, it would be impossible to inspect over 700 units.

Meanwhile, Commissioner of Revenue Administration K. Phanindra Reddy has advised PESO to come up with a mandatory training programme for workers to prevent accidents. He also instructed Collector R. Kannan to form teams to ensure that only the prescribed number of workers were allowed into the units.

Recalling an incident, in which eight officials had died at Sattur in an accidental fire while checking out for illegal stocking of black fuses, a senior official said revenue officials were afraid of entering fireworks units. “Since we do not get any basic training in chemicals, our men fear to make inspections,” he said.

The Elayirampannai police have registered a case against seven persons under various Sections of the Indian Penal Code and the Indian Explosives Act. So far, four persons — Santhamari, Ponnupandi, Sakthivel and his wife Jayaramu — have been arrested.

Playing with fire

A look at the tragedies that have struck the fireworks industry in the recent past

Licensed units in Virudhunagar district

 

Region—————–PESO———–DRO——Total

 

Sivakasi—————–408————–87———495

 

Vembakottai————201————-67———268

 

Virudhunagar———–066————-61———127

 

Sattur———————037————-23———60

 

Other taluks————-019————11———30

 

Total———————–731————249——-980

 

(As of June 2020; Source: Industry data)

DRO – District Revenue Officer

PESO – Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation

Accident diary: 

 

Year——— Accidents————————–Deceased——–Injured

 

2015 ———–15 —————————–06—————-19

 

2016 ———–14 —————————–12—————-20

 

2017 ———– 11 —————————–11—————-13

 

2018 ———– 13—————————–18—————-10

 

2019 ———– 11—————————–05—————-11

 

2020 ———– 09—————————–05—————-05

 

2021 ———– 02—————————–21—————-34

 

(Data pertains to accidents reported at PESO-licensed units)

Safety rules that are often violated 

 

Chemical mixing and filling should be done before the time of the day when there is scorching heat, preferably by 11 a.m. Mixing chemicals under high atmospheric temperature (after noon) increases the risk of accidents

 

Distance between sheds has been prescribed to prevent fire from spreading among sheds. Spreading out chemicals and semi-finished goods around sheds leads to the spread of fire

 

Every unit should function under a single entity. Leasing out units to multiple parties results in the stocking up of raw materials and semi-finished and finished goods at one spot, thereby posing a danger 

 

Either two or four workers are only allowed in each shed to lessen the impact of any accident. Crowding leads to increased casualties

 

Pellet-making mixture should be exhausted in one go, and then allowed to dry. Leaving the mixture unused during breaks causes it to self-decompose, which may lead to an accident 

 

After the pellets are initially dried on a shaded platform, they should be taken to a drying platform. Drying pellets under direct sunlight could cause mishaps

 

Only skilled personnel should be deployed for handling chemicals in the various processes involved in the making of fireworks. Inexperienced workers with little knowledge of chemicals inadvertently cause accidents

 

(Source: PESO, Sivakasi)

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