Sivakasi in Virudhunagar district of south Tamil Nadu is located 74 km from Madurai and it is said that most of the flights to Madurai airport are packed with buyers and agents from across India wanting to reach the sleepy town. The reason, it is the hub of the Indian firecracker and matchbox industry with 70 percent of the matchboxes and firecrackers of the country being manufactured in this small town.
The town boasts of one of the most sophisticated printing industries of the country with 30 percent of the diaries being printed here.
However, the first day of 2022 commenced for the firecracker units and the people of Sivakasi with a shock and a tragedy when a blast occurred at R.K.V.M Fireworks killing four persons and injuring eight. The workers had assembled at the factory at 8.30 a.m. for a special puja to welcome the New Year. When the door of the room where chemicals were stored was opened, friction led to the blast killing four people on the spot and injuring eight.
This is not new to Sivakasi as blasts and explosions have taken place earlier also in this sleepy town that employs more than 7,00,000 people in the three major industries of firecrackers, printing, and matchbox manufacturing.
After the January 1 incident, four days later on January 5 tragedy struck again. This time it happened in the adjacent town of Satupetti when a firecracker unit exploded killing four people and injuring 6.
The Tamil Nadu government has already announced a compensation of Rs 3 lakh to the families of each of those killed in the explosion and Rs 1 lakh to those who are injured. However, the big question is why these back-to-back tragedies happened and are there flaws in the security aspect leading to grave risks to the lives of the workers including the owners of the units as most of them are small cottage industries.
Industry players are of the opinion that multiple bodies regulating and licensing the sector is one major issue plaguing the industry. Some are getting clearances for the units from the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO) which the big players in the industry get. However temporary and small players are given the license or permission to operate by the District Revenue Officers (DROs). In the two recent explosions, the owners had the permission of the DROs.
A study of the licensing pattern revealed that of the 1010 firecracker units in Virudhunagar district alone, 741 were given the license to operate by PESO while 269 received the license from DROs.
K. Kannan, General secretary of The Indian Firecrackers Manufacturing Association (TIFMA), told IANS that “The multiple licensing mechanisms is a major issue that we are facing. Major players are getting licenses from PESO for making all the items, the small players are licensed by the DROs. These small players flout the rules and try to make what they are not entitled to make or rather they indulge in areas where they don’t have either the expertise or technical know-how and this is the cause of the accidents that happen in Sivakasi.”
Another major drawback is the skeletal structure of both PESO and the DROs where there are only a few officials to manage the more than 1000 firecracker units in the district.
In the last three years, the district of Virudhunagar alone had 70 to 75 accidents in the firecracker industry and more than 55 people lost their lives. In each of these accidents, double and in some cases three to four times of those dead are injured with more than 20 to 30 percent burn injuries. Some are maimed for life, losing limbs, some lose palms and in the worst cases have lost eyes and many have hearing impairment.
Dr John Abraham Thankan, a medical doctor who had worked at Sivakasi town hospital, told IANS, “I had seen innumerable cases of workers losing their limbs, disfigured from face downwards and still surviving. In the earlier days life was miserable for these workers who don’t have anything else to do, nowhere to go and the owners of the companies where they had put in their service will also turn their back after meeting the initial medical expenses and a small compensation. You can see many such persons in and around Sivakasi.”
He said that things have changed in the past few years with the active intervention of non-governmental organizations and other social groups who studied the impact of the accidents and the poor living conditions of the workers.
He added: “The workers are now getting compensation from the Chief Minister’s relief fund and also support for medical expenses. But for all these proper licensing is required and there are several homegrown units that don’t have any license and if any mishap occurs, they are left to their fate.”
The Tamil Nadu government has recently set up a separate Fireworks Welfare Board to provide compensation to accident victims as also to those who are injured in the mishaps.
Human Resource Foundation (HRF), a non-governmental organization working among the Sivakasi firecracker industries, has been conducting regular awareness programmes among the workers, inculcating the culture of green fireworks and also making workers aware of the need for proper technical training and sound knowledge of the chemicals they are using to prevent mishaps.
Vijayakumar, Director of HRF, said, “The district manufacturing units are not following any proper norms and employees are not properly trained to handle the explosives and this lack of knowledge is the main reason for accidents. In many cases, the storage of chemicals exceeds many times more than what was sanctioned and the friction leads to explosions. This is the failure of the institutions like PESO and DROs that provide licenses to these units. The multiple licensing system is another issue that plagues the industry and there has to be a proper streamlining of this to bring down the mishaps in an era where every technology is at the fingertips.”
The PESO and DRO officials however said that routine inspections are carried out and those who err are fined heavily.
M. Seethanathan, the owner of a fireworks unit, told IANS, “If a mishap occurs you must understand that two things would have happened. One there was no proper inspection or even if such an inspection had taken place, the authorities had turned their back for various reasons. Secondly, untrained manpower is the root cause of such accidents and if proper training and strict licensing are not done, such mishaps will continue.”
He said that the industry is already facing a problem following the entry of Chinese firecrackers but the demand for Sivakasi firecrackers is much higher when compared to Chinese crackers.