Performance and practices at TEL

Print edition : September 01, 2001

Tamil Nadu Industrial Explosives Ltd. (TEL) started production in 1987. It is one of the few companies that produce a range of industrial explosives, detonators and detonating fuses for applications in the mining and granite industries. TEL produces NG (nitroglycerin)-based explosives. L.K. Tripathy, chairman and managing director, TEL, told Frontline that although these are being replaced by the newer slurry- and emulsion-based explosives, the demand for NG explosives is still high in the country. TEL produces about 9,000 tonnes of NG explosives, 6,000 tonnes of slurry explosives, 45 million detonators and 45 million fuses annually.

An industrial explosive device consists of three components - the detonating fuse, the detonator and the explosive material. The fuse sets off a controlled ignition in the detonator, which in turn sparks an initial explosion leading to a build-up of pressure and thermal energy in the main explosive material that it is connected to.

TEL manufactures lead azide and lead styphanate-based detonators and NG and pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) explosives. It has technical collaborations with Nobel Chematur of Sweden, Dyno Industries of Norway and Josef Meissners of Germany.

In 1992 the company was referred to the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR). A relatively unknown corporate group was to take charge of it. According to informed sources, senior officials and the trade unions managed to foil the privatisation attempts. Since then the turnaround has been stunning.

The company repaid all outstandings to external creditors by making a one-time settlement of Rs.37 crores - entirely from its own funds in 1998-99. In 2000-01 it made a gross profit of Rs.10 crores and a net profit of Rs.5.65 crores, on a turnover of Rs.55 crores.

An official source at TEL told Frontline that because the company is still under reference to the BIFR, it cannot hire regular workers for this would be construed as an expansion of the company or creating liabilities. TEL employs 110 casual workers, 640 permanent workers, 160 supervisors and 95 officers.

A casual worker is paid Rs.75 a day whereas the starting salary of a regular worker is about Rs.5,000 a month. A company source said that the company saved about Rs.2,500 a worker by hiring casual workers. According to this source, after liberalisation new detonator manufacturing units have started operations. TEL's competitors in Hyderabad for instance, pay only Rs.1,500 to Rs.2,000 a month to their workers.

Trade union sources allege that although the company has made a good recovery, labour safety issues remained unresolved. T.R. Purushottaman, district secretary of the Communist party of India (Marxist), regards the company's practice of hiring casual workers as "irresponsible". He said that the management has also not heeded the unions' demand that casual workers be at least trained before they start work on the shop floor.

Casual workers are changed every six months in order to get around labour law provisions, which require that those employed for more than 180 days be absorbed as regular workers. Casual workers are also engaged in order to enable the management to be flexible in planning production on the shop floor, for they can be shifted easily across various operations.

The increasing emphasis on flexibility implies that managements treat labour as a homogeneous entity without considering particular skills that may be needed on the shop floor. Trade unions complain that the demand for flexibility by labour is what seriously compromises safety standards in industrial workplaces. Purushottaman alleged instances of guards and peons being deployed to the shop floor without regard to safety norms.

Trade unions have also pointed to the lack of attention to the nature of labour processes in factories and workplaces. Purushottaman referred to the case of workers in detonator crimping units, where they work under stress and fear. He said the unions had made repeated representations to the management asking it to shuffle workers across some of the hazardous operations. "A worker repeatedly performing the same operation is prone to becoming mentally tired. This has a serious impact on safety," he said.

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