Danger zone

Published : Sep 11, 2009 00:00 IST

IN a small cracker unit near Sivakasi. Outsourcing is a normal practice among the licensed factories.-PICTURES: K. GANESAN

IN a small cracker unit near Sivakasi. Outsourcing is a normal practice among the licensed factories.-PICTURES: K. GANESAN

SIVAKASI, the fireworks hub of India, is in the news again, but for the wrong reasons. The explosions at five fireworks units in and around Sivakasi, in Virudhunagar district, between July 20 and August 3, coming as they did after the industrial mishap that rocked a village in Madurai district on July 7, have once again brought to the fore various irregularities, illegalities and inadequacies in the fireworks industry in Tamil Nadu. These tragic events, which left 43 people dead and several injured, ripped apart the claim of the authorities that safety norms are strictly adhered to in the industry. Four of the six units where the blasts took place are in the licensed sector.

A visit to some of the fireworks-manufacturing villages in the second week of August showed that local people had not yet recovered from the shock though industrial accidents are not uncommon here. An uneasy calm prevailed in Vadakkampatti in Madurai, where a registered private factory, V.B.M. Fireworks, was blown to smithereens. Nineteen people, including three students of the local government higher secondary school, died. The dead included the factory owners kin. As many as 70 people were working in the unit when the accident took place at around 7 p.m. The explosion was triggered when workers were stacking finished goods.

The fireworks factory was the only source of income for many in Vadakkampatti and adjacent villages, including Karisalpatti, Othapatti and Puliyakaundanpatti in the industrially backward, dry belt where there were no agricultural operations in the past several months. Many male breadwinners had migrated to Thanjavur, Tiruvarur, Nagapattinam and Cuddalore districts in search of jobs as loadmen or construction workers. Some of them have returned to Vadakkampatti since the tragedy, said M. Vasudevan, the State convener of the Campaign for the Rights of the Unorganised Workers. The non-governmental organisation (NGO), along with another organisation called Campaign Against Child Labour, has conducted a detailed study of the village. When news of the fireworks blast in his village reached him, K. Annachamy was working in a private lorry transport companys godown at Panruti in Cuddalore district. The worst awaited him back home: his son A. Silambarasan, a Class XI student, had succumbed to burn injuries sustained in the accident. Even as he began to narrate his tale of woe, his daughter Tamaraiselvi, who was studying in Standard VII in the same school as her brother, struggled to console her mentally challenged mother, Muthupillai. Holding a recent photograph of Silambarasan, a sobbing Tamaraiselvi said, My brother was the school topper in Standard X. He always inspired me to study well so that I can achieve my dream of becoming a doctor.

The Vadakkampatti accident exposed another inhuman face of the fireworks industry: employment of children in factories and that too during nights. Two other students, Satish and M. Rajkumar, died in the accident. Local people said many children used to work in the factory after school hours or on holidays.

In the Sivakasi region, five accidents in less than a month killed 24 people. The blast at Sri Krishna Fireworks in Namaskarithanpatti on July 20 claimed 18 lives. Three workers were killed in the mishap at Anil Fireworks in Keezha Tiruthangal village on July 28 and one died in the accident at Classic Fireworks in Meenampatti on August 3. All three were licensed units.

Accidents at two units in the unlicensed sector, at Vetrilaiyooranai and Viswanatham, in July snuffed out two more lives. The blast at Viswanatham brought down the tiled roof and sidewalls of a temporary shed in which Boominathan was involved in the illegal manufacture of fireworks. He had survived an explosion in the same village four years ago.

The licensed factories often drew workers from villages even as far as 20 km away. Many of them in Saanarpatti, Namaskarithanpatti, Sukkravarpatti, Anaikoottam and Karseri villages have lost their livelihood following the blasts. Some of the accident victims are still in hospital.

The factory management disbursed Rs.2 lakh as compensation to the next of kin of the dead, and this is in addition to the insured amount of Rs.50,000. Labour union functionaries said though the management took care of the medical expenses of the injured workers, they were left high and dry after getting discharged from hospital. Only one-third of the workforce got statutory benefits such as Employees State Insurance or Provident Fund, they said.

Official sources said 39 workers had sustained injuries in 13 mishaps in the Sivakasi region since the beginning of the year. Some of them, who had burn injuries on their faces, were confined to their homes. Most of them, particularly women, were yet to recover from the trauma, the union leaders said.

R. Arumugasamy of Konampatti village is one of the survivors of a fireworks accident that took 12 lives in Anuppankulam in July 2005. He left his job after he suffered burn injuries. Ever since, he has been working as a mason or a painter jobs that come only seasonally in his village or neighbouring areas.

A. Chandrabose is the author of Aakasa Kanavugal, a short story that vividly depicts the life and struggle of the labourers of the fireworks industry. He said local people like him were aware of the agony and anguish in their lives and called for urgent measures to rehabilitate the injured and the orphaned, who are scattered in many villages.

Official data indicate that except for 2008, when the number of dead was two, the percentage of fatal accidents in the fireworks industry in the region had always been high compared with other sectors. There were seven deaths in 2003, and 12, 25, 36 and 31 for every year until 2007. In all, 153 persons were injured in these accidents.

There have been an alarmingly high number of accidents in the fireworks industry despite tall claims made by the State government about the implementation of the Factories Act, 1948. Describing it as a highly technical Act that ensured securing the safety, health and welfare of the workers in registered factories, State Labour Minister T.M. Anbarasan said in the Policy Note on Labour, Factories, Employment and Training for 2009-2010 that match and fireworks factories were inspected once in every three months in view of the risk involved in the nature of work. He added that special, holiday and check inspections were also undertaken for monitoring of the safety, health and welfare provisions.

By the effective measures taken by the Inspectorate [of Factories] through inspections, safe and good working environment is ensured for the workers in the factories, states the policy note, tabled in the Assembly just a day after the blast at Vadakkampatti, the first in the series of fireworks explosions this year. It also speaks about the formation of special squads, apart from routine and regular inspections, to monitor the working conditions and methods of work during the Deepavali season, as there are chances for explosions and accidents in the factories owing to large-scale manufacture and sale of crackers.

Because of constant and ceaseless efforts put in by the officers of this Inspectorate by way of increased safety promotional activities like conducting safety surveys and safety courses, the number of accidents have been controlled, in spite of stable increase in the number of factories and employees, the policy note says.

But all these remain pious declarations. The fact is that the post of deputy inspector of factories in Virudhunagar was vacant for nearly five months. It was filled only after the accident at Vadakkampatti, trade union leaders pointed out.

Various reasons are attributed for the mishaps. According to Virudhunagar District Collector Sigy Thomas Vaidhyan, negligence on the part of workers; incomplete skill upgradation for colour pellet manufacture; lack of effective supervision; minor violations owing to bunching of demand/supply orders before Deepavali; and the weather conditions such as heat, the velocity and direction of wind, and the humidity during the Tamil month of Aadi (July-August) contributed to the blasts.

G. Abiruban, secretary of the Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers Association (TANFAMA), said friction while handling chemicals was the prima facie reason for the accidents. But the real cause would be known only after the agencies concerned submitted their reports, he said. The District Revenue Officer is conducting an inquiry under Section 9 (1) of the Explosives Act.

Trade union functionaries have an entirely different version on the frequent tragedy in the fireworks industry in and around Sivakasi, which the manufacturers fondly call Kutty Japan (mini Japan). M. Asokan, president of the Virudhunagar district unit of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), and V. Alagirisamy, legal adviser to the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), pointed out that labourers employed in the cracker units were forced to work under tremendous stress in order to meet production targets stipulated by the contractors. Piece-rate work added to the woes of the workers, they said.

Scarcity of labour led contractors to bring in new recruits who did not know the technicalities of the job, particularly chemical mixing, filling, fitting, drying, braiding, and packing. Experts say the inconsistency in utilising the manpower has also resulted in fatal accidents. Some of the manufacturers themselves admitted that most workers did not have the expertise to mix chemicals even as the industry turned to sophisticated methods akin to Chinese pyrotechnics in the profit-driven marketing environment. Unhealthy competition among manufacturers has led to the introduction of new varieties. This and the absence of proper training to workers and safety mechanisms in several factories make a fatal combination. In almost all the recent accidents, explosions occurred while handling chemicals, sometimes more than the prescribed limits, the union leaders said.

Safety norms are blatantly violated in many factories. For instance, they alleged, 10 people were made to work instead of the normative four in a room with four doors. Some registered units did not have equipment such as copper plates to earth static electricity, lightning arrestors, or even protective masks. Basic requirements to control fire or prevent pollution were totally absent in some factories, they alleged.

Besides, although TANFAMA sources assert that there had been total adherence to the building specifications laid down by various laws, including the Explosives Act, 1884, and the Explosives Rules, 2008, experts feel there is still scope for improvement. S.N. Ramaswamy, senior lecturer in the Civil Engineering Department of the Arulmigu Kalasalingam College of Engineering at Krishnankoil in Virudhunagar district, said an experimental study had been conducted by the students of the college on improving explosion-resistant capacity of fireworks and match works industrial buildings. It was undertaken because conventional fireworks and match industry buildings were constructed without incorporating explosion-resistant features.

Experts say this acquires importance because the deaths were not just because of the blasts, but also because of the disintegration of the industrial buildings. Ramaswamy said it was found that explosion resistance could be improved by providing cast-in-situ reinforced cement bands at various levels of the building and by plastering walls with chicken mesh so that a part or panel of the wall alone would be damaged in explosions.

Poor roads posed another problem in transporting the injured to hospitals in Madurai besides enabling access to fire tenders, trade union leaders said. People with burn injuries had to be sent to Madurai, which is 75 km from Sivakasi, because the facilities available at the government hospitals in the district were inadequate to treat a large number of such patients, they added.

A major factor that has made the workers vulnerable is the mushrooming of illegal cracker units in the villages. TANFAMA sources claimed that as many as 15 villages, including Vijayakarisalkulam, Thayilpatti, Meenakshipuram, Ramalingapuram, Salvarpatti and Vembakottai, had unlicensed units. These units manufactured as much as half the quantum of fireworks produced by the over 630 licensed factories, which had an annual turnover of Rs.350 crore, the sources said. Nearly one lakh people depend on the unlicensed sector whereas the licensed factories employ around 1.3 lakh persons.

The industry in the Sivakasi region meets up to 98 per cent of the countrys demand for fireworks. Its contribution to the exchequer by way of State and Central taxes, too, is significant.

Abiruban admitted that many of the licensed units were unable to run to their full capacity because of the shortage of manpower. Several workers had quit their jobs after learning to make fireworks and turned to illegal manufacturing, he said.

He recalled TANFAMAs numerous representations to the government to ban illegal manufacturing and marketing of fireworks on the grounds that such units had no accountability in terms of ensuring safety or obtaining licence from the agencies concerned.

Enquiries, however, revealed that the illegal factories initially flourished under the patronage of the licensed ones, which outsourced much of the work to them. After growing in size and strength, these factories took away a sizable market share of the fireworks, besides causing labour shortage. The illegal sector also got the active support of dealers who preferred goods at cheaper rates, suppliers of raw materials, and truck operators who got good deals. Trade union functionaries said the practice still continued, adding that some licensees even leased out their manufacturing sheds to others in violation of regulations.

Some units operated out of residences, with the entire family, including children, contributing labour. There were agents to supply raw materials to these units and procure the finished goods, said M. Mahalakshmi, general secretary of the Match and Fireworks Workers Union. Accidents occurred every now and then as these units threw caution to the wind. In some houses, cooking was done in one corner of the same room where finished goods or raw materials were stored, the union leaders said. There have been instances when a spark from the stove proved fatal.

On many occasions, the fatalities were hushed up, with the whole village extending support to the illegal manufacturers, Mahalakshmi said, recalling an incident in which a person was killed in a blast in Sivakasi town in July while he was transporting black fuse. On enquiring about a blast that killed an infant at an illegal manufacturing unit in the town last year, she said, the parents themselves denied that the tragedy had struck their family.

One of the reasons why labourers switched to the illegal sector was the inadequate wages offered by the contractors attached to the licensed units, she said. The CITU wanted the district administration to set up an industrial estate to mainstream the unlicensed units, she added.

The administration had promised to introduce single-window clearance for licences in an accelerated mode, besides working out a legal solution for unlicensed and outsourced manufacturing activities. Many of the workers were former weavers and agriculturists and over 60 per cent of them were women, Mahalakshmi pointed out.

Meanwhile, the All India Democratic Womens Association (AIDWA), along with the fireworks and match industry union, has planned to hold a public hearing on August 30 on the issues relating to the fireworks accidents and the sufferings of the workers in Sivasaki.

This is a serious problem with severe social, political, and law and order dimensions, official sources said, adding that the unlicensed units had stopped their operations in the wake of the raids conducted by different agencies of the State government.

Close on the heels of the blasts, the district administration resorted to a slew of measures to enforce safety norms, to curb illegal manufacture and to simplify the procedures for issuing licence, apart from rushing relief to the victims. The district administration had disbursed the State governments solatium of Rs.1,00,000 to the next of kin of the deceased, Rs.50,000 for those who sustained serious injuries and Rs.25,000 for those who suffered minor injuries, Sigy Thomas Vaidhyan said.

The administration also launched a crackdown on erring units in both the licensed and unlicensed sectors. The illegal manufacturers chose to keep a low profile, but managements of the mainstream factories closed down their units from August 8 to 10 as a mark of protest against the police raids.

Denying reports that the licensed manufacturers had threatened to close down the factories permanently, Abiruban said they had never given any ultimatum to the authorities. Some small manufacturers got scared when the police warned them of arrests under non-bailable sections, he said.

TANFAMA only insisted that the inspections should be conducted jointly by the personnel of the Police, Revenue, Factories and Fire and Rescue Departments. The issue had been sorted out after the association functionaries represented their case to the Chief Secretary and the Additional Director General of Police (Law and Order), he said, adding that the licensed units were always prepared to update the safety mechanism as they were aware that it was a continuing process.

The Collector told Frontline that the factory owners were aghast at the serious action taken consequent upon the enforcement raids as even minor violations were not ignored. She said hereafter only joint raids by personnel of the departments concerned would take place in order to cover all licensed premises in a time-bound manner. The actual cause of the accident can be ascertained only after the completion of the inquiry, she said.

On reports relating to the prevalence of child labour in the industry, she said the National Child Labour Project sources claimed that the system did not exist in the district. However, one of the aims of the current action by the district administration is to wipe out child labour direct or indirect in the legal or illegal manufacturing units, she asserted.

The district administration has decided to launch an awareness campaign in the villages to curb unlicensed units even while strictly enforcing the regulations in the licensed sector. The mainstream units would be asked to take steps to ensure skill upgradation training for owners, supervisers and workers in a time-bound manner.

The administration also expressed the hope that all those concerned would respond positively as raids were going on. The local people, particularly the workers, have welcomed the steps taken by the authorities, hoping that the enforcement drive is not just a knee-jerk response.

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