Only 14 of 84 cases ended in conviction in last five years
A series of fire accidents in Virudhunagar district, the fireworks capital of the country, left 185 dead and 215 injured in 84 incidents in the last five years. Yet, as irony would have it, only 14 cases have ended in conviction so far.
The reasons are several — delay in concluding trial, failure on the part of police to invoke stringent provisions of law and the accused winning over witnesses, mostly victims and their families, by exploiting their poverty.
Data obtained by The Hindu has revealed that even out of the 14 cases that resulted in conviction, four were casualty and injury-free accidents. In two other cases, one person each had died in the incidents. The rest were minor incidents in which one to three persons had suffered injuries. None of the major fire incidents since 2007 has ended in conviction so far.
A case registered in connection with the death of 11 people and injuries to 10 others, in an accident at Sri Rajkanna Fire Works in Thyagarajapuram under Vachakarapatti police station limits on January 21, 2011 is still pending trial.
Similarly, cases related to accidents at PRC Fireworks, Namaskarithanpatti, on June 16, 2010 and V. Meenachipuram Garden on August 10, 2010 leading to the death of eight people in each of the two accidents, are yet to see the light of the day.
On the other hand, the cases which ended in acquittal include the one in which five lives were lost in the fire accident at Srineevas Amorces Industries under Sivakasi East police station limits on December 28, 2011, and the Namaskarithanpatti fire accident, at Krishna Fire Works, on July 20, 2009, that claimed five lives and left 39 injured. Out of 18 other unsuccessful cases, the death toll was between one and four in 12 cases and the rest were related to injuries.
P. Rajagopal, chief functionary of NEEDS, a Virudhunagar-based NGO working with labourers in fireworks industry, alleges that the high rate of acquittal is basically due to witnesses “being purchased” by the accused.
“They are basically poor labourers who work for Rs. 100 to 150 a day. When the accused lure them with a few lakh rupees, naturally, they tend to take sides, turn hostile and help the accused go scot-free.”
Additional Advocate General K. Chellapandian, a native of Virudhunagar, points out that so long the police had been registering fire accident cases mostly under Section 304A (causing death by negligence) of the Indian Penal Code. The maximum sentence that could be imposed under this is two years’ imprisonment. It also provides for letting the convicts out without any sentence after collecting the fine amount.
“However, the accused in the Mudalipatti fire tragedy that claimed 38 lives on Wednesday, have been booked under Section 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) of the IPC, which provides for a maximum punishment of life sentence. The Chief Minister chaired a meeting of top officials on the issue and we can hope that in the days to come, every effort will be taken to control such fire accidents and punish the guilty under stringent legal provisions.”
Virudhunagar District Public Prosecutor A. Mangalasamy says even the punishment laid down under Explosives Act, 1884, a colonial piece of legislation, is insufficient to be a deterrent. He feels the Central legislations must be amended and stringent punishment introduced for those responsible for causing fire accidents by not following the safety norms strictly.
“Similar to the action initiated against granite quarry operators in Madurai district, the State Government should deal with erring fireworks units with an iron hand …” demand NGOs, social activists and retired bureaucrats.
The government should go deep into the maladies of the industry, which will not only facilitate identification of unlicensed units but also save lives of workers, says Madurai advocate R. Satyamurthy. The police should book criminal cases against the proprietors and officials from the erstwhile Explosives Department.
Communist Party of India (Marxist) Virudhunagar district executive committee member P. N. Deva says, “The need of the hour is to tighten loose ends, make officers from different government agencies accountable, educate the workers about their rights and create awareness among employers on the need for a safe work environment.”
Balamurugan, a social worker in Sivakasi, says if explosives are stocked over and above the permitted levels, the authorities concerned should be pulled up and taken to task. Police officers claim that though they file charge sheets, the unit resumes operation after about 90 days. When the police have powers to raid, investigate and prosecute, the punishment should be severe.