The death of three workers in an illegal firecracker manufacturing unit at Vijayakarisalkulan near Sivakasi on Friday has once again exposed how such units in clusters have made the town a powder keg threatening to explode.

According to fireworks manufacturers, the practice of outsourcing the production of fuse/wick has now come to the level of manufacturing fancy fireworks. “Fuse wrapping,” a highly skilled job, was originally outsourced in 1950s to a few villages where the job was done by a particular community. Today, production of fireworks has become a cottage industry in villages dotting Sivakasi and Vembakottai blocks. Thirty villages, including Vijayakarisalkulam, have production units in one form or other.

Almost all these units are part of the household or their appendages. In the Vijayakarisalkulam blast, the chemicals were handled under an asbestos-roofed shed behind a house. Handling of banned or substandard chemicals by inexperienced or untrained persons often results in explosions. “For example, there is rampant use of red lead, which is a banned chemical. This is used only to bring down the cost of manufacture,” says A. P. Selvarajan, former president, Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers’ Association (TANFAMA).

The parallel cracker manufacturing industry has been thriving for decades with a strong nexus among officials, police, brokers and traders. This fact is acknowledged by top officials who feel that it is difficult to restrain the practice with the available manpower. It also involves the livelihood of thousands of families. Many accidents, in which the victims suffer injuries, go unreported in these villages. They get advance information through official channels whenever raids are planned.

The modus operandi of this industry is this: middlemen, who canvass for orders for Deepavali and other occasions, join together, buy raw materials like charcoal, barium nitrate, potassium nitrate and even sulphur in the black market; distribute them among villages for production of specific items; get back finished goods on payment and use brands similar to leading ones to push them in upcountry markets. The activity gains steam as Deepavali approaches. These products are priced less and offer a huge profit margin. They are distributed through a chain of transport operators. The parallel industry also bridges the gap in demand and supply when licensed units face a shortfall due to accident, raid, rainfall or labour shortage. Because of their substandard nature, the products release high-decibel noise or cause injuries. The common accident is the bursting of flower pots or zameen chakkar when ignited.

All members of a family, including children, are involved in the manufacturing process. The day’s food is cooked in one corner and fuses get ready in another in one-room homes. Children, who study in nearby schools, come home only to continue the job they had left in the morning. Child labour has migrated from factories to homes in this sector.

Officials and industry leaders feel that stringent steps are needed post-Mudalipatti to curb illegal manufacture of fireworks anywhere. The TANFAMA has mooted a proposal to create a transport yard from where lorries will carry finished goods with legal documents to their destinations.