The fireworks that light up the night sky during Diwali bear no trace of the hazardous working conditions in their place of origin: Sivakasi and its surrounding villages in southern Tamil Nadu. The tragic death of nearly 38 workers and onlookers at a fireworks unit in Mudalipatti village on Wednesday is another gruesome reminder of the dangers lurking behind small-scale cracker factories that neglect laws and rules in the search for quick and easy profits. Other than applying for and obtaining a licence, many of these units make no pretence of following statutory requirements for operating with explosive materials. In this case, the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation, mandated with responsibilities under the Explosives Act and the Petroleum Act, is reported to have suspended the licence of the unit just a day before the accident for a series of violations. But while there is little doubt about non-compliance with safety norms on the part of the unit, the tragedy is a telling statement on the failure of enforcement authorities, including PESO, in supervising these hazardous units at the peak of their activity in the weeks leading to Diwali. Both the national Factories Act, 1948, and the Tamil Nadu Fire Service Act, 1985, empower safety inspectors and fire service officers to demand that factory owners either adhere to safety norms or cease operations. Clearly, in this case, the officials failed in their preventive function.
Most of those killed in the accident were onlookers who rushed to the site on hearing the first explosion. The first explosion was followed by another which caused the maximum number of deaths. Other than some feeble attempts to push people back, the police appear to have done little to warn the crowd that had gathered of the impending danger. The sense of tragedy is the greater because not only were the explosions preventable, but the deaths in the explosions too could have been avoided with some foresight and greater effort, had the local authorities developed protocols for dealing with hazardous fires in a high-risk area like Sivakasi. At the end of the day, however, tough enforcement of production and storage rules is the only way to minimise and eliminate risk in the firecracker industry. Even the smallest of mistakes can have disastrous consequences. Everything, from the mixing and filling of raw materials to the stacking and storing of finished fireworks, will have to be done as per procedures carefully laid down. These rules are well established but the non-compliance is wilful, to save on costs and time. Cruelly, a part of the savings on costs is often spent on ensuring poor enforcement. Accidents, far from being preventable, therefore end up as inevitable.