Attibele fire | The dark side of fireworks

After the tragic loss of 16 young lives in the recent accident at a firecracker shop-cum-godown at Attibele on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border, the police and government officials have woken up to the lack of safety measures. The Hindu looks at the trade that is fraught with danger

Updated - February 08, 2024 04:24 pm IST

Published - October 13, 2023 08:00 am IST

Large plumes of smoke which engulfed the area following an explosion and subsequent fire at a cracker shop-cum-godown at Attibele on the outskirts of Bengaluru on October 7.

Large plumes of smoke which engulfed the area following an explosion and subsequent fire at a cracker shop-cum-godown at Attibele on the outskirts of Bengaluru on October 7. | Photo Credit: SUDHAKARA JAIN

“My son aspired to be the first graduate in our family. But firecrackers and his desire to earn a small amount of money for studying further have killed him,” said Thambidurai, father to Vijaya Raghavan, 18, from Ammapettai village, Dharmapuri district in Tamil Nadu, as he waited for his son’s body in front of Oxford Medical College Hospital in Attibele town, on the outskirts of Bengaluru.

Vijaya Raghavan was among the 16 people who died in the fire accident at Balaji Cracker Shop, a shop-cum-godown at Attibele, in Bengaluru Urban district, near the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border, on October 7. The massive blaze followed an explosion while crackers were being unloaded from a vehicle. Deep sorrow gripped 50 family members, friends, and villagers who arrived at the hospital from different regions of Tamil Nadu. They were there to collect the bodies of the victims who lost their lives in the tragic fire accident.

As the identified bodies were placed inside ambulances, grieving family members ran after the vehicles, shouting the names of their loved ones. The scenes at the hospital on the following days, were heart-wrenching. Most victims were in their 20s, some in their late teens.

Those who died in the tragedy are Antony Paul Raj, 30; Vettappan, 22; Vijaya Raghavan, 18; Appas, 23; Adhikeshvan, 19; Prakash Raj, 20; Prabhagaran, 17; Sachin, 20; Akash, 19; Ilambarathi, 19; Giri V., 17; Nithish M., Vasanth Raj, 25; Santosh Kumar, 22; Dinesh, 17; Venkatesh, 25.

Dreams shattered

They were either students or recent graduates, working at the firecracker outfit to earn money for their education or to support their financially struggling families; a few even came to work just temporarily, to make some money to celebrate Deepavali. Periyasamy, a resident of Ammapettai village, was devastated as he arrived to collect the remains of his son Adhikeshvan. “He came here to work, hoping to earn money for his college fees. But now, both his dreams and mine lie shattered.”

Vediyappan, the father of Sachin, said his son had recently graduated with a B.A. degree. Sachin had begun working at the godown just a week before the unfortunate incident. “My son had aspirations of becoming a police officer,” he said.

Appas, from Kallakurichi district in Tamil Nadu, was an Industrial Training Institute graduate, but struggled to secure employment. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities, he moved to Chennai and worked as a labourer before arriving at Attibele 15 days before the incident.

He is the second among three male siblings born to Shankar and Amudha. “We didn’t want him to come here, but he was determined to do something of his own. He never disclosed his earnings to us. He left town with a group of friends. His body is so badly burnt that I can’t even recognise him,” Shankar said, his voice choking.

Just two days after the Attibele incident, there was another similar tragedy. Eleven workers, including three women, were killed and 12 injured in multiple blasts at a firecracker manufacturing unit at V. Viragalur in Ariyalur district of Tamil Nadu. Nine two-wheelers, a tractor, and a van, which were stationed at the unit, were destroyed in the fire triggered by the blasts, uncovering the vulnerability of the cracker manufacturing and distribution chain.

The vehicle and the shops that were destroyed in the fire at a shop-cum-godown at Attibele on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border on October 7.

The vehicle and the shops that were destroyed in the fire at a shop-cum-godown at Attibele on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border on October 7. | Photo Credit: BHAGYA PRAKASH K.

Irregularities exposed

The Attibele incident revealed significant irregularities involving shopkeepers, licensing, and enforcement authorities in Bengaluru. Officials cracked down on 18 shops that had obtained sales licences for five years. These licenses gave them the right to sell, but not store quantities larger than 1,000 kg. The accident has prompted the Karnataka government to initiate a Criminal Investigation Department inquiry.

Following the tragedy, many cracker shops in and around Attibele and Anekal on the outskirts of Bengaluru have locked their shops, and the owners have gone missing. The officials are now trying to locate them to get the shops opened and inspected.

“Action will be initiated against the violators, and the licence withdrawn after questioning the owners,” a senior official from the Fire and Emergency Services, who is part of the crackdown, said. “Major lapses were found during the inspection as the shop owners had provided false information to get the licence. That’s under investigation,” officials said. In addition, shop owners allegedly drew electricity directly from the mainline poles without obtaining permission from Bangalore Electricity Supply Company.

Meanwhile, the Deputy Commissioner of Bengaluru Urban has directed the officials to conduct detailed inspections of the cracker shops and submit a report for further investigations.

This could impact the sale of crackers for the upcoming Deepavali festival, as manufacturers are hesitant to send trucks to the shops due to heightened vigilance at the border area and connecting roads. Attibele and Hosur are popular hubs for cracker sales.

This incident has also brought to the fore lapses on the part of the officials who failed to conduct the inspections before and after the issue of the licences. A senior officer said that the Deputy Commissioner’s office is now verifying those inspection reports to initiate necessary action against the erring officials.

According to him, the jurisdictional police and fire officials should periodically inspect the shops to check on the licensing conditions and submit a report to the Deputy Commissioner, who is the licensing authority. Though routine inspections were conducted, “favourable reports” were submitted.

The District Commissioner’s office is now verifying those reports to summon the officials for questioning. According to a rough estimate, around 100 licensed cracker shops are operating at Attibele and Anekal and along the highways with permission to sell only crackers, but many are learnt to be storing firecrackers beyond permitted capacity.

A firecracker shop on Bull Temple Road in Bengaluru.

A firecracker shop on Bull Temple Road in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: file photo

Storage beyond capacity

As per the licensing conditions, prior to transportation in goods vehicles permission needs to be taken from the fire and revenue departments. The regulatory authorities, including the police, fire force and revenue officials, have failed to keep a check on transportation and storage. Another officer said that officials are now under the radar for their lapses, which resulted in a major tragedy.

The owner of the shop where the accident occurred, V. Ramaswamy Reddy, had a licence for sale. However, it was found that he had not only stored approximately 15,000 kg at the godown but also used the victims to pack the crackers in gift boxes to send the load to Kolar and Chintamani near Bengaluru in trucks, amounting to illegal sales.

Ramaswamy Reddy and his son Naveen have been taken into CID custody for questioning. The duo has reportedly told CID officials that they had lied to the licensing authority for the sales licence but continued to store the crackers in large quantities for retail and wholesale business. They have allegedly accused officials of taking bribes to grant them a licence.

Fire safety concerns soar

Thousands of vehicles plying on the national highway from Bengaluru to Hosur, near the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border, pass by more than 50 permanent firecracker shops on both sides. This setup presents a substantial fire safety hazard, prompting residents to question the authorities, particularly in the aftermath of the tragic incident.

Balaji Firecracker Shop, destroyed in the fire, was surrounded by various other establishments, such as a restaurant, liquor store, and a few small eateries. Within 200 metres of the accident site, there were over six other firecracker shops. Most of these shops were located in buildings constructed very close to each other, lacking proper ventilation, and access points.

The site where the accident occurred usually has many parked cars. There is a constant flow of vehicles and pedestrians. There are also a few liquor stores and restaurants nearby. Resident Prasanth Kumar said, “It’s worrying how authorities have allowed the firecracker shops in areas frequented by many people.”

Fireworks set off by a political party in Bengaluru. The government has now banned crackers during political processions.

Fireworks set off by a political party in Bengaluru. The government has now banned crackers during political processions. | Photo Credit: file photo

Karnataka bans firecrackers

After the firecracker accident, the Karnataka government, on October 10, announced a slew of measures to prevent such incidents. They include a ban on bursting conventional firecrackers during political processions, festivals, religious events, and weddings.

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and Deputy Chief Minister D.K. Shivakumar held a high-level meeting with senior officials. They announced the strict implementation of the Supreme Court order, allowing only green crackers to be sold and used across the State.

With several allegations surfacing about the negligence of government officials, the Chief Minister has directed the suspension of the Tahsildar, the police inspector, and the chief fire officer, all of whom were allegedly responsible for the incident at Attibele. Notices will also be issued to the deputy commissioner and the police superintendent, Siddaramaiah added.

Ahead of the festival of lights, the firecracker hub is seeing gloom and uncertainty, but for the families of the 16 young men who died, the shadows and long and harrowing.

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