Mayhem, sparked by storage on the sly

Illegal units manufacturing and storing firecrackers thrive in Kerala. A two-bedroom house at Varapuzha that blew up in February had enough raw material to make 5,000 ‘kathina,’ whereas the operator’s licence did not allow him to manufacture fireworks. Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO) officials say it is up to the police to furnish details of illegal units.

Updated - March 10, 2023 12:58 pm IST

Published - March 10, 2023 12:35 am IST - KOCHI

Fire and Rescue Services personnel trying to douse the fire at a fireworks manufacturing unit in Kundannur, Thrissur. The accident on January 30 claimed a life.

Fire and Rescue Services personnel trying to douse the fire at a fireworks manufacturing unit in Kundannur, Thrissur. The accident on January 30 claimed a life. | Photo Credit: K.K. Najeeb

On a sedate, but humid evening of February 28, a two-bedroom house with clay tile roofing in the middle of a densely populated Muttinakam in Varapuzha panchayat was blown to smithereens with a loud thud and tremor, the impact of which was felt kilometres away. 

Once the dust settled, revealing the rubble strewn around like in a war zone, it emerged that the decrepit dwelling had packed in, illegally, gunpowder and raw materials enough to make about 5,000 kathina (a type of firecracker that bursts by producing a loud sound and tremor). 

Varapuzha natives and brothers Jenson and Janson had converted the rented house into an illegal cracker manufacturing unit and had been running it for over five years. Shockingly, the enforcement agencies, including the police, the local body and the district administration had no clue. 

The system failure resulted in the death of a 52-year-old and injury to seven others, including three children, in the explosion that ripped through houses in the area. Despite several such accidents in the past, illegal firecracker storage and manufacturing units continue to thrive in the State. There is no official data on the illegal units either with the sub-circle office of the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO) here (which has jurisdiction over Kerala and Lakshadweep) or the Ernakulam district administration.

Authorised to license

As per the Explosives Rules, 2008, the district magistrate is the licensing authority for manufacturing fireworks or gunpowder or both, not exceeding 15 kg at any one time, while the Chief Controller of PESO is the licensing authority for manufacturing fireworks or gunpowder or both exceeding 15 kg and not exceeding 500 kg at any one time.

According to senior officials of PESO, the Executive Magistrates or police officers not below the rank of Sub-Inspector should inspect approved store houses for explosives once in six months to see if rules are complied with. The assessment report has to be submitted to the District Magistrate or Superintendent of Police or Commissioner with a copy to the licensing authority. The inspecting authority, on inspection of the premises, should communicate to the licensee and the licensing authority in writing, his observation of discrepancies, and a copy of the inspection report should be submitted to the licensing authority for further action.  

“We have data about the licensed units. However, no details are available on the illegal units as it is the responsibility of the police to furnish such a report. There is also not much input from the police on violations related to the use, sale, and possession of explosives in the licensed units,” according to senior officials of PESO here.

Of the about 2,000 licensed premises that produce explosives in the State, nearly 200 are in Ernakulam, according to official estimates. The District Disaster Management Authority is also in the dark about the illegal firecracker storage and manufacturing units. “The police are yet to share the details of the illegal units involved in the sale, storage and manufacturing of firecrackers with the district administration,” according to Usha Bindumol, Deputy Collector. 

Also read | Varapuzha blast: firecracker unit was operated in blatant violation of norms

The Varapuzha incident, according to the police, had shown that persons with licence to possess and sell fireworks were involved in the manufacturing of firecrackers in violation of the rules. “Jenson had a license under form LE-5 (granted by the District Magistrate) to possess and sell firecrackers for poorams. But he was manufacturing firecrackers at the illegal unit in Varapuzha, without licence, in clear violation of the norms,” said Vivek Kumar, District Police Chief, Ernakulam Rural. 

Negligence of local bodies

Though the local bodies have no licensing powers as per the Explosives Rules, the sheer negligence of the local administration was evident in the Varapuzha case as the illegal unit had been operating from a residential area for long. T.P. Poly, vice president of Varapuzha panchayat, claimed that they had no idea about the manufacturing of firecrackers at the ill-fated unit. “Nobody had lodged any complaint regarding the owners,” he said. 

The officials of PESO have also suggested an improved vigil over sites stocking explosives used in stone quarries, especially after the death of two migrant workers following an explosion of gelatine sticks stocked in a building near a stone quarry at Illithodu near Malayattoor on September 21, 2020. The quantity of any kind of explosives kept in the licensed storehouse should not exceed the quantity approved by the licensing authority. Regular inspections as per the rules would help identify violations and aid the enforcement agencies to take corrective measures, they said.

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