Unsafe working conditions and improper handling of inflammable raw materials continue to endanger lives in the fireworks industry. Last week, 11 workers were charred at a fireworks unit in Tamil Nadu’s Virudhunagar district. Police data show that in the past decade, at least 239 people have perished and over 265 injured in 142 accidents in fireworks units. Such tragedies have not been confined to Sivakasi, deemed the fireworks capital of the world, where most such units are concentrated. Illegal cracker units functioning in a few other parts of the State have also led to loss of a significant number of lives. In and around Sivakasi, the manufacturing of firecrackers in makeshift unlicensed units, rough handling of chemicals by untrained and unskilled workers, spillage or overloading of chemicals during the filling process, and working outside permitted areas have been identified as major causes for past accidents. In the recent tragedy too, the workers were engaged in manufacturing ‘fancy aerial crackers’ for which the unit did not have a licence. Preliminary investigations suggest that mishandling of chemicals could have triggered an explosion.
Occasional accidents in an industry dealing in explosive materials may seem inevitable. But the probability of such mishaps can certainly be reduced by adopting safe work practices, complying with rules and through cohesive monitoring by Central and State licensing and enforcement authorities. Crackdowns against violators have been few and far between despite illegal sub-leasing of works to unlicensed cottage units becoming a widely acknowledged practice in the industry. The Tamilnadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers Association has also complained about the unlicensed units, a parallel industry in itself spread across a dozen villages. The Chaitanya Prasad Committee, which examined, among other things, statutory and administrative shortcomings that led to the death of 40 workers at Om Shakti Fireworks Industries in 2012, noted the “conspicuous absence” of proper inspection mechanisms at various government departments. It also found a lack of coordination between Central and State authorities dealing with the regulation of fireworks industries. The committee recommended making sub-leasing of works by licensed units a cognisable penal offence; mandated inter-safety distances between sheds covered with earthen mounds; and provision of a smoothened pathway with a width of 1.5 metres, as part of industrial safety measures. Ground reports suggest these recommendations continue to be ignored, with sub-leasing of works still rampant. Regulators understandably complain of a lack of manpower in checking violations. The number of players has exponentially grown since the 1980s with 1,070 licensed units employing an estimated 10 lakh workers now. But safety is non-negotiable. The governments must walk the extra mile to enforce rules in a hazardous industry and prosecute violators. The industry too must self-regulate in its own interest.