Cracker shops sans safety

The festival of lights is round the corner. So are the hazards associated with it. While government agencies claim that fire accidents on the day of Deepavali have declined, the ground reality is one of shops being set up without regard to rules.

The festival also brings back concerns on the hazards posed to the environment owing to emission of smoke and high noise levels. According to TNPCB officials, crackers that exceed a sound level of 125 decibels, recorded at four metres from the spot where it is burst, are prohibited. Though residents continue to burst such crackers, it will not be fair to pull them up, officials say, pointing out that the only solution was to strike at the roots. According to them, they are sensitising manufacturers not to produce fireworks in violation of the stipulations.

They also claim that owing to their consistent efforts, there is a significant improvement in the ambient air quality. Last year, tests on the day before Deepavali and on the day of the festival revealed that suspended dust particles decreased by 31 per cent compared to that in 2001. They recalled that even during Bhogi this year, the problem of smog was not as intense compared to that in 2002. Flights in and out of Chennai landed and took off on time, while several flights were rescheduled last year. The problem was so intense that flights were unable to land at the airport last year.

Even officials at the Fire department said emergency calls came down last year compared to 2001 following intensive safety awareness campaigns. Firemen say their main challenge was putting out fires on thatched huts on the terrace of multi-storeyed buildings. For the firemen, the main source of concern is the `rockets' fired from bottles by residents in narrow lanes. They point out that most of the accidents were caused as the burning rockets land on the thatched huts.

Last year, the department had written to various State government agencies to ensure implementation of an existing law that prohibited construction of thatched huts on the terrace of multi-storeyed buildings.

Further they had proposed the shifting of shops selling fireworks to places far away from congested areas and residential localities. A senior official said the proposal was not considered last year. And now officials of different government agencies are reported to have replied that they did not have enough time to act on the proposal. Concurring with this proposal, authorities at the Department of Explosives said it would be ideal if fireworks shops are located far away from thickly-populated areas, as it was in Bangalore, Mumbai and Kolkatta.

Owners are permitted to set up shops only after getting a licence from the department or from the city police.

The authorities say that despite the ban on certain varieties, shop owners continued to sell them illegally. Some of the guidelines for shops included the provision for separate entrance and exit for the shoppers.

Further, the shops should have fire-fighting equipment and their electrical fittings should be foolproof. But the ground reality is different, a fact conceded even by the officials.

"It is nothing but providence that has saved the city from a major calamity during the Deepavali season," a senior officer remarked and recalled an incident at Dindigul, where people were charred to death inside the premises of a shop selling fireworks.

He said that at the wholesale markets at George Town, shoppers had to scamper for space.

Fire tenders would find it extremely difficult to reach the spot in the event of a mishap, he said.

An officer with the Pollution Control Board was of the view that an integrated approach involving the different arms of the government machinery was the need of the hour to address the issue.