Silence grips once-busy site of Sivakasi

The spot of the devastating explosion that claimed 38 lives resembled a war zone.

With damaged rooftops, burnt-out walls, scattered footwear, mangled utensils and dismembered bodies, some of them found burnt, the entire village of Mudalipatti, 20 km from Virudhunagar, where the fireworks unit was located, presented an eerie picture.

While workers fled the spot soon after the first blast around 12 noon leaving their lunch boxes open, workers from nearby stone crushing and cracker factories and residents rushed in unaware of the imminent danger.

Mr Arumagasamy, 22, who works in a caproll crackers unit in the vicinity, said, “About 500 of us were standing 50 m from the main entrance of the factory. Worried about the workers, we rushed. But suddenly, all kinds of materials including sharp stones started hitting us. Fortunately, I escaped without injuries.”

While a small team of policemen from Vatchakarapatti station and local revenue staff cautioned the people to keep a safe distance, the crowd surged only to suffer bleeding wounds. “We could not take control of the situation,” a cop said.

The first fire tender arrived at 1.15 pm, nearly an hour after the mishap. “The intensity had not come down when we arrived. We could not go anywhere near the factory. If we had taken the risk, we would have perished in the fire,” said Mr Manimurugan, a fire serviceman.

Fire tenders and ambulances from places like Madurai were called for rescue operations. The dead and injured were sent to Sivakasi and Sattur government hospitals.

With at least 25 of the victims referred to Government Rajaji Hospital in Madurai, the death wails could be heard everywhere from the fireworks city to the Temple City.

The unauthorised cracker firm was located just about 1 km from the rural habitations of Mudalipatti, another reason why many people rushed to to watch the inferno.

Labourers stressed out by deadline

Labourers employed in the cracker units were forced to work under tremendous stress to meet production targets, said a trade union functionary on Wednesday adding that blatant violation of safety norms was the reason for frequent tragedies in cracker units.

For instance, 10 or more people were made to work instead of the normative four in a room with four doors. “Some registered units did not have equipment such as copper plates to earth static electricity, lightning arrestors or even protective masks.

“Basic requirements to control fire or prevent pollution were totally absent in some factories,” alleged Mr R. Muthuvel, secretary of the Virudhunagar district unit of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).
Scarcity of labour and higher wagers for local labourers had also led contractors to bring in new recruits from other states who did not know the technicalities of the job, particularly chemical mixing, filling, fitting, drying, braiding, and packing, said sources.

Besides, migrant labourers from North India come at a cheaper cost compared to locals who have to be paid the government fixed minimum wages. “Many accidents have happened because of lack of expertise in mixing chemicals by workers from other state,” the trade union leader said.

In almost all recent accidents, explosions occurred while handling chemicals, sometimes more than the prescribed limits, he added.

The practice of home-based firework production has gained strength in the last few years, and is not just creating fire hazards at homes, but is also pulling innocent children into the industry, Mr Muthuvel claimed.

Cracker fire toll 240 in 12 years

Thirty eight innocent lives could have been saved had the owner of the Virudhunagar firecracker unit in Tamil Nadu complied with the rules and stopped production as soon as the Department of Explosives cancelled his licence on Friday.

The owners’ negligence has taken to 240 the number of lives lost to firecracker unit mishaps in the state in the last 12 years.

“The deputy commissioner of explosives, Petroleum and Explosive Safety Organisation, Nagpur, found violations in the cracker unit and, subsequently, ordered the owner to stop production on August 31,” Mr Raju, district revenue officer, Virudhunagar, told Deccan Chronicle over phone on Wednesday. The licence was cancelled after the cracker unit started manufacturing and storing firecrackers and chemicals in excess of the permitted limit at its factory godown.

The factory owner was in a hurry to complete production a month-and-a-half ahead of Deepavali as he feared that the officials of the commissioner of explosives would seal his unit anytime, government sources added. “He was aware that the factory would be sealed in a few days from the date of cancellation of the licence. He had tried to make the most in the few days left. That could have been the cause for the tragedy,” said officials.

Industry sources said owner of Om Sakthi fire factory allegedly leased it to another person working for him.With Wednesday’s negligence-driven mishap, fire accidents in fireworks units have claimed over 240 lives in the past 12 years.

In 2011, 30 people were killed in accidents in firecracker units. Barring 2008, when only two persons died in such accidents, there were seven deaths in 2003, followed by 12 in 2004, 25 in 2005, 36 in 2006 and 31 in 2007.

inferno a dampener for fire industry

The season’s biggest fire accident, just before Deepavali, has brought bad publicity for the state fireworks industry.

Reeling under high cost of chemicals, waste paper and scrap prices, the latest inferno is feared to impact the overall image of the industry. “Such a shocking accident does not augur well,” laments a senior industry official.

Sivakasi accounts for about 95 per cent of the Rs2,000 crore fireworks industry in India and houses about 800 licensed units. However, numerous illegal units spring up during Deepavali, raking in an additional business of Rs150 crore.

Cracker production, in general, has been slow this year owing to a late Deepavali that falls on November 13.

“Rising inflation has already pushed up production costs by about 10-15 per cent while labour costs have shot up by about 40 per cent this year,” says Mr G. Asokan, MD of Arasan group.

With inexpensive Chinese crackers high on light, low on sound posing another threat, domestic fireworks manufacturers are hoping the mishap doesn’t compound their woes.

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