It’s time to cut down the firework craze

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The fiery mishap at a firecracker factory in Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu on Wednesday killed 39 people, while many suffered serious burns.

Though not directly, Kerala has played a major role in causing this accident, as the state is one of the major consumers of firecrackers from Sivakasi.

Be it Vishu, Thrissur Pooram or a small temple festival, Malayalis cannot celebrate without fireworks.

It is learnt that Kerala has a firecracker market of roughly Rs 1000 crore. However, there are no stringent rules and regulations about the use of firecrackers in the state.

Factories manufacturing firecrackers and public places like festival grounds where the crackers are used are very vulnerable to mishaps in Kerala too.

A ban on fireworks may not be possible, but an organisation such as the Public Interest Forum suggests that the government should axe some fireworks displays such as Thrissur Pooram, as these noisy displays violate the provisions of the Explosive Rules 2008, Environment Protection Act 2001 and the Sound Pollution Regulation Rules 2004.

The standard of fireworks in India lags behind the rest of the world. The world has started using technologically advanced simulated fireworks known as Pyrodigital Firing System Operation which allows users to easily create a wireless communication network between a Pyrodigital pyrotechnic controller and remote locations, thereby reducing security threat to a large extent.

The Sivakasi incident — by no means the first to have occurred — proves that it is high time the old and dangerous way of making and using firecrackers be junked and international standards and technology be brought in to ensure safety.

While the entire country has been shocked at the needless loss of so many lives in the latest Sivakasi incident, the state wing of the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO) has not been galvanised into action. No steps have been taken to monitor cracker units in the state.

T.O. Sasi, a senior official of PESO told Deccan Chronicle that no instructions have been issued to inspect cracker units in the state.

“As far as Kerala is concerned, there is only a rare chance for such massive explosions. No big cracker units are functioning in the state so there is nothing to worry,” he said.

There may be no “big cracker units”, but mishaps can occur even in small ones given the highly combustible nature of the materials used.

There are around 20 fireworks manufacturing units in various taluks of Alappuzha. Sixteen of these factories produce fireworks of higher grade.

Though PESO permits only one type of cracker to be manufactured in a unit, most of these units reportedly manufacture more than 10 items.

Alappuzha had already witnessed two catastrophic firework mishaps in the last 12 months, in which one person was killed and several injured.

So, small units or big ones, strict precautionary measures must be enforced in manufacturing units in the state so that lives are not needlessly lost.
(Input from T. Sudheesh)

MAFIA grip in places of worship

Mafias control all tenders related to fireworks in temples and other places of worship, admit officials of the Crime Record Bureau (CRB).

Disasters can easily be avoided if the manufacturer takes simple precautionary measures as stipulated by law, said a senior official in the district CRB here.

But the chargesheet of explosion in the manufacturing unit at Athani in Thrissur in December last, killing five persons, is yet to be produced before the court for prosecution, he added.

At Athani, the investigation team seized 16 bags of potassium nitrate stored illegally at the site.

The official regretted that stern steps recommended by the Petroleum and Explosives
Safety Organisation (PESO) to curtail the abuse of explosives and unauthorised manufacture of fireworks had, in the past, been considered as standing in the way of celebrating local traditions. This weakened the power of authorities to act.

Festival organisers, in the name of local traditions, often arm-twisted rules at different levels. They also had the support of politicians which keep the authorities from acting, he admitted.

Climate impact on cracker-making

Climate change affects the manufacture of traditional fireworks. Most mishaps have occurred because day temperatures and humidity levels are very high, something that traditional manufacturing methods did not take into account, say experts.

Barium nitrate, potassium nitrate, sulphur and aluminum powder are the main raw materials that go into making the ammunition.

To add more impact to the fireworks almost all manufacturers add potassium chlorite which is banned in firework manufacturing. Traditional manufacturers dry these raw materials between 9 am and 11 am and 3 pm and 5pm.

But during the last few years day temperatures and humidity levels have been unpredictable. This has had an effect on the friction impact. Static electricity loses its equilibrium, which can lead to a massive explosion, say experts.

“Stable humidity is an important requirement for firework manufacturing. Sivakasi is said to be one place with stable humidity round the year. That is why firework manufacturing is focused there.

Traditional manufacturers have great knowledge about the chemistry of firework manufacturing. But things started going out of their hands as they failed to consider temperature and humidity levels,” says professor Janardhanan who regularly visits Sivakasi and takes classes for the workers there.

An officer connected with the investigation into the Athani fireworks manufacturing accident here last December says the poor quality of the raw materials brought in illegally also adds to the risk.

“Since potassium chlorite is banned, tonnes of this chemical crosses the border illegally, and most of it is impure,” he said on condition of anonymity.

Mechanised manufacturing with remote equipment is the only remedy for such accidents, says C.R. Surendranathan, retired deputy chief controller of explosives. China, the biggest manufacturer of fireworks, has such a system in place.

“It may not be an easy task to implement mechanisation in a country where cheap labour is available,” he added.

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