It was a scorching September day, hot as only central Tamil Nadu can get. At Sivakasi’s Om Sakthi Fireworks, the workers were busy—Diwali was just a month away and orders needed to be met. It was at around noon that the fire broke, in one of the 20 rooms where chemicals are mixed. No one really knows what caused it, but the suspicion is that impurities in chemicals could have been at fault. The fire couldn’t be controlled, it spread to the godown 200 meters away.
In the half hour it took for all this to happen, some workers managed to flee, but when the godown blew up, bricks turned into shrapnel amid the inferno, killing 39 and injuring 70. Of Om Sakthi’s three godowns, two were gutted. According to locals, the explosions could be heard as much as 10km away.
The next day, 6 September, Sivakasi was unusually still. There were no women furiously rolling paper into tubes in their homes, no men coated in shimmering aluminium dust, mixing chemicals in the many fireworks factories that dot the landscape. The town was in mourning for the week. Almost everyone in Sivakasi knew someone or the other who had lost a close family member in the incident, one of the worst accidents in 90 years.
The sour odour of sulphur hung in the air, while the area was littered with discarded paper tubes. On the ground were splashes of the red dye used to colour the paper wrapped around the crackers.
Sivakasi would have to get back to work to get the fireworks ready for Diwali, when its factories sell 90% of their products. The country’s Rs.2,000 crore fireworks hub lies in the heart of Virudhunagar district, about 544km from Tamil Nadu’s capital Chennai.
Meanwhile, politicians were going through the usual motions. Sport utility vehicles bedecked with party flags sped though the narrow roads and pulled up near the house of 75-year-old S. Muniyamma, who lost her 53-year-old daughter Adilakshmi and 26-year-old granddaughter Angalakshmi in the fire.
The visitor was state lawmaker K. Pandiarajan of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam party. He offered his condolences and handed Muniyamma two cheques for Rs.10,000 each.
“I cannot believe that I’m living to see this day, I’ve lost my daughter and granddaughter. This fireworks industry is such. This is our fate. People will soon forget this, and work will continue as if none of this happened,” said the distraught Muniyamma.
From minor fires to infernos, the town has seen 84 reported accidents in the last six years in which a total of 185 people have died. Seventy accidents have taken place in licensed firecracker units and 14 in unlicensed ones, according to the Virudhunagar police.
“Almost all fireworks factories have flouted the rules in some way or the other,” said Najmul Hoda, superintendent of police for Virudhunagar.
The Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO), formerly known as the department of explosives, is responsible for checking the fireworks factories. It had suspended the licences of 58 factories this year, but many of them continued to produce fireworks, much like what happened at Om Sakthi. “It is the duty of the district authority to ensure further action to be taken. We cannot keep revisiting the same factories to check if the problem has been rectified,” said B. Rengasamy, deputy chief controller of explosives at PESO for Sivakasi sub-circle.
As with all tragedies where efforts to tighten the system follow the incident, those responsible for checking on firework units—police, health, fire, labour and industries departments—formed 11 teams to conduct surprise raids on factories. So far 134 units have been inspected, and violations have been found in each of them. Twelve licences have been suspended; 122 other units have been issued show-cause notices, said Hoda.
On 8 September, as part of raids, police seized 90 boxes of firecrackers worth Rs.8 lakh stored in a house in Sivakasi.
“Only one-fourth of the volume is being produced now as the factories are all operating with very less chemicals in the fear that they will be suspended indefinitely. If only such strict inspection happened all the time, we could avoid the Om Sakthi type of accidents,” said S. Vijayakumar, president of the Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers’ Association, a local fireworks trade body.
The factory was inspected on 28 August and its licence was suspended online the day before the accident. By the time a fax to this effect reached the police, it was eight-and-a-half hours after the fire started. Mint reviewed a copy of the fax sent by PESO to the police and the collector—the time stamp showed 5 September, 8:27pm.
“Why did it take so long for the explosives department to act? Om Sakthi had almost 40 violations. It was a ticking time bomb, waiting to go off. It should have been sealed immediately,” Hoda said.
PESO’s Rengasamy said they had moved to an online system of cancelling licences, but still sent notices through post, and reiterated that it was the duty of all the departments involved to act on it.
Factories routinely violate rudimentary safety norms. For instance, rubber mats are required to prevent friction as chemicals are sensitive to changes in temperature and pressure. Many factories ignore this requirement, said Hoda. “In the accident site of Om Sakthi, we did not spot any rubber material among the rubble,” he added.
A typical fireworks factory has several rooms measuring about 12 sq. ft each. Four people are meant to work out of them, but most will have 10-12, local workers said. They usually have no windows or electricity, so that sunlight or sparks don’t ignite the chemicals. Illegal units stay open past the sunset (factories work from sunrise to sunset) to keep up with Diwali demand. Almost one-third of Sivakasi’s production is made by illegal units, according to owners of fireworks factories.
For workers, Diwali is the best time to earn some extra cash. They get Rs.150-400 a day, depending on the nature of the job.
Villages like Meenakshipuram, Vembakottai, Vijayakarisalkulam and Elayirampannai around Sivakasi are known for their illegal fireworks units in motor rooms, sheds and homes, thus endangering the neighbourhood.
Illegal units require little investment—with Rs.10,000, fireworks worth Rs.25,000 can be produced.
“One of my workers was preparing fire crackers at his home. It’s very easy to get hold of raw materials from the vendor who supplies the factories,” said the owner of a small-scale fireworks unit, who requested anonymity.
The formula is often tweaked, adding to the risk. “People go to them with special requests to make the fireworks more powerful, with greater noise,” said the person cited above. “Since they (illegal units) sell these at a much lower price, people are encouraged to buy more from them.”
Companies also use banned substances to make so-called special fireworks. A.P. Selvarajan, director of the Rs.135 crore Sri Kaliswari Fireworks Pvt. Ltd, explained: “Red lead is a substance that produces the crackling effect in fireworks. It is banned as it is very harmful both during manufacturing and for the end-user, but everyone continues to use it because it is cheaper by at least Rs.1,000 than safer substitutes.”
When it comes to the legal units, different types of licences are issued, depending on the quantity of fireworks being made. The process for procuring a licence involves a visit to a string of departments—the village administrative office, revenue officials, local police station and finally PESO. People familiar with the situation said corruption is rife.
“Every factory pays a minimum Rs.50,000 a month to the department of explosives to let them function without interference,” said one person.
With licences being handed out indiscriminately, the industry has doubled to nearly 750 units from 400 five years ago, said the owner who requested anonymity. This has made keeping a tab on these units more difficult. PESO has only five officers who inspect the units once a year.
Manpower shortage is a problem that even fireworks companies are worried about. There has been a sharp drop in skilled labour. While the number of units has almost doubled, the pool of labour in the town has remained the same. “Workers’ children are all going to school and don’t want to come into this industry. Even my own son is not interested in taking over the company,” said Selvarajan.
This has resulted in poaching of workers, who are lured with larger sums of money although they don’t get any benefits such as insurance. They also work for multiple employers, leading to fatigue and the risk of mishandling hazardous chemicals. The industry has also attracted immigrant labour from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, who don’t always have the know-how that comes with experience.
“Every industry has labour shortage. It is not unique to the fireworks industry. The factory workers teach the new workers the know-how, so it is not such a big problem,” said Vijayakumar of the Tamil Nadu Fireworks Association.
The workers aren’t too keen on sticking to the trade. “I have been working in this industry for 33 years. Would I want my son to do the same? No chance,” said L. Ganesan, a worker in Sun Fireworks.
Anticipating a severe labour crunch, some of the big firework units are turning to automation.
Selvarajan’s Sri Kaliswari spent Rs.4 crore in research and development last year, some of it to devise machines to automate the mixing of chemicals, apart from filling and drying. He aims to make his units 60% mechanized by 2015. “I have 8,000 workers, I want to reduce the workforce to just 1,000 people,” he said. He said the government should help the jobless with alternative career options.
Selvarajan also suggested that the fireworks industry be organized into a cluster like the auto and auto components sector. “The ancillary work can be outsourced, and this way all the illegal work that is being done can become organized and be made legal,” he said.
J. Tamil Selvan, president of the Indian Fireworks Association, agreed. Sivakasi could turn into a global hub if it became a cooperative industry, he said. But that will need a serious policy review.
As for the people of the town, they feel trapped—losing lives to accidents, but unable to speak against the industry, lest the newspapers and TV channels report their appalling conditions, and fireworks units are shut down. Fifty-five-year-old G. Karupamma said: “If something happens to this industry, we will have to douse ourselves with kerosene and die.”