The burden of our Diwali lights


Six years. 84 accidents. 185 lives. And a story unchanged for 50 years. TS Sudhir reports on Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu’s infamous cracker town

Scarred for life A man injured in the fire in Sivakasi, where over 1.5 lakh people work in fireworks factories
Scarred for life A man injured in the fire in Sivakasi, where over 1.5 lakh people work in fireworks factories
Photos: Balaji Maheshwar

SHE IS barely audible. But the tears, which have wet her face almost every waking minute since the past week, do the talking. Ten months ago, Satya was a happy bride, having married her childhood sweetheart, Vel Murugan. They had managed to overcome differences between their families, as they came from different sub-sects of Scheduled Castes. The evening of 5 September was the last Satya saw Vel. On a stretcher at the Sattur Government Hospital in Virudhunagar district.

Cold. Motionless. Dead.

As the 20-year-old stares into thin air, it is obvious a part of her has died with Vel.

Vel, 22, was among the 38 people who died in the firecracker blast at Mudalipatti near Sivakasi last week. Working at Madan Fireworks, he had gone to see the fire at neighbouring Om Sakthi Fireworks when he was hit on the head by a sharp stone in the explosion that followed and died on the spot. Vel had spent a significant part of his growing-up years in the fireworks industry. A Class IX dropout, he was introduced at the age of 14 to the world of magnesium, sulphur and potassium nitrate — chemicals that are the staple diet of firecrackers. It was at the factory that romance blossomed as Satya too worked there. The industry that had seduced him by playing Cupid, turned out to be Satan.

Pichayandi Street in Sivakasi town is a mourners’ street. Three men did not return home that Wednesday. All three, thick friends, school dropouts. Vel, Kaliraj and Sandiramohan. The trio worked at Madan Fireworks and fell victims to either the urge to rescue those trapped inside Om Shakti or disaster tourism.

“I’m a cancer patient,” says Parimala, Sandiramohan’s mother. “My son would never let me do any hard work, would take me to different places on the bicycle. Now, who is there?” She wails, her outstretched arms aware of the futility of seeking answers to such questions.

Her daughter, Santiyammal, is more emphatic. Tending to her 18-month-old son, she says she will never let him pursue a vocation in the firecrackers industry. She knows that after the flower pot has burst, creating temporary light and show, it leaves behind only smoke, garbage and darkness.

A peppy Rajinikanth number blares from huge loudspeakers in the next bylane, a pointer to Sivakasi’s heartless incongruity. The occasion is the coming of age of the girl in a house, even as a crowd gathers next door to console Kaliraj’s parents and family members. Joy and sorrow live cheek-by-jowl, an indication of how life moves on after the tragedy. Almost like how everyone after enjoying a rocket take-off, gets set to launch another one on Diwali night.

Kaliraj’s physically handicapped father sits stone-faced, without batting an eyelid. His elder son, Kurusamy, says he is worried for him. Wednesday was to be a special day for Kaliraj’s sister Pathirakali as a prospective groom was to visit home to see her. Instead, Kaliraj’s corpse arrived home.

Not that death due to accidents is a stranger in these parts. One-hundred-and-eighty-five people have died in 84 incidents in the past six years. And moving on is inevitable. Which is why, despite his uncle Asok succumbing to burn injuries in a mishap at the Sri Periandavar Fireworks in August 2010, his nephew Antony Raj didn’t think twice before joining the same industry. He was among those who died last week. Three members of the family still work in different fireworks factories.

That’s because Sivakasi doesn’t have an alternative. Its 700-odd factories, which produce more than 90 percent of India’s firecrackers, employ nearly 1.5 lakh people. It is a fairly young workforce, which, in most cases, has traded school textbooks for flower pots, atom bombs and rockets. Like Panchavarnam, who works at Meenakshi Fireworks. She says she dropped out in Class VII and has been working for the past two years, preparing the thread for the bombs. But she does not do the math well and inflates her age to claim she is 20 years old. “I like my job, I earn Rs 150 every day,” she says.

Hazardous lives A worker at one of Sivakasi’s 700-odd factories; A man holds a photograph of his son who died when chemicals stored in his house caught fire

Antony Selvam, whose Human Rights and Educational Organisation runs tutorials for children of those who work in firecracker factories, says, “The number of children employed in these factories has come down drastically. Today, the number would be around 3,000 children, mostly in the 14-17 year age bracket.” A state government survey had put the number at more than 30,000 in the mid-1990s.

It is also an industry that is constantly on the move. Sri Kaliswari Fireworks, the No. 2 in terms of turnover (Rs 150 crore annually) in the industry, finds 500 of 7,000 employees changing every year. Such is the poverty and the hunger to make an extra buck that a competitor is able to lure away a worker for a few hundred rupees more, or worse, even the promise of a tea and snack during working hours.

This means most factories lack technical hands, who would know what not to mix. Learning on the job for the foreman or supervisor then obviously means courting disaster. And professional attitude is to ask for the moon. The office of the Inspector of Factories that checks the units once every quarter, says 70 percent of them violate rules.

No safety net A worker’s face is covered in chemicals after long hours in the factory
No safety net A worker’s face is covered in chemicals after long hours in the factory

Move around units in Sivakasi and you will not find any worker, even in fairly bigger units, wearing gloves or masks. Rubber mats are rare. Owners greedy to make more money even sub-let their open spaces under trees to other smaller manufacturers. The untrained worker neither has the expert understanding nor the guts to question, for his job would be at stake.

One of the most common violations is to let workers handle chemicals and firecrackers in the open. The police point out how the chemicals acted like good conductors at Om Sakthi, helping the fire spread. “Overcrowding is another huge issue. A room with chemicals should have no more than two persons. But you find 6-8 people there,” says Najmul Hoda, SP of Virudhunagar district.

Another common practice during busy season is to employ temporary staff. It is a win-win situation for the owners because in the event of a mishap, he does not have the burden of paying any compensation to a freelancer. At Om Sakthi, only 50 workers are covered under the Employee State Insurance Scheme, even though 300 workers were working there on 5 September.

Will this tragedy be a wake-up call to usher in reforms in the industry? “The fact that onlookers hung on outside Om Sakthi shows how risky it is to have an unaware and uneducated labour force. As a result, the possibility of human error gets magnified in such an industry,” points out V Sriram, an industrial safety expert. Easier said than done, given the lackadaisical attitude to fire safety. Fire buckets in most factory units are home to a spider’s cobweb rather than loose gravel.

Even though Virudhunagar district, which includes Sivakasi, was cited as a ‘high-risk’ zone as part of risk analysis done by the Tamil Nadu Fire Department two years ago, Sivakasi’s Chief Fire Officer R Shanmugharaju points out that the fire extinguishers installed in factories are just a showpiece item as they cannot be used on explosive chemicals.

No safety net A woman injured in an earlier accident, who is yet to get any compensation; An old woman working at a matchstick factory

THE BURNS Ward at Sivakasi General Hospital is a very rudimentary entity, shocking in a place that plays with fire 24×7. After the incident, the Jayalalithaa government ordered the upgradation of the Burns Ward, allocating Rs 4.5 crore to convert it into a Centre of Excellence.

The industry, which has been in existence since 1923, found much of its trained manpower being wooed by the textile industry in Tiruppur in the 1990s. Unskilled and untrained men and women were brought in from adjoining districts to Sivakasi to fill the gap. This, industry watchers say, spawned a culture of “ignorance is bliss” in Sivakasi.

Despite an annual turnover of Rs 1,500 crore, there is no school to train workers for the job, who can then, in turn, demand better working conditions. A proposal to train women for the job is pending with the Tamil Nadu Women Development Corporation, while factories such as Sri Kaliswari run a six-month-long fireworks and safety matches course at their Sri Kaliswari College, exclusively for hiring them in their units.

The Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO), which has its outpost in Sivakasi, has to take the lion’s share of the blame as it has a staff of just five officers to man all the units. This despite Sivakasi being the second largest fireworks manufacturing hub in the world after Liu Yang in China and the sole reasonably lucrative employment opportunity for the local population.

In the wake of public outcry, probes have been ordered both by the state and Central governments and the authorities seem keen to crack the whip on the firecracker industry. Six teams of six members each from the Explosives, Police, Health, Fire, Labour and Industries Departments are conducting ‘surprise’ checks on the 700-odd factories till 25 September.

“This inspection is an eyewash,” says A Kathir, Executive Director of Evidence, an NGO that highlights issues relating to the firecracker industry. “How can six teams check 700 units in a fortnight? Besides, there are so many homes where unlicensed work takes place. Everyone knows this inspection will take place and will ensure everything is hunky dory.”

For years, owners have encouraged workers to carry some part of the work home. So in many homes, raw material taken in after sunset is delivered as finished goods the next morning. On 8 September, the administration seized 90 boxes of firecrackers worth Rs 8 lakh stored from a house in Sivakasi.

But that is not the only worrying aspect. Sources in the district police point to the cosy relationship that the Explosives Department shares with most of the firecracker factory owners, suggesting that violations are overlooked in many of the cases. Manufacturers admit suspension notices can be handled for a price. Interestingly, when the two senior officers of the Explosives Department from Nagpur and Chennai visited Sivakasi for investigation into the incident, the booking for their stay at a private hotel was done not by their local office in Sivakasi, but by Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers’ Association (TANFAMA).

A copy of the Rs 20,000 hotel bill, in TEHELKA’s possession, is also in TANFAMA’s name. Two-hundred-and-twenty-five factories in and around Sivakasi are part of TANFAMA, which however insists it did not settle the bill.

Manufacturers are also unhappy with the spotlight on them in peak season. Already with the units closed between 6-9 September, it will be a race to finish orders ahead of Diwali.

“The industry is being treated as if we are producing illicit arrack,” fumes J Tamilselvan, president of the Indian Fireworks Association. “These inspections by hordes of officers are going to demoralise the industry. If you find anyone violating the rules, cancel the licence, but do not treat the entire industry as a group of wrongdoers. Why not give grading to factories like you give to colleges?”

The bigger challenge for the Sivakasi industry is to move towards automation. Also Indian port authorities do not accept fireworks products for export as they treat them as hazardous cargo. China has exploited this situation as its government has declared the fireworks products as toy fireworks, helping it to dominate the Rs 30,000 crore global market.

Along with firecrackers, Sivakasi is also a major centre for printing textbooks and calendars with portraits of deities. God’s own town, which was called Kutti Japan (Small Japan) by Jawaharlal Nehru for its industrious nature, needs to present itself in a new avatar. This festival season may just be the right time to be seen in a new light.

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To catch a fire

A tour of the destroyed factory premises near Sivakasi is a study in how safety norms are violated, says TS Sudhir

Blown away The remains of a factory worker’s leg found in the bushes

Eight days before Black Wednesday, B Rangaswamy, the Deputy Chief Controller of Explosives posted in Sivakasi, and his team inspected Om Sakthi Fireworks in Mudalipatti, 16 km from Sivakasi town. During this visit on 28 August, they listed out 38 violations, many major and a few minor and decided there was a fit case to suspend the licence of the proprietor. They found that

• Instead of the permitted 160, more than 300 people were working at the factory

• 35 persons were engaged in manufacturing of pellets sitting under trees, when rules permit working only in designated sheds

• Iron implements were used

• Though permission was given to construct 35 working sheds, 55 sheds had been built

Neenga smoke pannuvela? (Do you smoke?)” asked L Selvaraj, the sub-inspector posted at the Om Sakthi Fireworks, when the TEHELKA team visited the factory, four days afer the incident. And sheepishly added, “I know you won’t, but it is our duty to ask, you see.”

Only if such caution had been displayed before, Sivakasi wouldn’t have lost 38 of its own. A tour of the devastated factory premises is a study in how to violate safety norms. It showed that the inspection team’s visit and decision to suspend had no effect whatsoever on those who ran the unit.

• The guard room was stocked with drums containing aluminium powder

• Both raw material and the finished products were spread out in the open spaces, under trees, even though this was what the inspection team had objected to. When the fire broke out, this made Om Sakthi factory a sitting duck

• Overgrown grass helped the fire spread faster

• Unauthorised sheds outside the main gate were stocked with firecrackers, which blasted into the Sivakasi sky at noon. Diwali was never this dark, this violent. When the mayhem subsided, the field was strewn with dead bodies and injured men and women, most of them suffering a fracture

What is galling is that despite the brazenness with which the owner of Om Sakthi flouted rules, the officials did not suspend the licence immediately, giving rise to suspicion if his political connections played a role. Rangaswamy told TEHELKA that he “gave the factory cooling time to wind up the work” arguing “so much work was going on there that it was not safe to close down immediately”.

Those in the fireworks industry say the usual practice is to inform the local police to seal the factory the same evening after giving a few hours to clear the pending work or at best, give three days time after imposing some conditions. The decision to turn a blind eye to what was happening at Om Sakthi after the inspection therefore raises serious questions. Was it deliberate or sheer inefficiency?

When the fire broke out at around 12.10 pm on 5 September, the office of the Controller of Explosives washed its hands of, arguing it had suspended the licence the previous day. But then:

• If the licence was suspended, why wasn’t the unit sealed? How was work still continuing there, one week after the inspection?

• Both the District Collector and SP denied receiving any communication about the suspension. In fact, the suspension order was faxed to the police chief’s office at 8.27 pm on 5 September, eight hours after the tragedy. The letter, which the Explosives Department said had been sent by Speed Post, is yet to arrive

In fact, the fire that broke out did not claim any life. The explosion in the room — where colour pellets used in rockets that illuminate the night sky were stored and are very powerful — that happened almost 30 minutes after the fire broke out, is what caused the tragic deaths. The pellets hit onlookers like bullets, causing crater-like wounds.

According to sources, instead of 50 kg of colour pellets that Om Sakthi was allowed to temporarily store in the room, up to 8 tonnes was stored. Incidentally, 34 of the 38 who died were onlookers, only four dead were workers at Om Sakthi

“Every single rule is observed in violation at units like Om Sakthi,” says Najmul Hoda, SP of Virudhunagar district. “The owner is not supposed to give the factory on lease, which was the case here. No rubber sheets had been provided at the sheds where the crackers were manufactured. Mixing of chemicals had been done the wrong way and in unscientific proportions, besides, of course, overcrowding of the unit and overstocking of chemicals”

The couple of months before Diwali is referred to as the ‘accident season’. Because this is when proprietors, in a rush to meet deadlines and finish orders, hire every hand available. For workers, most of them school dropouts, trained on the job, this is the time to make good money — up to Rs 300 a day.

Given the conditions at these units, every day when they reach home safe, they have earned an extra day in their life as well.



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