Price of callousness

Sivakasi, the most important hub of cracker manufacturing in India, has again become a cauldron for human lives with the death of 40 persons at a fireworks unit in Mudalipatti near Sivakasi in southern Tamil Nadu.

The toll could be higher as no one knows how many were inside and the charred remains make it difficult to count. Fire accidents and resulting deaths and injuries to people are a serial feature in the town and the surrounding villages where about 700 cracker units operate and produce 90 per cent of the country’s fireworks materials.

Last year saw a series of accidents and Wednesday’s mishap might be among the most serious in the history of the town. It is estimated that over 250 lives have been lost in the last 12 years, and in spite of all the talk about modernising manufacturing methods, improving the working conditions and enforcement of safety regulations, accidents continue to happen.

While Wednesday’s disaster has been attributed to the wrong handling of an explosive chemical, reasons for accidents have varied from lapses in manufacturing processes and wrong handling of raw materials and to faulty storage. But the common denominator is negligence, lack of expertise and training. The Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation’s rules and fire service regulations were obviously discarded in the unit.

Those in charge of implementing safety rules obviously failed to do their duty. It is claimed that the licence of the unit had been suspended  but why wasn’t it shut down? The unit and all others in Sivakasi were working beyond their  permitted capacity to meet the big Dipavali demand and the authorities should have exercised extra vigil. Many of those who died were onlookers. These deaths also could have been avoided.

It has been observed that most of the accidents have taken place in the smaller units.  Mechanisation of the processes has not made much headway in them. Workers are ill-trained and lack safety awareness. Though child labour has been banned, there is suspicion that it exists in stealth.

The demands to set up a centre for training for workers and another one for testing crackers have not been acted upon. The proposal to set up solar-energy-driven driers for crackers also has not been pursued. All these would have reduced the hazards and minimised the chance of accidents. But these do not lessen the criminal liability of those who run the units flouting safety norms and the officials who fail to enforce them.       

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