Monitor firecracker units regularly

A massive fire set off by an explosion at a firecracker factory in Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh has killed 17 people. 

The death toll could soar as several people are in a critical condition. Preliminary investigations indicate overcrowding in the unit premises. What set off the explosion is unclear. A probe should establish not only the cause of the explosion but also fix accountability for the accident. If safety norms were not met, the owner of the unit as well as officials, who did not enforce the rules, must be punished. Explosions at firecracker factories are frighteningly common in India; ten days ago a firecracker unit at Puducherry went up in flames. Such explosions are often deadly; one at a factory in Sivakasi in 2012 left 34 people dead while another near Madurai in 2009 killed 16.

 Ministers visiting the site of the explosion at the Kakinada factory have promised action against unlicensed firecracker units. Why was no action taken against them so far?  The government approach of acting against unlicensed units is flawed as a licence alone does not make the unit safe. The factory at Kakinada, for instance, was a licensed unit and the owner had applied for renewal of the licence. But safety norms were being flouted; firecrackers were stored in the manufacturing area. In such circumstances, a spark was enough to set the entire unit ablaze.

 The line differentiating licensed units from unlicensed ones is rather blurred as manufacturers often outsource work to others. Especially in the run-up to Deepavali, countless units spring up to meet massive orders. Employers throw workers into production without giving them even rudimentary training in handling chemicals and explosives. Often a thatched hut doubles up as manufacturing unit and rarely do these have fire-fighting equipment. As culpable as owners of manufacturing units are officials, who do not inspect factories to check adherence to safety norms. Importantly, monitoring is necessary not just ahead of issuing licences but periodically.

Deepavali is supposed to be a fun festival. But increasingly, its celebration is marred by accidents during the manufacture, transport and sale of firecrackers. The government has done well to tighten safety rules. It must enforce them. It has done well to restrict sale of firecrackers to specific areas in cities and to prohibit the use of some crackers that are particularly dangerous. In many countries, playing with firecrackers is restricted to certain areas. The time has come for India to consider this option seriously. It will make Deepavali an enjoyable festival again. 

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