Deaths once again returned to haunt Sivakasi, a place which in recent years has been the biggest producer of firecrackers in India. While opinion pieces question the repeated accidents and the consequent loss of lives in firecracker units, the Madras HC has ordered 3 lakh interim compensation. The hazardous working conditions for the workers including children has been a point of moot over time but a close look at the situation shows that there are clearly no lessons learnt.
PM Modi speaking at the 25th edition of the Mann Ki Baat via All India Radio may not have specifically pinpointed at the Sivakasi deaths, but he did point out that Diwali festivities are often marred by injuries and burns. Modi underscored that one must celebrate Diwali with enthusiasm and gusto but not at the cost of any kind of physical injury.
In the nine deaths in Sivakasi, the compensation will be given to the families of those who died due to a fire accident at a cracker shop in Sivakasi on October 20.
The fire broke out when crackers were being unloaded.
Surprisingly this is not a one of fire incident. Police have registered more than hundred cases of fire accidents from 2010 to 2016.
Estimates suggest 58 of the accidents had led to loss of lives. Of 58, 16 cases ended in acquittals while 25 cases are under trial and 16 cases are under investigation.
Schools in India have in recent years increased awareness campaigns by either having talks from distinguished people or having skits to tell people of the ill effects of crackers. The young off late have become more aware and avoid crackers for it is often made by children who are at risk and also to cut down pollution. Many rules and regulations have been set for safe use of crackers, very little has been made out of it.
Amidst all this at Sivakasi uncertainty and fear of death is a common emotion. Those having suffered in the recent accident have told the media that it was hard to understand how the green signal for such lopsided units were given.
The loss of loved ones to hazardous smoke and fire is nothing new, but for these people a desperation to earn and live makes them come back to these units and create crackers that help us mark Diwali.
Daily wages of the workers are a paltry Rs 150 to 300, and they are mostly uninsured.
About 20-25 workers die each year in fire accidents in this industry.
Reportedly mainstream media reports most manufacturers produce more explosives than they are permitted to.
In a recent India Today Investigation one gets to learn that children toil day and night in what is being termed as a death factory to produce crackers.
The investigation exposes how workers having no training, machines or safety gear fill gunpowder into small earthen pots, rocket tubes and paper shells.
In Sivakasi and other prominent factories most workforce are found to be kids, adolescents, women.
Reports I scanned show that there are exhaustive norms to regulate display, storage and production of explosives.
Chemical compositions of fireworks are well defined with permissible limits in the Explosives Rules of 2008.
Despite specific do’s and don’ts enforcement is bad sometimes worse.
Not long back the Delhi High Court has compared fireworks with firearms.
In its report on the fireworks industry even the nation’s child-rights watchdog NCPCR broadly describes the deadly lives being lived in Sivakasi’s death factories.
90 per cent of children employed in firecracker units were found to have contracted asthma, eye disease and TB.
Many found to be victims of psychological, physical and verbal abuse, the NCPCR observes.
Past of Sivakasi in itself is an eye opener for those concerned about the dark lives of the Sivakasi workers.
In September 2012, 38 people were killed and over 60 were injured after a fire blew up large amounts of firecrackers and raw materials stored at the Om Siva Shakti factory.
In October 2009, 32 people, most of them Deepavali shoppers, were killed.
For a nation celebrating Diwali with extreme fervour, the dedication to create fire out of fire is noteworthy. Sivakasi has 700 registered factories, which make nearly 20 billion rupees annually. Chemicals here are more often than not mishandled and safety precautions flouted.
Even as an anti Chinese sentiment grows in the country, over the years there has also been an anti cracker campaign that has reached its peak. As a consequence a hundred firecracker manufacturing units in Sivakasi have shut shop in the last few years alone. It is estimated that about 30,000 people have lost their livelihood.
Sivakasi is believed to be a market of about Rs 2,500 crore. It is the world’s second largest fireworks manufacturing hub after Liuyang in China.
As we light a diya and burn a cracker or two this Diwali, the families of the nine dead will be mourning the loss of their loved ones.