To Catch A Fire
A tour of the destroyed factory premises near Sivakasi is a study in how safety norms are violated, says
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 • 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 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 aer the inspection? • Both the District Collector and
denied receiving any communication about the suspen- 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 aer 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, 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 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.