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 aer 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 aer 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.

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