Sitting atop a ticking cracker
It Was a tragedy that was staring at the face of one and all. The utterly deplorable working condition of the Sivakasi fire cracker factories was not unknown to the world. Neither were the risks involved for the workers a matter of surprise. In most Indian unorganised or small factories and sweatshops, the working conditions are anyway abysmal. They sit in danger everyday. On top of that, Sivakasi is the hub of the cracker industry of India, a product that is by nature inflammable, full of attendant risks and its chemical components are hazardous and a serious threat to life and health of the workers. The two together create the standard model of a jotugriha, a veritable feast of fire. It’s amazing that no one considered that if a single incident of fire happens, it could be like a bonfire of not just the crackers but also the human bodies that were slogging inside. Om Shakti, the site of the major fire was one of the biggest fire cracker units in the country. And it was sitting on a heap of hazardous chemicals with impunity, in major violation of norms and regulations, avoiding the gaze of the administration or the law. Wednesday’s fire proved the doomsayers true! It had to be gruesome and it turned out to be.
At the time of writing this, 50 people were said to be burnt to death and an equal number badly injured. Many of them could succumb to their injuries as per doctors’ estimates. And this is not the first major incident. As per government estimates, 237 lives have been lost in the last 12 years at Sivakasi, most related to incidents of fire. Apparently the government had made a checklist of procedures that should be followed in the industrial area and by its own confession, only 200 out of the 700 units in Sivakasi follow the safety rules. If that was known, then why did the government go easy on the rest? Why were the rest not pulled up on grounds of violation of the rules? Does only tragedy, of the scale witnessed on Wednesday, pull the government out of its stupor? This case must be pursued and the guilty should not be spared. The strictest punishment should be reserved for them. As per reports, the police are bringing homicide charges against the licencee and the licencor of the factory and few other legal provisions could also be invoked. That is a good beginning. But there cannot be any lapse or lull hereafter.
There are issues of industrial safety regulation, the illegal hoarding of hazardous materials, the mixing of chemicals etc, but one may stop and think about the very need of noise and fire crackers for wider public use. The Sivakasi incident is one more reason to ponder if crackers should be banned once and for all and not cause any further harm to those manufacturing them or those who are its end users.