People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 37

September 16, 2012




Merchants of Death Have a Free Hand in Sivakasi


S P Rajendran


MORE than four dozen persons, including two women, most of them villagers who rushed to the site of an explosion in a cracker unit, were killed when a large stock of explosives blew up on September 5 afternoon. More than a hundred persons were wounded and had to be admitted to government hospitals in Virudhunagar district and Madurai.




The tragedy took place at Mudalipatti, 13 km from Sivakasi, in Virudhunagar district. The region has been notorious for frequent accidents in the match and fireworks industries here.


Though the police and revenue officials found no bodies on the premises of Om Sakthi Fireworks Industries during the initial search, the horror of the situation came to the fore after the removal of concrete sheds, flattened by the impact of the explosion, in at least three working areas. With no earthmover reaching the site soon, rescue work could not be taken up till 6.30 p m.


After the first explosion at the unit, one of the biggest in the region, was reported at about 12.20 p m, villagers of Mudalipatti and workers of a nearby blue metal crusher unit rushed to the spot. A small posse of police force tried to prevent the villagers from entering the unit, but the 500-strong crowd managed to get past the police.


One of the persons who rushed to the spot  immediately with the people and with his comrades was M C Pandian, secretary of the CPI(M)’s R R Nagar area committee. He did guess the gravity of the situation and the further damages that could follow in case hundreds of other people had not been prevented from entering the area.


As it happened, there was another and much huger explosion around 1 p m, and the debris that flew across a wide distance injured many people seriously. Crackers and unfinished goods were seen strewn over more than half a km radius from the entrance. A huge bowlder hit the jeep of the tehsildar of Virudhunagar some 500 metres away from the cracker unit.


Details of the number of workers employed and those present at the time of the incident were not available with the officials. Even the police and firemen did not enter the premises for some time after they saw the bodies and the grievously injured persons.


Ten fire tenders, including some from Tirunelveli, Tuticorin and Madurai districts, came to the unit. But the first one could enter the unit only at 3.30 p m, after the entrance was cleared of debris. Many working sheds were damaged as a strong gust of wind fanned the fire. The injured, who were rescued by the villagers, were rushed to government hospitals.


Later, five out of those killed in the blast were identified as employees of the unit. All the other deceased were people from the neighbouring areas who rushed to the spot as soon as they heard the first explosion.


The police identified the dead workers as A Murugan (39), I Athilakshmi (30) and I Lakshmi (52), all from Tiruthangal.  Anil Partha, a worker who was severely injured, died in the Rajaji Government Hospital at Madurai. He was from West Bengal.  


The district police later arrested 12 persons. They were charged with culpable homicide, negligence with respect to explosive substances, causing grievous losses, and violation of the provisions of Indian Explosives Act.


The superintendent of police, Najmul Hoda, who inspected the accident site, said the initial blast was triggered at one of the working sheds at the northern end of the unit. Quoting T Janakiraman, deputy director of forensic laboratory at Madurai, the SP said the rubber sheet for the floor, a mandatory safety measure, was missing in the room. Besides, a hammer with an iron head was found. (Use of iron is banned in these units.) Officials suspect that mixing of different chemicals in an improper combination for making fancy crackers could have triggered the blast. Then, fanned by wind, the flames would have reached the chemical room on the southern side in the unit where raw explosive materials were stocked in excessive quantities. “The impact of the explosion was so high that the floor had a two fee deep pit of the radius of around five to six feet,” one of the officials said. Ten out of the 48 working sheds were completely damaged.




Sitaram Yechury, a member of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau and MP, who happened to be at Madurai on the day, visited the accident site on September 6. He complained that the present system of monitoring and regulation of fireworks units allowed gross violations of safety norms. Pointing to the claim of the office of Deputy Chief Controller of Explosives in Sivakasi that the licence of the cracker unit was suspended only on Tuesday, September 4, Yechury wondered how the unit was then allowed to run. He said instead of searching for scapegoats, officials accountable for the violation should be identified and punished. He also demanded that the central and state officials should work together for better implementation of the safety norms. Describing the owners of cracker units who wilfully violated the safety norms at the cost of the lives of the innocent workers as “merchants of death,” Yechury said a high degree of corruption was involved at various levels.


Yechury also said the compensation of two lakh rupees, announced by the state government for the families of those killed, was not enough and that they should be given Rs 10 lakh each. He also sought vigorous efforts for rehabilitating the injured. The MPs and MLAs of the CPI(M) would raise the issue in parliament and the Tamilnadu assembly, he assured.


Accompanied by West Bengal CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty, who was in Madurai to attend the SFI conference, other serving and former leaders of the SFI, CPI(M) Central Committee members, CPI(M) MLA K Balakrishnan, and party leaders in Virudhunagar district like A Sekar, S Balasubramaniyan and others,  Yechury also visited the government hospital at Sivakasi where he saw a dismal lack of facilities to treat the severe fire injuries. He conveyed his sense of grief to the injured.


At that time, 33 young workers belonging to West Bengal rushed to meet the delegation, and broke down during the meeting. They, who were working in the unfortunate unit, had lost one of their coworkers, Anil Partha, while Heyram Singh was injured and admitted in the hospital.  Yechury immediately contacted the authorities in West Bengal as well as Tamilnadu for airlift of the body of Anil to West Bengal. CPI(M) cadres also collected Rs 5,000 for them on the spot. After two days of treatment, CPI(M) cadres sent off on September 8 the remaining 32 workers to their home state by Howrah Express.


Earlier, immediately after hearing about the accident, CPI(M) state secretary G Ramakrishnan had also rushed to the spot on September 5 evening.




At that time the first blast was heard, the villagers rushed to rescue the workers inside. Balakrishnan was one of them. He was actually a worker in another fireworks factory. A well-known CPI(M) cadre and unit secretary of the particular village, Balakrishnan rescued many workers from the fierce fire but, unfortunately, could not save himself from the cruel tongues of  fire. He sacrificed his life to save the life of other workers and villagers.


The CPI(M) said it salutes Comrade Balakrishnan.


The CPI(M) criticised the Deputy Chief Controller of Explosives who claimed his office had issued a suspension order to the factory a day before the accident. “The claim is highly suspicious and may be meant only to escape after pressure mounted on them due to the high number of deaths,” said A Sekar, secretary of the Virudhunagar district unit of the party. He demanded that the officials concerned should be booked for criminal negligence despite having identified 40 violations. These types of accidents have been recurring in Sivakasi. During the last 12 years, 237 persons have lost their lives due to fires in 88 firecracker units in Sivakasi, he added.


The suspension of the licence of Om Sakthi Fireworks Industries by officials of the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO) on September 4 was officially communicated to the Virudhunagar Collector, T N Hariharan, and the Superintendent of Police, Najmul Hoda, only hours after the fire accident


Official sources said the Collector’s office received the copy of a report listing the violations and a copy of the order, both dated September 4, through fax at 6.03 p m on September 5, five hours after the accident took place. The report signed by the Deputy Chief Controller of Explosives in Sivakasi, B Rengasamy, was addressed to Messrs Om Sakthi Fireworks Industries and a copy marked to the Collector and the SP “for further necessary action.”


“How do they expect us (officials in the Collectorate) to take action, when the very information has reached us after all the damage?” an official said. Besides, he wondered why the Deputy Chief Controller of Explosives took seven days to suspend the licence, when he had found gross violations of safety norms as early as on August 28!


PESO, under the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion of the Commerce and Industry Ministry at the centre, is the agency that deals with safety issues in the explosives and petroleum sectors. PESO officials told reporters on the day of accident that the suspension report was sent “online” and the licensee, Murugesan, had collected the copy in person from their office. However, they said the information about the suspension was communicated to the Collector and the SP only through post. Claiming that the district administration and the police had ordered permanent closure of many cracker units in the past for serious violations, the district official wondered what stopped PESO officials from ensuring that Om Sakthi Fireworks Industries was sealed immediately since they had detected 40 violations that could endanger the lives of workers. “The major violations said to have been detected are that the unit had employed manpower in excess number and used explosives in excess quantity. Are these violations not good enough to stop work without wasting time?” the official asked.




It was the Teachers’ Day, September 5, and fortunately the teachers working in the Government Higher Secondary School at Thiagarajapuram were present in the school. It was their presence of mind that ensured that none of the 800-odd students of the school could get anywhere close to the nearby fireworks unit where the accident took place.


The 20 teachers, led by headmaster S Srinivasan, made all the students assemble on the ground away from the buildings, after they felt strong jolts following a series of explosions.


“The first blast was heard a little past noon. We noticed smoke passing through classrooms. The first floor of the building started to shake. As a precautionary measure, we brought all the students of the four classrooms on the first floor to the ground,” the headmaster said. The school is located just 500 metres away from the Om Sakthi Fireworks Industries.


“During an earlier accident in another nearby cracker unit, a few students managed to slip away to watch the happenings. This time, we found many workers running for their life near our school premises. They warned us against venturing closer,” Tamil teacher K Sundaresan said. The teachers were worried that the boys, whose relatives worked in the ill-fated unit, would try to go there, as the bell was about to ring for lunch break. The lunch break is from 12.40 to 1.15 p m.


“The first thing I did was to switch off power supply to the electric bell. Had it rung, it might have become impossible to stop the children from going out,” Srinivasan said.




The Wednesday’s blast may have taken place when the mixing of chemicals, meant for fancy cracker items, was being carried out, according to a senior government official.


Such fancy items are much in demand as they emit bright colours and produce loud bang. Unlike in the case of conventional firecrackers, a special mix of chemical products is done in respect of the fancy cracker items, says the official, who visited the site of the blast next day.


The production of such fire crackers underscores the need for renewed emphasis on training of workers of fireworks units, the official says.


Emphasising that the firecracker industry has to be transparent in its functioning, officials say it would be better if each company had a website that provided complete details about it. This can be done without divulging its “trade secrets.”


Apart from devising a standard operating procedure, the industry should go in for an insurance policy scheme, covering factories’ premises and workers. When the entire factory is covered under the insurance scheme, the management concerned is required to share information on various aspects of the premises with the insurance company.


Acknowledging that a system is in place for periodic inspection of the factories, including joint inspection of various departments concerned, officials point to the presence of five players concerning the firecracker industry. While the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO) is the national level regulatory authority, the state level players are the Inspectorate of Factories, Fire and Rescue Services, police, and the respective district administration. 


Invariably, all of these agencies carry out inspection independently but what is more required is that there have to be coordinated inspections by all the agencies together at frequent intervals.


As it is, the owner of the affected cracker manufacturing unit was arrested only four days later --- on September 9 --- from Samayanallur in Madurai district. Murugesan, who had been absconding since the incident, was arrested by a special police team headed by Ramamoorthy, deputy superintendent of police  in Virudhunagar district.


He has been charged under Section 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder), Section 286 (negligent conduct with respect to explosive substance), Section 337 (causing hurt by endangering life) and Section 338 (causing grievous injuries) of the IPC along with various sections under Indian Explosives Act and Explosive Substances Act.


The Tamilnadu government has ordered a magisterial probe into the mishap at Sivakasi, the hub of the country’s cracker industry. Union commerce and industries minister Anand Sharma has also ordered an inquiry into the whole incident.