People's Democracy

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


No. 37

September 16, 2012




Greed For Profit Claims Lives


U Vasuki


SIVAKASI in Virudhunagar district, where a horrendous fire accident took place in the Om Sakthi Fireworks in Mudalipatti village on September 5, has been notorious for fire accidents and it is only natural that people come to the rescue of the victims without being asked. On that fateful day too, on hearing the explosion, more than 100 people rushed inside the compound and started searching for bodies and injured persons. M C Pandi, secretary of the CPI(M)ís local committee, was one of them.  There was continuous noise, and thick smoke was emanating.  When he tried to assess the situation, he saw the godown stocking the raw chemicals, and guessed that it could burst into flames any time. He tried to convince the people to rush outside but there were no takers. In fact, they shouted at him saying that he was not humanitarian enough to save the injured. Pandi went out, approached a police inspector and explained the situation. The inspector also appealed to the people but he was beaten up. Within minutes, the godown went up in flames and debris started flying in all directions. Many got injured. Some of the dead bodies had lost organs. But for Pandiís timely intervention, the casualty would have gone up by at least a 100 more.


One of the deceased was Comrade Balakrishnan, unit secretary of the CPI(M). He had gone there to rescue the injured. Only at night, party members came to have Comrade Balakrishnanís after frantic search. It was virtually unrecognisable.


The district and taluk level cadres of the party, led by district secretary A Sekhar, state committee member Balasubramaniam and taluk secretary Deva, stood in the field making interventions. They demanded Rs 10,000 for funeral expenses and refused to take the bodies after the post mortem. Normally, the factory owner would have given the amount. But here the owner was absconding. Due to the CPI(M)ís pressure, the collector announced the amount.


What was wrong here? In fact, everything. An enquiry after the accident revealed that the company had made about 40 violations. If the officials from the Explosives Control Department say they had cancelled the license of this factory on August 28, then how was it working till September 5? Each shed must have only four persons and each person is allowed to keep only 25 kg of explosive chemicals at a time. But the locals say that this rule is more followed in its breach. A visit to the site will clearly tell that more chemicals were being handled than the prescribed limit. Instead of about 160 workers, it was reported that more than 300 were present for work.


There is more demand for fancy items which light the skies with beautiful display of colours and sparkles. Due to stiff competition, there is pressure to use dangerous chemicals to add to the colours and sparkles. Workers donít have full knowledge about the materials they handle and no proper training. The mixture should not be exposed to too much heat or cold. It must be used off within a particular time. Slightest friction would lead to sure doom. A worker, speaking in Tamil, aptly said the mixture keeps asking: when can I explode? The wick should be cut by a brass knife but only iron knife is given for faster work. The piece rate system prevalent in this industry brings pressure on the workers to work faster. Workers said sometimes pouring water on the fire may aggravate rather than extinguish it.  


Though there is a rule that the workplace cannot be given to anyone on lease, this unit has been leased out to Pal Pandi by the owner Murugesan. From Pal Pandi, many took contracts. In the last five years, 84 accidents have left 185 dead and 215 injured. But only 14 cases so far have ended in conviction, according to The Hindu, September 9, 2012. None of the major accidents since 2007 has ended in conviction. There are about 700 units making crackers but not enough squads to inspect. Inspection is not taken seriously. One wonders what the role of the Labour Department, factory inspectors and Petroleum and Explosives Organisation (PESO) is!


The chief minister has announced a probe and the district administration made arrangements to inspect all the 700 units. But the collector has formed only six squads since he is very particular that PESO officials must be included in the squads. In 2010, without PESO officers, the revenue and police raided an illegal unit and tried to seize the materials. It burst and seven of them were charred to death. However PESO can spare only four officers and bringing in one each from Karnataka and Andhra!




There is the persistent demand that the Sivakasi government hospital must be upgraded to multi-speciality status and the burns ward must be expanded into many blocks. Post mortem can be done only for two persons at a time. It was pathetic to see the bodies piled upon one another due to lack of space.


The CPI(M) has demanded a high level probe, compensation of Rs 10 lakh to each victimís family, and stringent action against the owner, lease holders and negligent officers. The road is so bad that it takes long for ambulances to reach the place and take the injured to the hospital. These must be repaired. The license of units violating the safety norms must be cancelled and the information made public. This industry is having a turnover of about Rs 3000 crore per annum; it needs modernising. The contract system must be abolished, and workers made permanent with proper wages. As each accident leaves people with loss of limbs, the government must have a concrete plan to rehabilitate the persons who lose their income for life. New job opportunities must be created.


A few years ago, the All India Democratic Womenís Association held a convention on safety norms; it was addressed by Brinda Karat. The AIDWA and CITU jointly conducted a public hearing that generated many concrete suggestions. The CITUís struggles have led to wage increases, fixation of minimum qualification for foremen; and a scheme for setting up a training centre for workers.


While cadres of the CPI(M), AIDWA and CITU rushed to and remained in the area for relief work, the CPI(M) organised a silent rally in Virudhunagar on September 8 to mourn the deaths. The Firecrackers Workers Union (CITU) has decided to organise a sustained struggle till the demands are achieved.


It is not just an accident which killed the workers; it is the greed for profit which did the massacre. The blame lies squarely on the central and consecutive state governments.