An Accident Waiting to Happen
On 19th February 2020, a voice came over Namma Kural Phone Radio:-
I am Gopalkrishnan from Meenampatty near Sivakasi. There has been a serious fire at Suryaprabha Crackers near Chinna Committee Panchayath at 1pm today. Two people, Pandiyarajan and Karthik, belonging to Arunthathiyar community, have lost their lives on the spot. Legal help is required for the families of Pandiyarajan and Karthik, in order to get compensation. Thank you.
Sivakasi in the district of Virudhunagar, Tamil Nadu, produces more than INR 30 billion-worth of fireworks and matches annually, 75% of India’s total production. With the number of industrial units at several thousand, the cluster is a major safety hazard and faces four or five serious accidents monthly. Sivakasi is also a major hub of child labor with close to half of its workforce under-age.
Since losing her husband twelve years ago to drink, Veeralakshmi (44) has toiled in the cracker industry to provide a decent life to her four sons and three daughters. With five of her children working in the same industry after leaving school early, Veeralakshmi had hoped her two youngest sons would study well. But the older of the two, Karthik (16), dropped out when she was unable to pay for his transport to school. His mother’s efforts to enroll him closer to home came to naught and he dropped out.
The situation paved the way for Karthik to follow his siblings into the cracker industry. Assured a daily wage of INR200, he was pleased to help his mother with the family expenses.
The happiness didn’t last too long. Veeralakshmi was working in her unit when she heard the news of the fire blast in Karthik’s unit. Her son was one of three people killed outright. News reports revealed that the explosion was caused by friction when workers were handling chemicals in a mixing room and the fire spread rapidly to the storage room nearby.
After hearing the news, the TLRF Union rushed to Virudhunagar government hospital where the bodies of Karthik and his coworkers were kept for postmortem. Convinced that the employer would try to manipulate the case, the union, using Namma Kural phone radio and alongside other rights organisations, they mustered support for a protest to demand compensation to the families. The demand was INR 500,000 plus INR 50,000 for funeral costs, to each family. Until then the families would not receive the bodies.
When the police and other local officials arrived on the scene, they responded by ordering a probe into the matter and the protestors succeeded in pushing the officials to insist that the employer pay the compensation demanded. On the same day itself, the families were provided the funeral amount and, following the funerals, a cheque for INR 500,000 each was provided.
Speaking about the incident the coordinator of the TLRF Dr Ponnuchamy explained, “there are three sets of safety rules for fire cracker units. One is the Nagpur License, a second is the Chennai License and the third is the RDO or Collector License. If you have only a local RDO licence, you should be making only small crackers – the type which burst on the floor. But this unit was making fancy crackers under this law, ones which shoot the sky and contain more gun powder. They were doing this with iron knives and without rubber sheets on the floor. To earn more, the labour contractors pack in 8 to 12 workers in a room meant for four… We have filed a case of murder by this employer. Until now, no owner nor contractor has ever been to prison for such safety violations. That is the reason accidents continue”.