Sivakasi hits the headlines every time there is a firecracker industry accident. Outrage overflows on media, and so does news on generous compensation being doled out. In the past decade, at least 145 accidents have been reported in the fireworks units in Sivakasi, three this month alone. Yet, governments, administrations, and the judiciary have not been able to do much in reducing the multi-pronged risks that poverty-struck labourers have to face while at work.
One, the system has collectively failed to address the problem of accountability. Unlicensed units continue to mushroom and flourish across the region. In many cases, factories are owned by one person, taken on lease by a second, and workers engaged by a third. In the case of a recent accident, which claimed over 20 lives, the licence holder for the factory in this Southern Tamil Nadu industrial hub, is a Nagpur-based firm. Not much has been done to fix this flaw.
Two, labour conditions in these units are a gross violation of basic human rights. Workers are made to slog for about 12 hours, without sufficient breaks, and paid measly wages. Child labour persists, despite claims of it having been completely abolished. The occupational hazards of handling toxic chemicals that go into the fireworks without adequate safety gear is another pressing issue. And yet, despite it being a prerequisite in the Labour Law, workers at these units are not insured.
In short, while the unit owners openly flout every norm in the book, resulting in the loss of lives and livelihoods, it’s the government and the taxpayer who are funding the measures to deal with the aftermath of such tragedies. Accidents are merely a symptom of a larger malaise ailing the firecracker industry in Tamil Nadu, which has hardly seen a technology impetus or significantly new production models in the past several decades. The focus of policymakers must be on fixing these gaps by introducing new technologies and insisting on workers’ safety. Trying to merely avoid accidents is not a sustainable solution.