The dark side of Virudhunagar’s pride 

Every day, hundreds of vehicles are operated across Sivakasi, Sattur, Virudhunagar and Vembakottai towns early in the morning to pick up workers.

Published: 31st January 2022 03:58 AM  |   Last Updated: 31st January 2022 03:58 AM   |  A+A-

File photo of the aftermath of an explosion at a firecracker unit. (Photo | Express)

File photo of the aftermath of an explosion at a firecracker unit. (Photo | Express)

Express News Service

VIRUDHUNAGAR: It’s a tragic tale relived every year in Virudhunagar district in southern Tamil Nadu. Like the heaps of waste left behind by the crackers they make after the glitter of Deepavali, hundreds of firecracker unit workers remain unaccounted and uncared for.

In a district, that prides itself as the largest producer of firecrackers, matchboxes and printing materials in the country, at least 460 people have been killed in 294 firecracker unit accidents in the last 11 years. That’s averaging 40 deaths and 25 accidents each year.

Nearly 50 per cent of the district’s population of 19.42 lakh is directly or indirectly associated with manufacturing fireworks, which are predominantly handmade to reduce possible friction and accidents caused by machines. 

According to the 2011 census, the district has an average literacy rate of 80.15 per cent, which almost equals the State’s average of 80.33 per cent, but a lack of employment opportunities forces people to take up jobs in cracker units.

Every day, hundreds of vehicles are operated across Sivakasi, Sattur, Virudhunagar and Vembakottai towns early in the morning to pick up workers. The dry and hot climate of the district suits the production of crackers and matchboxes.

Every year, the industry pays crores of rupees in taxes. According to Central GST and central excise department data, the industry generated a cumulative revenue of Rs 800 crore in 2020-21 and contributed Rs 112 crore in indirect taxes (IGST of Rs 72 crore and CGST and SGST of Rs 19 crore each). But neither the high employment rate nor the revenue generated have helped people in the industry get the government support they need. 

ALSO READ: 507 kg of gunpowder seized from firecracker godown in Kasaragod

As per government data, at least 821 fireworks units were in operation in the district in 2018. These units were functioning with (Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation) PESO, Nagpur, PESO, Chennai, and District Revenue Officer licences. The PESO-Nagpur licence is mandatory for units that handle more than 150 kg of chemicals a day, while PESO-Chennai licence is for units that handle chemicals in the range of 15 kg to 150 kg a day, and DRO licence is given to units handling up to 15 kg of chemicals a day. 

Most of the cracker production work is carried out by small units that get contracts from big manufacturers and operate on a piece-rate basis.“Since most of the work is outsourced, there is no relationship between employers and employees. Contractors want to increase their profit by flouting rules and workers lack training in safe handling of hazardous materials,” said CPM Sivakasi union secretary P Balasubramanian,

Data received through an RTI application filed by activist Veeraperumal show the number of mishaps recorded from 2000 to 2017 in contract units is higher than those at licence-holders’ units.According to Indian fireworks Manufacturers Association general secretary K Kannan, as per rules, licensees are responsible for the entire unit. If a licensee wants to lease out his unit, he must get a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from district authorities. “This is hardly followed and most contract units are operated illegally,” he said.

Balasubramanian said the piece-rate system puts workers under undue pressure, which leads to accidents.Under the system, an worker making 20 flowerpot crackers a day would get Rs 10 per flowerpot. Her weekly wage would be based on the number of flowerpots made in the whole week. Irrespective of unit size, this is the system followed by most. Employees are thus under pressure to produce more crackers.

“If Rs 18,000 is paid to each worker as per Minimum Wages Act, they will be saved from the constraint to produce more crackers within a short time. Accidents due to human error can be minimised and hundreds of lives can be saved,” Balasubramanian said.As per data, nearly 35 per cent of accidents happen due to friction, 25 per cent due to pressure, 21 per cent due to unsafe and improper mixing of chemicals, and 19 per cent due to lightning, electric short-circuit and other factors.

ALSO READ: Four workers die in explosion at firecracker unit in Tamil Nadu, seven injured

Kannan said most of the accidents happen in DRO-licenced units that do not adhere to rules and manufacture unapproved crackers. “Use of banned chemicals and accommodating workers beyond the prescribed capacity for a room are other reasons for accidents,” Kannan said. “As workers change their place of work frequently, they hardly get any benefit apart from wages. Only those who work continuously for more than a year in a unit can get provident fund and other benefits,” he added.

Virudhunagar collector J Meghanatha Reddy said, “Most accidents happen due to carelessness, failure to use approved chemicals, use of iron tools for cutting cracker fuses, dragging goods on floor, placing matchbox and  petrol in production room, working during rain and lighting and lack of technical know-how.”  

“There are more than 1,000 cracker units functioning in the district, but accident rate is only 0.5 per cent,” he said.Although over 9.5 lakh people are employed by the industry and a majority of accidents are attributed to human error, training is not mandatory.

Sources said only one training institute is functioning in Sivakasi under control of the Joint Director of Industrial Safety and Health for the past five years. When TNIE asked Joint Commissioner Ramamoorthy how many people were trained at the institute, he refused to disclose details.

Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers Association president P Ganesan said though each unit, on an average, employs about 100 workers, only 18 may get a chance to attend training at the institute. “It conducts five batches of classes in a year. Three employees from each unit would get a chance to attend training in one batch over 21 days,” he said.  

Kannan said officials too lack knowledge on explosive chemicals. “They don’t have any practical experience. Only PESO officials have knowledge of explosives and mixing of chemicals. Each cracker unit has experienced employees. At least they should be used to provide training to other workers,” he said.

35 pc of mishaps caused by friction 
According to data, nearly 35% of cracker unit accidents occur due to friction, 25% due to pressure, 21% due to unsafe and improper mixing of chemicals, and 19% due to lightning, electric short-circuit and various other factors

(To be continued)


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  • gopalakrishnan v

    """ “As workers change their place of work frequently
    7 months ago reply
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