The fire at an illegal firecracker factory in Punjab's Batala, which killed 23 people and injured 27 has once again highlighted the failure of state governments to implement safety regulations in the firecracker industry.
Wednesday's blast served as a grim reminder of a similar incident that took place in the same factory in 2017. According to local residents, several complaints were filed with the district administration in the past, asking that the illicit factory be closed down. However, no action was taken.
When questioned by reporters, the deputy commissioner said the factory owner had applied for a license but its status was yet to be checked. Even the question comes is: how was it allowed to function without licence?
The SGPC (Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee) — an organisation responsible for the management of gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship in three states of Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh and union territory of Chandigarh) — has offered free medical aid for the injured and termed the incident 'a result of sheer negligence of the administration' that allowed illegal firecracker units to operate.
Supreme Court's ban on firecrackers
In October last year, the Supreme Court in its judgment on the Arjun Gopal petition (famously filed by fathers on behalf of three infants), stated that only "green crackers" — which adhere to certain noise and air pollution standards — should be sold and the cracker manufacturing units should adhere to these new norms. The apex court also said that Barium, a critical raw material to make firecrackers, should not be used and state and central pollution control boards should ensure the new rules are followed.
The firecrackers manufacturers had argued that the use of firecrackers should not be completely banned but should rather be strictly regulated. Hence, the apex court decided to allow the manufacture and sale of only “green” and reduced-emission or “improved” crackers, while banning those that are loud and toxic to man, animal and the environment.
According to a 2018 report by India Today, fireworks manufacturing is big business in India with an annual sales of around Rs 20,000 crore. The industry is mostly unorganised and many illegal factories produce firecrackers that are cheaper to buy than legally made ones, a The Guardian report said.
Accidents in firecracker factories
In January 2019, 17 people were killed in a massive blaze at a firecracker storage unit in the Bawana industrial area of Delhi. In June 2017, a fire in a firecracker industry in Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh, killed 25. The incident had occurred just months after six people of a family were killed in an illegal factory inside a house in Seondha of Datia district and five people were killed in a fire that broke out at a crackers shop in Indore.
The same year in September, six people were killed when a fire broke out in a house where a large number of firecrackers were stored illegally in East Singhbhum district of Jharkhand. A month later, in neighbouring Odisha, eight people were killed in an explosion at an illegal firecracker factory in Balasore district.
In October 2016, Tamil nadu witnessed a massive fire engulfing a firecracker factory and godown in Tamil Nadu’s Sivakasi — an area that accounts for 90 percent of the fireworks manufactured in the country. Nine people had died in the incident. The same month, in Gujarat, around eight people were killed after a fire broke out in a fireworks shop in Vadodara.
The list goes on.
These incidents of fire in firecrackers factories, majorly caused by a lack of proper storage, handling and transportation of firecrackers, suggest that many illegal firecracker industries are still functioning even after the apex court's ban.
Government provisions for safety
Under the Indian Factory Act, Tamil Nadu Factory Rule and the Explosives Act, there are some sections that deal with aspects right from license approval to manufacturing, storage, handling and transportation of firecrackers.
The main objective of the Indian Factories Act is to regulate the working conditions in factories, the health, safety welfare, and annual leave of workers. The Tamil Nadu Factory Rule and Explosives Act is social legislation that has been enacted for occupational safety, health, and welfare of workers at the workplace. It further includes the need for ‘Occupational Health Centres’ that are required to be set up in the factories carrying on ‘hazardous process’ in their premises.
But, despite laws, accidents occur in the industry mainly due to the inherent hazards associated with the chemicals involved in making firecrackers.
M Surianarayanan who is industrial safety experts from Central Leather Research Institute, in an interview with Times Of India, said that most of the fire accidents that occur in godowns are either due to sparks from electrical fittings or from the impact stimuli generated during loading and unloading of boxes containing fireworks. He also pointed out that most of the workers working in this industry as unskilled, making it imperative for them to get some formal training in handling explosive chemicals to prevent accidents.
While the apex court has banned most firecrackers and given way for more environmentally-friendly 'green crackers', the need for safety regulations is a question that still needs to be addressed in view of the increasing number of accidents in this industry.
With inputs from agencies
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Updated Date: Sep 05, 2019 18:37:26 IST