‘New safety rules could finish fireworks industry’: Sivakasi shuts down in protest

Manufacturers say the proposed safety rules are completely impractical for existing shops to apply.
‘New safety rules could finish fireworks industry’: Sivakasi shuts down in protest
‘New safety rules could finish fireworks industry’: Sivakasi shuts down in protest
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It’s all shutters down at the town of Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu, the fireworks capital of India, with all services coming to a grinding halt on Wednesday.

A day-long bandh has been called by the All India Federation of Fireworks Industry to protest against the recently proposed safety rules for shops selling fireworks. While fireworks manufacturers have been on an indefinite strike since February 18, the calls for a shutdown have also been observed by various associations including allied industries, vegetable markets and even auto-rickshaw associations, bringing the twin towns of Sivakasi and Thiruthangal to a standstill.  

“This one-day bandh is to highlight to the Centre our protest against the proposed rules. It is being organised by every association because it is a question of livelihoods for Sivakasi and Thiruthangal and that’s why there is a complete shutdown,” said Suresh*, a representative in the Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers Association (TANFAMA), on condition of anonymity.     

The new rules proposed by the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO) come after a fire accident at a cracker shop in Sivakasi on October 20, which led to eight people dying of asphyxiation in a nearby medical scan centre.  The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court took suo motu cognisance of the accident and directed the Centre to form rules and regulations with regard to the distance between shops and protected work spots like schools and hospitals.

On February 9, the panel submitted to the High Court a draft of six rules and regulations for issuing licenses to fireworks shops.  Saying the proposed rules are “practically impossible to follow”, Suresh explains that the new regulations go against the licenses that PESO had given in the past. “If these rules are implemented, all licenses across India stand cancelled. No trade in fireworks will take place. We welcome bringing guidelines to serve the public better, but none of the recommendations are scientific,” he says.  

Draft rules and regulations

While the draft rules state that there needs to be a safety distance of 15 metres between cracker shops and a protected work spot, Suresh says that the panel has “gone beyond its brief” and framed five other regulations as well.

One of the proposed rules is that a fireworks shop needs to have 3 metres open space on all four sides. “This rule is not practically possible. Existing shops may have something on two sides. If the rule is implemented, it is going to hurt a majority of shops,” said Anand*, one fireworks manufacturer who wished to remain anonymous.

While an earlier regulation states that there can be no dwelling on the floor above a fireworks shop, the panel now recommends that there be no first floor altogether.

Another sticking point for manufacturers is that the panel has suggested that the carpet area of cracker shops be restricted to 20sqmts from the earlier 25sqmts. Anand says, “I will have to demolish my building if this rule is enforced. My shop will have to go.”

Suresh says that the association had, in fact, made a representation to the Centre recently requesting that the shop size be increased in order to allow customers to easily move around the store.

In 2008, PESO had amended the rules to ensure that cracker shops had emergency exits. But although a majority of shops have implemented this, Suresh notes that the draft rules now specify minute details regarding emergency exits, which are not practical.

The panel also recommended that the District Revenue Officer, rather than PESO, ensure the implementation and monitoring of the rules and regulations. Protesting the idea, Suresh observes, “The Revenue Department is overworked – they have not been able to issue temporary licenses.  PESO is the authority on safety, they have all of the officers and now they want to abdicate their duty.”

Suggestions for safety

While the panel did not consult with the industry representatives before framing rules, Anand states that the fire accident in October occurred because the authorities were negligent in enforcing rules. “It was an unfortunate incident and could have been averted. But the new rules can wipe out the fireworks industry,” he says.

He says that the panel should look at the cause of the fire, and suggests that cracker shops have internal (not exposed) and flame-proof wiring to avoid fire accidents. Anand also recommends, “In October’s accident, colour matches had reportedly caused the fire. I would suggest that the striking point -  phosphorous coating - be put in a separate sheet. If the box breaks open and there is the slightest chance that the match heads come in contact with the striking portion, it can lead to a spark.”

With the fireworks industry in Sivakasi directly employing around 3.5 lakh people, Suresh says that they hope the rules will not be brought in retrospectively. While the fireworks industry hopes their protest will register at the Centre, all eyes are now on the Madras High Court, where the case is coming up for hearing on Friday.

* Names changed on request

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