Every week, workers die in firecracker factories. Every week, we ignore it

If any other industry had a fatality rate where dozens of people died in the space of six months, it would justifiably be a scandal.

WrittenBy:Jayashree Arunachalam
A worker at a firecracker factor. In the background are newspaper headlines on firecracker deaths.

Support Independent Media

The media must be free and fair, uninfluenced by corporate or state interests. That's why you, the public, need to pay to keep news free.


Almost every week, buried betweens news on protests, Supreme Court verdicts, and political horse-trading, are news reports on catastrophes plaguing a specific industry. Their death tolls are often single-digit – if they’re higher, they may make the front pages – but they add up.

A quick glance at news reports over the last six months suggests that these events have claimed at least 76 lives. A more detailed study will certainly reveal a higher number.  

This is India’s firecracker industry, the second-largest in the world after China. During Diwali, sales regularly cross Rs 6,000 crore and Tamil Nadu’s Sivakasi in Virudhunagar district accounts for nearly 90 percent of the total production. And week after week, there are explosions in factories, godowns and manufacturing units.

There is little to no data on the number of workers employed in this sector. Estimates for Sivakasi alone range from eight lakh to 10 lakh. Factories rarely meet safety standards and workers are seldom provided with safety equipment while handling hazardous materials, resulting in numerous health issues. 

These are rigorously documented through studies every year, but very little has changed since the 2012 explosion at Om Sakthi Fireworks factory in Sivakasi that killed nearly 40 people. The district administration tallied 298 deaths in the last decade.

Conversations on firecrackers in India usually devolve into debates on pollution and whether it’s anti-Hindu to criticise the bursting of crackers during Diwali, but what goes ignored are the conditions in which the workers who make these fireworks are forced to operate, and the risks they must endure, including the risk of death. 

India is peculiar in that there are too many laws and regulations that govern labour, legislated by both the centre and the state. Simultaneously, there are plenty of ways for employers to circumvent these laws, either legally or illegally, and this invariably ends up being to the detriment of the worker. 

A tragedy sidelined 

Here’s a sample of headlines from the last six months.

On September 12, S Mani was killed in an explosion at a firecracker manufacturing unit in Nagapattinam district.

Two people were killed in a fire on October 3 at a fireworks unit in Sivakasi. Two migrant labourers were killed in a blast at a fireworks factory in Haryana’s Bhiwani on October 4. On October 7, 14 people died in a blast at a firecracker godown-shop on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border. Ten people were killed in an explosion at a firecracker unit in Tamil Nadu’s Ariyalur on October 9. Thirteen workers were killed on October 17 in a series of blasts at a firecracker manufacturing unit in Sivakasi. On the same day, a man named Vembu died in a blast at a cracker-making unit a few kilometres away. In Madhya Pradesh’s Damoh, three people died in an explosion at a firecracker factory on October 31

On November 11, two boys aged just 15 and 12 died in a blast at a fireworks factory in Uttar Pradesh’s Rae Bareli. All of these were just in the month and half preceding Diwali, the time where firecracker consumption peaks in India. But the end of Diwali doesn’t mean the end of worker deaths. 

On December 15, a worker named Shanmugaraja was killed in an explosion at a firecracker factory in Virudhunagar. On January 28, three were killed in a blast at a firecracker godown in Dakshina Kannada district in Karnataka.

On February 6, 12 people were killed in a massive explosion at a firecracker factory in Harda in Madhya Pradesh. On February 12, Vishnu and Divakaran were killed in a blast at a firecracker storage building in Kochi. And after a blast at a firecrackers unit in Vembakottai on February 17, 10 workers were killed.

Casualties aside, almost all these cases left others with injuries, often grievous. 

In 2021, after a blast at a firecracker factory in Virudhunagar killed 27 people, the National Green Tribunal appointed a committee to investigate what had happened. 

The factory in question had a site plan approved by the Petroleum & Explosives Safety Organisation and the requisite licences granted by PESO, the district authority, and the Directorate of Industrial Safety and Health. Yet the committee found a “complete ignorance” of the Explosive Rules, 2008, flouting of safety norms, lack of vigil, casual handling of pyrotechnic materials,  and untrained workers. 

The fire was, therefore, “quick and ferocious”.  The sad fact is that none of these things are unusual. Many firecracker units are in paper compliant with regulations, but in practice flagrantly in violation of them. 

The committee’s suggestions to prevent future accidents make for interesting reading. They include “drone surveillance”, WhatsApp clips on safety, fines, insurance, safety equipment and periodic health check-ups. It is easy to guess how many of these measures have been put into action since.  

Yet accidents and tragedies continue. Workers scarcely receive registration cards, let alone welfare benefits like medical insurance or retirement benefits. Many of them in Sivakasi are Dalit, because other food processing units in the region do not employ them due to casteist notions of ‘purity’. Women make up over 70 percent of the workforce but are paid half as much as men. Needless to say wages have, even for the men, have failed to keep pace with inflation. 

Additionally, illegal factories proliferate thanks to high profit margins in the sector. Those that are ‘legal’ on paper operate with little supervision or regulation, and often sublease work to smaller units to meet the demands of the festive season. Official inspection takes place only in the days or weeks following a tragedy to tick the boxes. And there aren’t enough officials to do the rounds – according to The Hindu, the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation only has five officials in Sivakasi to monitor over 1,000 units. Remember that these units employ anywhere between 8 and 10 lakh workers. 

Meanwhile, workers – and those unlucky enough to be nearby – continue to die. 

The question of responsibility 

When dozens die every year, who is responsible?

Take Madhya Pradesh’s Harda tragedy which killed 12 people this month. The FIR filed in the case – with penal charges including culpable homicide – cited “illegal possession of excessive quantity of explosives”. The building did not have a single fire extinguisher.

The factory itself is riddled with illegalities. In September 2022, it was inspected by the collector who recommended its sealing and the cancellation of its licences. Hindustan Times reported that his recommendations were overturned by the divisional commissioner, and the result was a “godown” of explosives.

Crucially, the factory had two similar accidents in 2015 and 2021 that killed a total of five people. Locals alleged the two owners, who are presently in police custody, had been arrested in 2021 but “came out of jail on bail after few days and started the business again”. 

Meanwhile, the wheels of justice turn too slowly for families of victims. Last month, the Madras High Court heard a case filed by four women whose husbands had died in a firecracker explosion in Sivakasi in 2014. Ten years after their deaths, the court sought reports from authorities on the number of deaths and accidents in the district’s firecracker units over the last five years.

There’s also a curious gap in data. The number of deaths in the last six months alone is likely to be much higher than 76, which only accounts for those that managed to make it to a news story that’s quickly searchable on Google. However, the National Crime Records Bureau’s data for 2022 said only 66 people were killed that year – though it was also partly a pandemic year – in accidents related to “fire in factory manufacturing combustible materials including cracker/matchbox factories”. 

In fairness to the media, reportage exists. It was a New Indian Express report that pushed the National Green Tribunal to investigate the Virudhunagar case of 2021. But it’s also true that the poor and marginalised rarely count for story space in leading newspapers and news channels. 

This is made worse by the fact that most media houses no longer have a labour beat, especially with the organised workforce in India comprising barely 15 percent of the total. Instead, stories on worker protests are increasingly framed in terms of traffic disruptions or their economic impact.

If any other industry had a fatality rate where dozens of people died in the space of six months, it would justifiably be a scandal. Somehow, the fireworks industry killing people at this horrifying rate doesn’t seem to cause much consternation, neither in the media nor in political circles. For our enjoyment and celebration, dozens of underpaid and poorly treated workers have to die every year, and it’s something that should be bothering us all at a fundamental level.

While the government has a bunch of desultory regulations in place, these are observed more in their breach than their observance. Of course, since the people who die are among the poor, there is little pressure or motivation on the government to do anything to fix this, which is why it is incumbent on the media and civil society to raise their voices to ensure a fundamental transformation in the way that the fireworks industry is regulated and overseen. Precisely because it is fundamentally a dangerous product being made, the levels of regulation and oversight need to be far greater than other industries, and every single death should lead to severe penalties, including jail time, for the proprietors of these units. 

Only then can we perhaps hope for a time when fireworks factory deaths are not a regular appearance on the pages of our newspapers. 

If you’re reading this story, you’re not seeing a single advertisement. That’s because Newslaundry powers ad-free journalism that’s truly in public interest. Support our work and subscribe today.

Also see
article imageNL Interview: P Sainath on layoffs and the vanishing labour beat in the Indian media
article imageNo wage hike for TN garment industry workers in 10 years, despite top court order

Power NL-TNM Election Fund

General elections are around the corner, and Newslaundry and The News Minute have ambitious plans together to focus on the issues that really matter to the voter. From political funding to battleground states, media coverage to 10 years of Modi, choose a project you would like to support and power our journalism.

Ground reportage is central to public interest journalism. Only readers like you can make it possible. Will you?

Support now

You may also like