The explosion in a cracker factory at Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh killing nearly 20 people, most of them women, is a tragedy that has been recurring month after month, year after year, without drawing the deserving attention of labour officials. Though labour reforms have taken centrestage, the focus has been on job creation and ease of doing business. Yes, labour welfare has been given lip-service, but even this limited discourse is yet to extend to industrial safety. Last month, an explosion in an illegal factory at Mohanlalganj near Lucknow killed six workers, again mostly women. In September 2012, an explosion at Om Sakthi, a large Sivakasi factory, that killed 40 people and seriously injured several more, grabbed national attention with the Central and state governments and even the National Human Rights Commission launching inquiries. Raids conducted in its aftermath showed appalling working conditions, absence of safety gear, use of substandard chemicals, over-stocking of excess explosive material, overcrowding on factory floors, sultry conditions, and the sub-leasing of cracker units. As has become the norm, the heightened vigilance subsided soon after.
However, reporters who descended on Sivakasi, India’s cracker industry hub, employing seven lakh people and responsible for 90 per cent of output besides boasting of a $365 million annual turnover from 700 factories, after the Om Sakthi accident discovered another facet. Despite the industry’s omnipresence in the area, the sole government hospital did not have a burns treatment unit or morphine, the standard pain-relief drug for burn victims.
Child labour, once widely prevalent, has been concealed and delegated to smaller ancillary units. Instead, cracker factories at Sivakasi and elsewhere have found a cheap source of labour in women. Not surprisingly, the women working at the Kakinada factory were paid a paltry Rs150 per day. For decades, Sivakasi residents have hesitated to complain against the industry fearing shutdown of units and loss of income. The Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation(PESO), responsible for inspecting fireworks factories, is hopelessly understaffed, and has no presence in most states. While it routinely suspends a few licences, the district civil and police authorities are tasked with enforcement. It was discovered that the Om Sakthi factory was functioning despite PESO suspending its licence.
If fireworks units are a microcosm of India’s small and medium-scale industrial sector, there is much to be worried about the chaotic and unregulated manner in which these units function. District-level police, labour, fire, health and industries departments have powers to conduct safety audits, risk analysis and drills, but are clearly not doing their job. Though PM Narendra Modi has launched a revamped Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana for unorganised sector workers, it again devolves on an apathetic government machinery to ensure coverage and access to healthcare. Labour reforms negating the “discretionary” powers enjoyed by central labour inspectors, which spawn bribery and extortion but offer no relief to workers, are welcome. But PM Modi’s ongoing attempt to harmonise the interests of industries and workers in this manner is not reflective of ground reality. Unorganised workers have little bargaining power to complain against poor working conditions, low salaries, bonded work, and denial of compensation. The argument that high labour and safety costs and imposing stiff liability renders industries inviable, cannot become a normative attitude for condoning dehumanising practices. Bureaucrats take the cue from their political masters on a government’s focus and priorities. Unfortunately, the political class has deviated away from a labour-focused discourse.