[Disaster Series] Industrial/Chemical Disasters in India

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The recent gas leak in Visakhapatnam has thrown light on the expanding risk that industrial establishments pose to human settlements and the environment. The incident has occurred during the lockdown- an already vulnerable period for the country. However, this isn’t the first such incident. The NDMA (National Disaster Management Authority) identified more than 130 significant chemical accidents in the recent past and these have claimed 259 deaths and caused serious injuries to over 560 people.

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What is an industrial disaster?

  • The 1948 Factories Act recognizes an industrial accident as an occurrence in an industrial setting that causes death/ bodily injury to a person such that he/ she is unfit to resume work in the next 48 hours.
  • Industrial disasters are considered as extreme events resulting from industrial accidents. These may result in injury or death of people and animals, damage to property and environmental degradation.
  • Such disasters can be classified as:
  • ‘Routine’ disasters: These are understood by the experts to a large extent and constitute a majority of industrial disaster threat. These are managed easily using established principles and protocols.
  • ‘Surprise’ disasters: These are unprecedented events such as the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine or the Minamata disaster in Japan.
  • The hazards that give rise to such disasters can occur at any of the production stages: manufacturing, processing, transportation, storage, utilization or disposal.
  • These disasters can release a range of damaging components into the environment such as toxic chemicals, radiation, radioactive particles, genetic materials, etc.
  • It can also cause damage in the form of explosions, fires, etc.
  • There are more than 1,861 MAH (major accident hazard) units in India. Apart from this, thousands of other hazardous factories and unorganized sector units pose industrial disaster risks.

Why do industrial disasters occur?

  • The causes can be classified under 3 broad heads: unsafe conditions, unsafe acts and other acts.
  • Unsafe conditions: These can be classified into 2 types:
  • Technical causes: the use of defective equipment, machines or materials, inadequate arrangements for lighting and ventilation, storage without adequate safety measures or devices, etc. can lead to such accidents.
  • Working conditions: psychological reasons like the monotony of the work, tiredness, working overtime, fatigue, frustrations, etc. may contribute to such accidents. It is also notable that most accidents (about 1/3rd) occur in high danger zones of the industries.
  • Unsafe acts: certain acts by workers stemming from various reasons like wrong attitude, bodily incapacities or lack of skill or knowledge can cause such incidents:
  • Unauthorized operation
  • Operation at unsafe speeds
  • Careless disposal
  • Failure to use PPE or other safety attire
  • Distractions, quarrels, abuses, etc.
  • Other causes: such as the presence of dust, fumes, unhealthy environment, weather conditions like humidity, heat, etc.

What was the Vizag Gas Leak incident?

Background:

  • The Vizag gas leak of Andhra Pradesh resulted in the death of several people and hospitalization of hundreds more. Many animals including birds and livestock were lost due to the incident.
  • It occurred at the polymer plant- owned by the South Korean LG group.

Styrene:

  • The gas that leaked was identified to be styrene- a sweet-smelling organic liquid that evaporates easily. At the time of the leak, 1,800 tonnes of the compound was stored at the plant.
  • It is used as the precursor of polystyrene, fibreglass, latex and rubbers. The molecule is also found in cigarette smoke, vehicle exhaust and even in fruits and vegetables.
  • It is a carcinogenic compound. Short-term exposure causes irritation of skin and eyes, gastrointestinal problems, etc. Long-term exposure affects the central nervous system- leading to issues like peripheral neuropathy and even coma.
  • Symptoms of exposure include difficulty in concentrating, loss of hearing, headache, weakness, fatigue, etc.

Management:

  • The leak was detected at 3 AM when people were fast asleep. The officials had to resort to breaking down doors, apart from public announcements over speakers, to evacuate unconscious people.
  • As the gas’ spread depends on the wind speeds, the officials have estimated that a 5km radius around the plant was affected and hence people from this region were evacuated.
  • As the country has already taken efforts to ensure COVID-19 preparedness, ambulances with necessary equipment like ventilators and oxygen cylinders were available at hand to handle the crisis.
  • The NDRF (National Disaster Response Force) was mobilized to look for stranded people in the 5 affected villages.
  • The residents were asked to cover their nose and mouth with wet cloths to prevent inhalation of the compound.
  • The Indian Navy had provided 50 breathing sets and associated equipment like Portable Multifeed Oxygen Manifolds to help with the treatment of the exposed villagers.
  • Water was sprayed via mist blowers to subside the leaked gas.
  • A team of veterinary doctors were deployed to assess the situation of animals in the vicinity.

Causes & Compensation:

  • The leak occurred when the plant reopened after being closed down for the lockdown period.
  • The stagnation and the temperature inside the storage container are said to have triggered an ‘auto-polymerization’ and vaporization of the liquid.
  • The factory was established in 1961. Though the Vizag city grew denser and closer to the plant, neither was the plant relocated nor the city planned away from it.
  • The National Green Tribunal has ordered LG Polymers to pay an interim compensation of 50 crore INR. It has also issued notices to the National Pollution Control Board and the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
  • An FIR has been registered against the unit for ‘culpable homicide’ and for causing ‘grievous harm’ under sections 304 and 304A of the IPC.
  • The state government has announced a compensation of 1 crore INR each to the kin of the dead and 20,000 INR to people who lost their animals.
  • The National Human Rights Commission issued notices to the state and the central governments over the incident.

Probes:

  • A 5 member high power committee has been constituted by the state government to probe the incident. The terms of reference of this committee include:
  • Identify reasons for the gas leak
  • Verify adherence to safety protocols
  • Determine any long-term effects of the leak on the villages
  • Recommend action to be taken against the plant in case of negligence
  • Suggest measures to prevent such incidents in the future

What were the major industrial disasters in the past?

Bhopal Gas Tragedy:

  • The gas leak from the pesticide plant of Union Carbide India Ltd in 1984 is considered as the worst industrial disaster in the world.
  • This leak, like the Vizag leak, occurred in the wee hours and affected more than 5 lakh people.
  • More than 3,700 people are reported to have died from the leak and many more were injured or permanently disabled.
  • The toxic compound was identified to be methyl isocyanate. The gas affected the lungs, kidneys, liver, caused cerebral oedema, etc. the incident increased the stillbirth rate by 300% and neonatal mortality by 200% in the area.
  • The healthcare system was overloaded and the personnel were unprepared for the crisis.

Chasnala Mining Disaster:

  • The Chasnala mining disaster, one of the worst in India’s mining history, occurred in a coal mine in Jharkhand in 1975.
  • It is was caused when faulty equipment ignited a pocket of methane gas that led to an explosion. The explosion led to mine collapse that brought in millions of gallons of water from a nearby reservoir.
  • Nearly 700 people were killed due to the explosion, mine collapse or the flooding from the reservoir.

Jaipur Oil Depot Fire:

  • This industrial disaster occurred at Indian Oil Corporation’s oil depot in Rajasthan in 2009.
  • It resulted in 12 deaths and more injuries. Half a million people were evacuated from the area in the course of a week- the time taken to bring the fire under control.
  • The administration had no disaster management plan and the fire personnel were insufficiently equipped to tackle the flames.

Korba Chimney Collapse:

  • An under-construction chimney for a thermal plant (under BALCO’s contract) in Chhattisgarh collapsed in 2009 resulting in the death of 45 workers. Extreme weather conditions (torrential rains) impeded the rescue efforts.
  • The causes were found to be the use of sub-standard materials, technical faults in design, improper water curing and negligence on the part of supervisors.

Mayapuri Radiological Incident:

  • The incident occurred in 2010 at a scrapyard in Delhi’s Mayapuri when an unused research irradiator was dismantled by workers who were unaware of its radioactive nature.
  • The scrapyard did not have radiation detectors and other necessary equipment for safe functioning.

Bombay Docks Explosion:

  • Around 800 people were killed in the explosion of a freighter carrying ammunition in the Victoria Dock of Mumbai in 1944.
  • When the initial fire on the vessel could not be contained, the crew were ordered to abandon the freighter. It was followed by explosions that destroyed nearby vessels including several of the navy vessels, several economically developed areas in the vicinity and fires started in the adjacent slums because of the shower of burning debris.

What are the safeguards against such disasters?

  • In 1984, The Indian Penal Code was the only relevant law covering the liabilities for such industrial disasters. After the Bhopal gas tragedy, the government passed a series of laws to introduce safeguards and penalties.
  • In 1985, the Bhopal Gas Leak (Processing of Claims) Act was passed. This enabled the centre to process claims related to the tragedy with greater speed and equity.
  • The central government can establish standards and inspect industrial establishments under the Environment Protection Act, 1986.
  • The scope of risk from industries was expanded to the general public under the Factories Act from the earlier narrow scope of just the workers and the industrial premise.
  • Insurance for persons affected by hazardous substance-related accidents was provided for under the Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991. This is an immediate option for providing relief to the victims.
  • National Environment Appellate Authority was conferred the power by the National Environment Appellate Authority Act, 1997, to hear appeals regarding restriction of industrial activities in areas under the provisions of Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
  • The National Green Tribunal was established under the NGT Act of 2010 to expedite the disposal of such cases.
  • In the aftermath of the Delhi oleum gas leak in 1985, the Supreme Court evolved the ‘Doctrine of Absolute Responsibility’. It gave the standard of responsibility in liability for such accidents. It provided that the enterprise must make sure that no harm (to people in the vicinity) comes from the hazardous materials used by the enterprise. Without an exception, the enterprise will be responsible if such harm occurs. This is a stricter version than the ‘strict liability’ principle used elsewhere in the world.
  • Based on this principle, the affected people can file tort claims in civil courts i.e. the offending firm can be sued.

What is the way forward?

  • Though there are enough laws to tackle industrial disasters in India, there is a need to reassess their effectiveness.
  • There is a need to set up buffer zones around factories handling hazardous substances. This would help contain disasters and reduce the loss of lives and property.
  • The apex court had noted that compensation should have a deterrent effect for such disasters. It must be proportional to the capacity of the offending enterprise.
  • Awareness about the disaster management plan must be disseminated to the local authorities, especially as CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) accidents require a specialized response.
  • All such industrial establishments must be mandated to keep an updated and functional disaster management plan. The workers must also be made aware of the plan and trained to respond to such situations using periodic safety drills.
  • The industries must disseminate their disaster management plans among the local population.
  • The issue of ‘sitting of the industries’ need to be solved by gradually removing industries away from populated areas. Also, the growing cities must be planned away from such industrial establishments.
  • Infrastructure resilience needs to be worked upon given the increasing frequency with which natural calamities strike India. eg: The 1991 super-cyclone in Odisha caused an ammonia gas leak from a fertilizer plant and the 2001 Bhuj earthquake damaged a phosphoric acid sludge containment.
  • The industrial development, under various initiatives like Make in India, must be accompanied by adequate safety measures and regulation, i.e. growth must be sustainable.
  • The centre gave certain guidelines in the aftermath of the Vizag gas leak. The NDMA asked the industries to treat the first week of restarting operations after the lockdown as a trial run. It advised against high production targets in the first week. It also asked the industries to train its staff to identify abnormalities that could trigger such accidents. Restarting of production should be preceded by complete safety audits.

Conclusion

The world is seeing a shifting of the loci of economic activity in times of the trade war and the Great Lockdown and India is seeking to attract more investments and turn into a manufacturing hub- replacing China. Also, there is a pressing need to sustain livelihoods by boosting economic activity which is already being restricted by the unavoidable lockdown conditions. In such desperate times, the best gains can be achieved only when care is taken to prevent such disasters.

Practice Question for Mains

Critically examine India’s capacity to manage industrial disasters with reference to the Vizag gas leak. (250 words).

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