Six people died and 17 suffered burn injuries in a boiler explosion at an NLC India Limited PSU thermal power plant in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu on July 1. This is the second blast at the power plant in two months. In May, eight workers at the same plant (formerly known as Neyveli Lignite Corporation Limited), had suffered burn injuries in a similar boiler blast incident. The company unit has a workforce of over 27,000 people, with over 15,000 of them on contract.

There can be multiple reasons for the blast and perhaps an official inquiry will establish it in time, but a string of such incidents over the last few months raises several questions on the operations of the plants, the procedures and the lapses, and their safety audit. Very recently, two people were killed and four were hospitalised after gas leaked at the Visakhapatnam unit of the firm Sainor Life Sciences.

In May this year, 11 people, including two young children, were killed and over 1,000 hospitalised after gas leaked overnight at the LG Polymers facility in Vizag. These incidents hark back to the 1984 Bhopal Gas leak incident, which is considered as one of the worst industrial disasters in history. The pesticide leak from the infamous Union Carbide plant had killed an estimated 3,500 people on the winter night of December 2.

The sufferings still continue in the dingy lanes of old Bhopal. At that time we had Warren Anderson to grill. But who do we blame now? Is it faulty machinery in use that is leading to such accidents? Or is it obsolete and ill-maintained equipment? Does it boil down to sheer mismanagement and lack of supervision?  Or do we lay the blame on the careless contract workers who don’t bother? Are the appointments at crucial positions manipulated? Or do we have a faulty selection process that is not able to sift the best from the group of prospective candidates?

The reasons can be all of these. But the culprits are never caught and the lapses continue. Those responsible are not questioned or made accountable. Their position and high connections shield them from punitive police or legal action. It is only the poor and the lower rung workers who die in these accidents, and the management simply doesn’t care. What else can explain such accidents in an era of advanced technological access and capability that we have? There are thousands of plants across the country which may be equally vulnerable and surviving on miracle. Who can ensure their safety and sustainability? The question has to be answered by the government, especially so when government-run plants are in question.

The government has to ensure the safety of precious human lives by putting in place a strong and stringent safety net through regular audits and inspections of plants and factories. Those not abiding by the stipulations must be meted out the harshest of punishment admissible under the law, so that it acts as an apt deterrence.  We need to maintain an impeccable standard of safety in operations of high precision and potentially hazardous machines so that no loss to life or property occurs even by accident. This is the way industries globally operate.

Such instances of negligence and deficiencies as in Vizag and Cuddalore paint a poor image of the country and project a negative outlook of the industrial scenario. It also jeopardises the lives of civilians who reside in the vicinity of these facilities. The accidents can be avoided by our diligence and sincerity. Managements must realise that unless the due safety and welfare of employees is given the topmost priority, companies will falter and perish sooner or later. 

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