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A history of hazards

By Freny Manecksha

Although there has been no tragedy on the scale of Bhopal in the last two decades, there have been innumerable gas leaks, explosions and accidents.

Despite the setting up of pollution control boards and monitoring agencies, the lack of will to impose punitive measures on industry means that industry continues to violate safety norms. There is also a vast unorganised sector that continues to endanger not just the lives and health of its workers but also the community at large.

Exploitation and violation of safety norms often go hand in hand, with poor and vulnerable sections of society bearing the brunt. Young women, aged 17 to 20, die in match factories in Tamil Nadu. In Bhuleshwar, young boys working in cramped and crowded conditions cannot escape an inferno because the owner locks their rooms at night. Farmers in Sangamner choke as fumes are released during the night. But the reports are buried under reams of newsprint.

All over India, mini Bhopals unfurl with shocking regularity. The following listing is not comprehensive. It has been compiled from news reports in leading Indian newspapers and journals to give an indication of the myriad ways in which workers and communities are exposed to industrial hazards.

2004

September 30: Explosion kills 10 people at Bhushan Steel’s factory in Sahibabad, Uttar Pradesh, when bombs contained in scrap originating in Iraq exploded. Indian law prohibits the import of scrap from war-zones.

July 29: Two matador trucks carrying cartons of date-expired drugs and pesticides were dumped and set ablaze by officials of Hindustan Antibiotics Ltd in Sankheri village, near Bhopal. Villagers residing within 200 metres of the site complained of breathing problems, stomach ache, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting. Four people belonging to the family of a farm labourer living nearby fell unconscious and were hospitalised.

July 18: A chlorine leak at 6 pm from Chemplast Sanmar’s chlorine plant in Mettur Dam, Tamil Nadu, sent 23 people, including a 22-day-old child, to hospital. More than 50 people are reported to have fainted after inhaling the chlorine fumes. The state regulatory authorities, police and district officials cooperated with the company to hush the matter. No criminal proceedings have been initiated against Chemplast.

July 13: Bombay High Court appoints retired judge D R Dhanuka commissioner to investigate possible toxic exposure among employees working or having worked for Monsanto India Ltd at its Lonavla and Silvassa plants.

July 6: A fire at Hindustan Insecticides Ltd’s endosulfan plant in Eloor, Kerala, guts the plant. More than 250 people exposed to toxic fumes from the fire. The company had no onsite or offsite emergency plan, and the fire hydrant was not working. The company dismissed the fire as a major accident averted. No systematic medical monitoring or aid was offered for victims.

April 17: Three employees at the Waste Immunisation Plant in Tarapur, Maharashtra, exposed to radiation from a small bottle of diluted but highly radioactive waste.

April 6: One person killed and 29 affected following a toxic gas leak at the Jaipur Golden Transport Company’s godown on Roshanara Road, north Delhi. Toxic gas is released after water was used to douse a fire mixes with aluminium phosphide stored inside the godown. The police find that the firm does not have a valid licence to handle toxic chemicals. Three managers arrested.

February 24: Explosion at ammonium perchlorate facility in the SHAR complex, Sriharikota, kills 6 people. SHAR is India’s premier space research station.

January 5: Residents of Gawanpada township in Chembur, a Mumbai suburb, complain of breathlessness after a whitish powder is emitted from the Hindustan Petro Chemicals Ltd plant. HPCL’s general manager visits the township and sends sweepers in to clean up the powder. A representative from the public relations company hired by HPCL claims the silica powder is harmless.

2003

November 26: 150 villagers in Sangamner, near Nashik in Maharashtra, exposed to hydrochloric acid leak from Mangalam Drug & Organic Ltd plant. At least 55 people admitted to hospital. The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board earlier issued a notice for the unit’s closure but the company went to court to prevent the shutdown.

August 1: Seven employees of the Viswesvaraya Iron & Steel plant in Bhadravati, Karnataka, die in a blast at the steel-making section. It is believed that water leaking into the converter solidified the upper layer of the hot metal causing the explosion.

June 12: Two killed, 19 hurt in a blast at the Ranbaxy unit in Mohali, Punjab. The accident occurs at a toluene distillation unit operating under high pressure. This is the second fire at a Ranbaxy unit.

March 12: Major fire at a chemical warehouse in Bhiwandi, Thane district, Maharashtra. The fire rages for 14 hours, requiring the efforts of 27 fire engines before it is finally put out. Residents complain of lax monitoring by authorities.

February 24: Three young girls employed at the biggest matchbox-making unit in Gudiyatham town, Tamil Nadu, die of asphyxiation. They had locked themselves into a bathroom when a fire broke out.

February 22: Six workers die in a fire at the Alang shipbreaking yard in Gujarat.

January 21: Six employees at Kalpakkam Reprocessing Plant, 50 km south of Chennai, were exposed to high levels of radiation inside the plant. No monitors were installed in the enclosed area where the workers were exposed. The management attributed the exposure to worker error.

2002

December 24: Three workers at a distillery at the Chittur Cooperative Sugar Mills in Palakkad, Kerala, die after inhaling carbon dioxide while repairing a pipeline. Workers allege absence of safety measures and medical facilities at the factory premises.

November 8: Three killed, two hurt in an explosion at Parakh Food Products at Kurkumbh Industrial Estate near Daund in Maharashtra. The fire starts when welders, repairing a pipeline connecting edible oil tanks, cause the oil to overheat. Workers are flung high into the air with the impact of the explosion.

September 22: Six young women, aged between 17 and 20, die and 54 suffer serious burns when a fire breaks out at a match factory in Mudukkumeidanpatti, near Kovilpatti in Tamil Nadu.

July 30: One person killed and 12 hospitalised following a gas leak at RPG Life Sciences Ltd’s Pimpri facility located in the premises of Hindustan Antibiotics Limited, Pimpri, Maharashtra. The company claims the gas, emitted during manufacture of the drug Spirunolactone, is not poisonous.

2001

August 26: Five women employed at the Gujarat Clay Mills in Kurla, Mumbai, hospitalised after inhaling fumes caused by grinding a ‘blackish’ material. The dean of Sion Hospital, where the women were admitted, said they were suffering from methhaemoglobinia. Workers say there was no proper ventilation at the mill.

August 17: Twenty-two killed in a blast at the Tamil Nadu Industrial Explosive Ltd plant near Katpadi in Vellore. The accident occurred during the crimping process for making detonators used in quarries. 35,000 detonators were stored in the building at the time of the explosion. Two people had earlier died at the unit.

May 31: Twenty-two young labourers, mainly from Bengal, die after a gas cylinder bursts at a gold-processing unit in Mumbai’s crowded Bhuleshwar area. The gas cylinder had been illegally procured and was fake. The labourers were unable to escape the raging fire as the owner had locked them in the room at night.

2000

December 8: West Bengal government orders the closure of the Frigerio Conserva Allana meat-processing factory in Mourigram, Howrah, two days after angry residents storm the plant. The residents claim toxic emissions on October 28 caused the death of one worker and affected four others.

November 21: Gujarat High Court raps the state for its apathetic approach, following the death of two labourers at an effluent treatment plant at Naroda Enviro Projects Ltd. The workers died on July 28 when they fell into toxic liquid at the treatment chamber. It is alleged that the workers were not provided proper safety equipment.

June 7: One worker dies in a fire mishap at Oswal Chemicals & Fertilisers in Paradip, Orissa. The government had earlier registered three cases against the company for not adhering to safety norms.

April 18: Thirty-one people, including several children, hospitalised in northeast Delhi following a chlorine gas leak from a water treatment plant of the Delhi Jal Board.

1999

October 16: Three persons killed and 17 badly affected after inhaling hydrogen sulphide gas from a storage tank at a unit near Kalyan, Maharashtra. Though there were 124 industrial units handling chemicals in the area, staff at the civic Rukminibai Hospital say they are not equipped to handle chemical asphyxiation and lack basic equipment like ventilators.

October 8: Thirty-seven women employees of Ravi Frozen Foods at Wagle Estate, Thane, faint when a hosepipe bursts in the cooling hall, releasing ammonia gas. The director, engineer, foreman and two others arrested on charges of gross negligence; later released on bail.

May 6: Five people killed in a flash fire at the hydro cracker unit of Indian Oil Corporation’s Panipat refinery commissioned just three months earlier.

1998

July 10: Heavy rains in Bajwa, Gujarat, cause the sliding of a mountain of waste gypsum dumped by Gujarat State Fertilisers & Chemicals. The radioactive waste flows into the town affecting several residential areas. The government distributes food and water packets in response to protests by residents.

April 21: Four killed and 60 injured after several barrels containing chemicals catch fire at the Dasnagar Industrial Estate near Howrah. Three days later, residents near the site are forced to flee as the resultant aniline gas causes asphyxiation. Police blame the authorities for stockpiling chemicals without adequate supervision.

April 2: Five workers killed at the Nutra Plus factory at Boisar Industrial Estate, Gujarat. A faulty safety valve rendered the cooling apparatus ineffective. The ceiling collapsed. Factory workers allege that two chemical engineers meant to be operating the reactor were busy watching a televised cricket match.

1997

September 15: Thirty-seven persons killed in a blast at the Hindustan Petroleum refinery in Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. Most victims were casual labourers employed on a contract basis. Environmental scientists at the Tata Energy Research Institute and the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi express fears that the blaze may have damaged crops and triggered respiratory diseases among the town’s population. The A B Sathe Committee looking into the incident holds staff responsible for failing to close the valves of the sphere in the storage tanks, resulting in the blast.

May 22: Nine persons die in an explosion at a factory in Faridabad, Haryana. The chemical factory stored drums of methyl elkyl ketone peroxide.

March 13: Twenty people die at a gelatin godown in Sangamnagar in Satara town.

1996

September 26: 64 miners drown in the Gasiltand mines of Bharat Coking Coal in Katra, near Dhanbad, Bihar, after torrential rains breach a river embankment and water gushes into the mine. Miners stranded in a lift that stopped working rang the alarm bell repeatedly but BCCL management personnel had fled. No rescue efforts were undertaken until too late. Fourteen officials charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

September 14: Eighteen children hospitalised in Narkheldanga, West Bengal, after inhaling poisonous fumes emitted at a paper and cardboard godown. It is believed the fumes spread when boxes that once had chemicals spread on top of them were being cleaned.

1995

August 7: Six people, including a supervisor, die after inhaling poisonous gas while cleaning a tank at the Marico edible oil plant in Jalgaon, Nashik. Among the workers is a 16-year-old boy.

July 10: Thirty people fall ill after a gas leak at the Hindustan Lever prawn-processing unit near Kolkata, West Bengal.

March 15: Two workers die after inhaling poisonous gas at the Mukund Iron plant in Kalwa, Thane, near Mumbai.

1994

November 13: Hundreds affected by a toxic cloud formed after a fire breaks out at a chemical store in Delhi.

January 25: Fifty-three miners die when a fire breaks out in a mine in Asansol, West Bengal.

1993

March 17: Nine residents of Chhota Shahad village in Ulhasnagar, Thane district, near Mumbai, die after being affected by hydrogen sulphide released by the Century Rayon factory into a nullah. About 140 villagers were affected. Four Century Rayon employees arrested. A Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) report implicates Century Rayon for violating safety norms in the treatment of effluents.

On MPCB orders, closure operations begin on April 16 amid protests by the workers union. On April 24, the MPCB and Maharashtra government allow the company to reopen its plant provided it complies with MPCB orders. 

(Compiled by Freny Manecksha)

InfoChange News & Features, December 2004