AP: Industries find it easier to pay compensation than implement safety protocols

Two accidents occurred in two months in industrial parks after the LG Polymers accident. Experts argue that in the name of ease of doing business, there is a lack of accountability and corresponding safety measures.
lg polymers plant in vizag
lg polymers plant in vizag
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December is the follow-up month at TNM where we go back to headlines of the past for a status update. In this series, we strive to bring focus back to promises made by governments, revisit official investigations that should have been completed by now and exhume issues of public interest that lost steam over time.

On August 2 this year, 129 employees at an apparel company Brandix Intimate India Limited were hospitalised after inhaling an “unpleasant odour.” On June 3, another incident was reported from the company, wherein approximately 300 women were hospitalised following an alleged gas leak, the nature and source of which have not yet been determined. Some of the women who became ill on June 3 were also admitted to the hospital on August 2. The two incidents at Brandix were the latest in a long line of incidents that have dogged Visakhapatnam, which is home to several Special Economic Zones (SEZ). Brandix is located in Atchutapuram SEZ, and the company is spread around 400 acres. 

The incident was thought to have been caused by ammonia gas that leaked from another company located nearby called Porus Laboratories. But the interim report prepared by a committee appointed to look into the cause of the leak, did not mention the cause. The report only stated that only the employees of Brandix experienced the symptoms and not the workers or guards outside the plant. This raised serious questions about how a gas leak from Porus, which is about 700 metres away, did not affect workers from other plants or even the guards. A final report is expected to be submitted on December 16, 2022.

Even without the final report being submitted or ascertaining the origin of the gas leak, the company was allowed to resume its operations after a few days. TNM reached out to two women who fell sick and were hospitalised. Both women claimed that their employer had taken care of them when they fell sick. One of them said, “I was there when both incidents happened. I was admitted to the hospital both times immediately when I fell sick. I was told to rest for a month, and the company provided paid leave.” When asked about the source of the gas leak, the woman said she was unaware of where it came from and did not question the employer.

Employees at Brandix apparel company seen unconsious after gas leak. (Image source:Twitter/Revathi)

Was another company made a scapegoat?

Dr K Babu Rao from Scientists for People — a group of senior scientists formed to study and critique the impacts of policies and activities related to science impacting the climate — said, “Ammonia or chlorine leak dispersion cannot reach such long distances, without affecting others in the immediate neighbourhood, unless the leakage was massive. And if it was massive, the company could have alerted the whole zone. The committee is of the preconceived opinion that a sewing plant cannot have any pollutants. However, Brandix Apparel complex has the largest effluent treatment plant in the state.” 

In a letter to AK Parida, Chairman of the committee formed to ascertain the cause of the incident, the scientist group argued that formaldehyde, a human carcinogen, used for anti-crease properties for the fabric, was the cause of illness. The letter urged the installation of air quality monitoring instrumentation for the workers to know that they were not being forced to inhale toxic gas for agreeing to do wage work.

“Porus was made a scapegoat. We wrote many letters that the problem is within the company. After the second incident, they stopped blaming Porus. We looked at scientific publications on garment factories, and we are sure that the problem is within Brandix. Proper assessment of ventilation, air circulation, and air quality must be looked at,” Dr Rao said.

Yet another promise to enforce safety regulations

In August, following the two incidents at Brandix, the Andhra Pradesh government announced that it would review the occurrence of industrial accidents with all relevant departments and that committees at the state and district levels would be established to check that all industrial units complied with all safety and environmental regulations.

This was in addition to the long list of recommendations made by a committee appointed to look into the styrene gas leak at LG Polymers.

The continuing incidents can only mean that the recommendations have remained on paper, while industries continue to violate rules brazenly in the absence of any stringent mechanisms to ensure compliance.

Following the incident in June, members of the Human Right Forum (HRF) alleged that the medical and health facilities at the Special Economic Zone and different industrial units were insufficient and were not outfitted with the necessary tools or medical personnel to handle such a scenario of toxic exposure. In accordance with the recommendations made by the High Power Committee that looked into the cause of the styrene gas leak at LG Polymers in May 2020, HRF demanded safety audits of all industries in and around Vizag. But mounting industrial accidents even after the LG Polymer leak has effectively shown no audit was ever considered and the status quo at manufacturing facilities was maintained.

Multiple accidents at pharma companies in Vizag

The incident at Brandix factory was preceded by a reactor blast at Hetero Drugs situated at Hetero Infrastructures in Nakkalapalli. The company is one of the largest manufacturers of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs) and was responsible for manufacturing the first generic version (Covifor) of the drug Remdesivir, widely used in the treatment of COVID-19. On February 23, 2022, one employee died due to a reactor blast at the manufacturing facility and left four people injured. In 2013, four workers died in another reactor blast at this pharma company. The company was also slapped with a fine of Rs 7 crore in July this year, by the National Green Tribunal for releasing effluents into the sea from its laboratory and laying pipelines in the forest area without permission from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

Prof P Jagannadha Rao from Andhra University’s Chemistry department – who was on the committee looking into the Brandix incident – pointed to a lack of an advisory board to suggest or guide the industries to implement standard operating procedures and recommendations. “A qualified senior person with experience in all the aspects of industrial safety must be employed in addition to existing teams with separate departments such as risk identification, risk management, hazardous operations and simultaneous operations,” he said.

Emphasising that safety is a continuous process, Rao said, “As long as the operation is going on, safety measures are to be taken and there is no limit to the bare minimum. As technology upgrades, the safety ecosystem faces challenges and it must update knowledge to tackle the issues. Continuous surveillance and continuous advisory are very much needed to reduce the accidents.”

Andhra Pradesh prides itself on being at the helm of the pharma industry in India and is the largest exporter of pharma products. According to the Andhra Pradesh Economic Development Board, the state’s share was 6% of national exports amounting to Rs 24,538 crore and constituted 16% of India’s production value as of FY 2018-19. Vizag alone has more than 150 pharma manufacturing units. With so much at stake, it is easy to wonder whether the government has found itself unwilling to come down heavily on violators and has found it easier to dispense compensation rather than insisting on strict safety protocols.

Experts argued that the government had consistently relaxed regulations to encourage industrial activity at the expense of environmental damage and human loss which the companies easily get away with. The accident led to a lot of heated discussions about safety regulations, but the question remains if they are being adequately implemented. Companies are not held accountable even after numerous accidents, which demonstrates that the industry promoters — who are alleged to have close ties to the succeeding political leaderships — have cynically maintained and run the facility and are directly or indirectly to blame for the deaths of the innocent workers and the disruption of their livelihoods.

LG Polymer accident highlights the need for industrial safety education

As the pandemic lockdown rules were eased in May 2020, one of the largest styrene vapour release from a bulk storage tank anywhere in the world took place in LG Polymers Plant in Visakhapatnam on May 7. In the immediate aftermath of the accident, 12 people lost their lives, and 1,000 people were hospitalised and livestock and vegetation were destroyed. 

The National Green Tribunal took up a suo motu case and a fine of Rs 50 crore was levied on the company after factoring in the extent of the damage. The state government provided compensation of approximately Rs 60 crore including Rs 10,000 each to about 20,000 residents of affected villages. 

Army Personnel Rescue people during the Styrene gas leak at LG Polymers. (Image source: Twitter/Labeed Aliya)

In the aftermath of the leak at LG Polymers, a high-powered committee led by IAS officer Neerabh Kumar Prasad concluded that the negligence of the management was largely to blame for the accident. The committee, which submitted its report on July 6, 2020, made it clear that the accident was caused due to flouting safety regulations and warnings. Over 20 instances of negligence attributed to the management were highlighted. It also highlighted the failure of several departments, including the Directorate of Factories, the Department of Industries, the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board, etc., to ensure that LG Polymers complied with all safety procedures and protocols.

The committee also suggested relocating LG Polymers to a place far from populated areas, preferably in industrial parks that had been approved and notified. It also mandated the appointment of a senior-level safety officer in the factory. In addition, the committee recommended regular monitoring of onsite and offsite emergency plans for hazardous industries located close to residential areas, as well as mock drills inside the industrial facilities at least every six months and outside the facilities once a year.

Most importantly, the committee recommended the establishment of a State Factory Safety Board in each state and a Central Factory Safety Board at the national level, composed of experts and technically qualified individuals with sufficient experience in dealing with factory safety issues. 

While the high-powered committee was busy framing safety recommendations, a gas leak occurred at the Sainor Life Sciences factory on June 30, 2020. Benzimidazole gas leakage resulted in the deaths of two employees and caused severe injuries to four employees at the plant. On July 7, a day after the high-powered submitted its safety recommendations on the LG Polymer gas leak, two employees died in an explosion at Visakha Solvents's building in Pharma City, which occurred due to improper working of vacuum pumps. Locals said they heard around a dozen explosions in the building. The company paid Rs 35 lakh ex gratia to the families of the deceased. The NGT cited several infrastructure non-compliances in its report and slapped a Rs 30 lakh fine for the contribution of emissions into the environment and vegetation loss.

The explosion at Visakha Solvents. (Image source: Twitter/Revathi)

Easier to pay compensation than implement safety protocols

Companies which violate safety protocols have found it easier to just pay a fine and resume operations. Sainor Life Sciences paid Rs 35 lakh to the deceased and Rs 24 lakh to Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board and they resumed their operations.

After the LG Polymers accident, the government announced Rs 1 crore compensation to the kin of the deceased and Rs 50 lakh as ex gratia to the families of the deceased in all accidents. Former bureaucrat and environmental activist EAS Sarma filed a plea with the National Green Tribunal after the gas leak from LP Polymers, questioning the permissions that were given to the company to operate and prosecuting LG’s management. He said, “Around 40 accidents have occurred in the past few years. Ex-gratia payment was given to the deceased families, and the issue was silenced. The toxic chemicals have been causing pollution everywhere, and the polluter has been getting away with it. In LG Polymers case, we argued to set up a health check-up of all the affected people nearby as styrene is highly toxic and the polluter has to pay. That did not happen.” 

All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) state general secretary Koteshwar Rao pointed out an important aspect of compensation and said, “In some cases, the injured or the person who was partially burnt by 30% or 50% may die after lying in hospital for long. Sometimes they lose the willpower to fight pain and give up. These people do not receive the compensation as deceased. They receive the ex-gratia payment as the injured only. The families do not reach out to authorities due to lack of awareness or resources.” In incidents like that of Brandix, the affected employees were paid swift compensation and provided leave. This ensured that the employees did not bother to raise questions about their safety.


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