Days after five men died in a chemical tank in an Andhra food company, 'justice' remain elusive

Five deaths and a pungent village The aftermath of a chemical leak in an Andhra village All Images: Rahul Maganti
news Ground Report Thursday, April 13, 2017 - 15:13

Jakkamshetty Praveen’s mother is inconsolable. “We were planning to marry him off soon. I didn’t have the opportunity to even cry over my son’s body because of the smell and it was covered with white foam. Everyone in the house was suffering from vomiting, motions, fever and a host of other illnesses for two to three days even after we cremated Praveen,” she says, in between sobs.  

At around 9am on the morning of March 30, Praveen and four others were asked to clean a 16-feet deep wastage tank in a factory of ‘Ananda Aqua Sea Exports’, based in Nallammavarithota village, in Andhra’s West Godavari District. 

Eega Yedukondalu (30), was the first to get orders from his duty supervisor Nallam Satyanarayana to get into the tank, but little did he know that the poisonous gases which filled the tank would take his life and that of four others - Jakkamshetty Praveen (24), Boddu Rambabu (25), Thota Srinivasa Rao (30) and Nallam Yedukondalu (23).

24-year-old mechanic Ramkumar was the sixth one to enter the tank and was lucky to survive as his co-workers held his collar and dragged him out. 

“Yedukondalu couldn’t take the pungent smell in the tank. He came back to tell the same to Satyanarayana. However, he was forced to go down again saying that this is his usual work and that he has been cleaning the tank since the factory started,” says Ramkumar, who regained consciousness only half an hour after he was saved. 

“By the time I regained my senses, I could find workers from a nearby Ananda factory in Bhimavaram cleaning and emptying the tank while people were protesting in front of the gate,” he adds. 

Since then, revenue and the police officials have confirmed that the incident happened due to leakage of poisonous gases which include ammonia and other dangerous chemicals.

(The front view of the factory)

(A view of the wastage tank where the workers died)

However, the management of the factory and the local MP Gokaraju Gangaraju, belonging to the BJP, claim that the accident happened due to a short circuit. 

Satyanarayana, who has been parroting the same story, reportedly got himself admitted into a nearby private hospital and has been undergoing treatment for the past 10 days for ‘electric shock’. 

Repeated attempts to contact him went unanswered. Witnesses claim that he had fled the site immediately after the ghastly accident. 

Ananda Aqua Sea Exports Private Limited was established in 2013 as an extension of a similar factory by the Ananda Group of Industries in Ramayanapuram, 20 km away. 

The group is owned by U Kasi Viswanadha Raju, who belongs to the Kshatriya community, quite powerful in the Godavari Delta region. 

Only headless prawns are made in this particular unit, before they are sent to other Ananda factories (22 of them in the region) for complete processing. The factory got its license in May 2014 and subsequently got it renewed by the Pollution Control Board in 2016. 

S Venkateswarlu, Executive Engineer of the Pollution Control Board claims, “This is merely an issue of safety and not an issue of pollution. The whole incident could have been avoided if the workers got into the wastage tank using safety masks.” 

According to him, a team from the PCB went to the industry on March 11, and found everything as per the laws and rules. 

Consequences

Ramu, who lives roughly 200 metres from the factory, says, “10 out of 60 families have already left the village in the last one year because of the foul smell that the factory is emanating. We are also planning to sell our land and leave the village soon.” 

Around a month ago, the villagers of Nallammavarithota signed a petition complaining about the pungent smell emanating from the factory, following which the Sub-Collector visited the village and gave a warning to the management. 

However, even this could not avert the death of five youngsters in the factory on that fateful day.

Apart from Eega Yedukondalu, who belonged to the Yanadi community, none of the other five entrusted with cleaning responsibilities, had any experience. 

Praveen was an electrician, Srinivasa Rao worked in the workshop while the remaining two were daily wage labourers. 

(The family of Jakkamshetty Praveen)

(The family of Eega Yedukondalu)

Gopala Krishna, a worker in the factory and a resident of Nallammavarithota asks, “What has an electrician and a mechanic got to do with cleaning the tank? If two people were not responding to the calls, why are three others sent inside the tank? Most of the workers suspected that labour inspectors and PCB officials were expected to visit the factory in the first week of April. Because of this, the management wanted to clean the tank on March 30.” 

The workers informed this reporter that the tank had not been cleaned since the past three months, when it is supposed to be cleaned once in every 15 days.

All the victims were the sole breadwinners of their respective families. Eega Yedukondalu is survived by his wife Eega Kotamma (25) and three children – Deevena (12), Dwaraka (11) and Parusuddham (5). A Class 5 drop-out, Deevena allegedly works in the factory and was the first person to learn of her father’s death. 

She says that she is paid Rs 2 for removing the heads of 1 kg of prawns. Deevena is not the only child working in the factory, which employees 200 women and 20 men. According to locals, women and children are the source of cheap labour here.

Nallam Yedukondalu is survived by his paralysis affected parents and a 20-year-old brother, on whose shoulders the burden of running the house now falls. 

Villagers of Nallammavarithota told this reporter that the surroundings of the factory smelled till late in the evening on that fateful day. “Almost all the people who went near the factory after the incident were suffering from fever and motions,” says Srinivasa Rao’s wife, Venkata Lakshmi, who also works in the factory.

“The minimum wage for a scavenger/cleaner according to the law is Rs 11,500 per month. However, they are paid only Rs 6,500. No official will ever come to the factory and take action against child labour, and other violations of the company. Chandrababu Naidu sent police to safeguard the factory. Why is he not sending PCB officials?” asks Varma, a leader of the CITU backed Aqua worker’s union. 

MA Gafoor, state secretary of CITU, who presided the commemorative meeting of the deceased workers on April 6, said, “This is not a one-off incident where workers bore the brunt of profit hungry management which avoids all safety and purifying costs to maximize their profits. Three people died and four people got injured at Indus Coffee factory near Sullurupeta in Nellore District. Last year, 150 people were injured at Nekkanti Seafoods in East Godavari District when poisonous gas got leaked.”

Following the accident in March, around 1,000 people gathered near the factory and protested against the management as well as the government. This forced the District Collector to announce an ex-gratia of Rs 25 lakh.

However, a fortnight later, the families of the victims are yet to receive the full compensation. The villagers also demanded that a case be registered against the management of the factory and that the place should be shut down. 

A case has been registered in Mogaltur Police Station under Section 304A of IPC which is being investigated by DSP Narsapur. The investigating officer told this reporter that no arrests have been made so far and that they are still awaiting the post-mortem report. 

Interestingly, the accused in the FIR read ‘Ananda vaaru’ (Ananda people), without naming those people and the management who could be held responsible. Activists allege that this is a tactic used by the police to dilute the case. 

(A banner of CITU which reads, "These are the murders of Ananda Management. The people responsible for the death of workers should be arrested.")

 

Show us some love and support our journalism by becoming a TNM Member - Click here.