That the fire which gutted two factories was not as disastrous as it could have been is sheer luck, say factory workers and local residents.

Factory amaged in fire From gates to building everything is lying shatteredOrion Chemicals factory destoryed in fire
news Industries Wednesday, January 20, 2021 - 19:37

A pungent smell, like a mixture of rotten garbage and strong chemicals, pierces the nostrils of anyone who walks across the Pathalam regulator-cum-bridge. The bridge connects Ernakulam’s Eloor and the Edayar industrial belt, which is home to over 300 factories. This is where, in the wee hours of Sunday morning, two factories were completely burned down in a massive fire. The fire is said to have started in one factory, suspectedly due to lightning, and spread to the other. In a tightly-packed spot where numerous factories, including those storing highly inflammable substances, are located, workers and local residents say that it was by sheer luck that the incident was not as disastrous as it could have been. Though no one got injured in the fire, the incident has pointed fingers to a lax in crucial safety measures in the region and the lackadaisical attitude of the authorities, which could pave way for larger disasters in the future.

When the fire broke out on Sunday midnight, Sajith* (name changed on request) was awake in his room in a neighbouring factory complex. He heard a loud bang, like a blast, and saw massive flames over one side of the Orion Chemicals factory right next door. A petrified Sajith immediately woke up two of his other sleeping colleagues and rushed to the factory that was on fire.

“Three workers had been sleeping inside that factory; we rushed to the spot to bring them out. Very soon, the whole factory was on fire, with cans that stored the chemical solvents exploding,” recalls Sajith.

Very soon, the chemical solvents that had been stored in the factory, located on a sloping plot of land, spread to outside the compound and extended the reach of the fire. The rubber products-manufacturer Sreekovil Industries, located just opposite to Orion Chemicals, soon caught fire too and was completely gutted. The fire also spread to two other properties, partially damaging them.

Watch video of the fire

“If the oil company that shared a compound wall with Sreekovil Industries had caught fire, it would have been a massive tragedy. Tonnes of petroleum products are stored there and the whole region would have burned down,” Sajith adds.

What about regulatory bodies?

Apart from the factories, the massive fire has also blown holes in the credibility of the bodies that regulate these industries.

When TNM contacted the Department of Factories and Boilers (FAB) to enquire about safety lapses in the gutted buildings, an official alleged that neither factory had the pertinent licences issued by the department. However, the FAB official failed to account for how the factories were able to function without them. It is to be noted that officials from Sreekovil Industries claim that they do have the required documents.

Partially damaged factories across the road. Burnt tree and damaged transformer also in the vicinity

As per the initial inquiry report submitted by the Department of Factories and Boilers, Orion Chemicals were fully damaged, while two others, General Chemicals and Polymers and Sreekovil Industries, were partially damaged.

Though the FAB officials are probing the issue, environmental activists raise a pressing question-- why didn’t the authorities know beforehand whether the factories had proper authorisation?

“This is a clear pointer that there have been no inspections or routine checks that the authorities ought to have done. It was their duty to find out unauthorised companies and issue stop notices or take action against them. But that was not done and who is at fault for that?” asks Mahesh Kumar, an Eloor native and an environmental activist part of a group named Janajagratha.

Workers cleaning one damaged factory

He also alleged that the issue is only the tip of the iceberg of the corrupt practises that go on in the region. “Except the Pollution Control Board (PCB), no other authorities, be it the FAB or Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organization (PESO), conduct routine inspections here. Most of the companies get their license renewed without official inspection by paying money,” alleges Mahesh, who is also an employee in one of the companies in the area.

Talking to TNM, sources in the FAB also accepted that there are multiple companies in Edayar that violate norms. “A few months after obtaining a license, the structure of the companies will not be the same as what they had projected while trying to obtain a license. They will often conduct unauthorised expansion works,” the official points out.

“But the question here is, why is there no action against such companies? Why don’t the officials answer that?” Mahesh Kumar asks.

According to the FAB official, the clash in the rules issued by different authorities is one aspect which leads to violations. “One example of this is the clash of the Pollution Control Board and FAB rules. As per PCB, the companies should have closed buildings preventing any possible emissions from the factories. But FAB points to adequate ventilation inside the structures. What normally happens is, companies function by abiding the rule of any one of the agencies, while violating the other,” the officer says.

How scientific is this industrial zone?

The 450-acre Edayar industrial region was first formed in the 1960s, during the times of Panampilly Govinda Menon, Chief Minister of Travancore-Cochin (1955–1956). According to activists, though it was initially scientifically planned out, with new factories and industries mushrooming, the scientific development of the area took a back seat. Not only has this affected the health of the people in its surroundings, but it is the cause of one of the most pressing environmental issues in Kerala-- the severe pollution of the Periyar river.

View of Edayar region from Pathalam regulator-cum-bridge

Read: The Periyar is dying: How south Kerala's lifeline has become an industrial sewage drain

“The spacious web of roads that were carefully planned shrank as more companies arose. Many open spaces were lost as more buildings came, which is deemed as an unscientific development,” says Purushan Eloor, a senior environmental activist in the region.

The most remarkable thing one notes while entering Edayar, the stench of chemicals and rotten organic material, is also evidence of the unplanned development in the region over the years. This is reflected in the vicinity of the factories that caught fire. If on one side there is a factory that processes poultry waste, its neighbours are a massive lubricants company and a rubber processing one, the last two being separated by just a wall.

View of Edayar region from Pathalam regulator-cum-bridge

The requirement of proper roads around each factory unit has been one of the primary demands raised by activists, who have been calling out for government intervention to create a planned, safe environment in the region. But most of the factories have only one entrance, with all the other sides enclosed by buildings or walls of the neighbouring factory.

Talking to TNM, workers of a factory in the region who were present during the fire outbreak, said that the narrow roads posed delayed fire engines as they did not have easy access to the affected areas.

Read: How a pristine Kerala island transformed into world’s top toxic spot

Disaster management plan the need of the hour

“Eloor is a disaster waiting to happen. Any similar fire outbreaks can go out of control anytime due to all the above shortcomings. The presence of numerous companies with highly volatile products requires much tighter safety measures,” says Purushan Eloor. For many years, he has been among those demanding the government to set up a comprehensive chemical disaster management plan to tackle the issues of the region.

“In a region like this where one can accept huge disasters anytime, there is no emergency plan which directs people on where they should move to when such issues occur,” he says.

“According to the Hazardous Waste Management and Handling Rule of 1989, it is mandatory to display details and quantities of the products and by-products produced and stored in the company, at the front. But none of this is followed in any companies here,” adds Purushan.

A few environmental activists, including Purushan, have formed an independent fact finding committee to find out the exact cause of the Edayar fire.

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