TN govt failed to hold CPCL liable for Ennore oil spill: Justice K Kannan interview

In an interview with TNM, retired judge K Kannan, who headed a committee to look into the Ennore oil spill, talks about his assessment of the situation and how the state government has let down the local residents.
Retired Judge K Kannan
Retired Judge K Kannan
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On December 4, when Chennai was battered by Cyclone Michaung, Ennore, located to the north of the city, not only faced nature’s fury but a disastrous oil spill too. The oil, which had allegedly leaked from the Chennai Petroleum Corporation Limited (CPCL), had mixed in the sea, in the other water bodies, and in the flood water that had entered the streets and houses of several localities in north Chennai. Just weeks after the oil spill, residents in Ennore were forced to live through an Ammonia gas leak from the Coromandel International Limited (CIL) on December 26.

While the National Green Tribunal (NGT) took suo motu action against both CPCL and CIL, and the residents have been opposing the functioning of such industries near residential areas, a committee headed by retired judge K Kannan assessed the situation and asked for criminal action to be initiated against the companies. Here are excerpts from an interview TNM did with Justice Kannan.

TNM: It’s been more than a month since the Ennore oil spill happened. CPCL has not taken responsibility yet. In between, they admitted that the excess water discharged from reservoirs may have caused the oil spill. You visited Ennore and released a report, what is your assessment of the situation?

Justice Kannan: These are all strict liability issues. ‘We didn’t do anything wrong. We have to let off water in appropriate places’ is not an answer CPCL can give. The doctrine Res ipsa loquitur, which means ‘the thing speaks for itself’, applies here. The state government should ask the facility operator to compensate and ensure the abatement of this nuisance. The administration owes it to the people; these are all very fundamental levels of what you find in the Criminal Procedure Code.

The government should simply ask CPCL to shut the facility. When Boat Club and Poes Garden people suffer, it is unacceptable to the government. But if people in a village in Ennore suffer, who cares. So, when CPCL goes into denial mode, government must go after them and shut the facility for two days at least to know what it means to them… make them answerable, make them pay or ask them to declare a policy about how they are going to ensure that there is no future recurrence of such an event.

Who is approving these things? The pathetic thing is that the Pollution Control Board (PCB) or its officers were also caught unawares. How could this be? Their vigilance must be such that they go there, visit every day and watch things and see whether everything is alright. They’re all sitting in their own nice air-conditioned offices.

Q: At what level has there been a failure in addressing the situation and holding a government owned entity like CPCL responsible for the damages? Where does it start?

A: When there is an oil spill, the PCB are technical people who must surely know what is to be done. If they had worked properly, it should not have happened in the first place. They must begin with an admission of their failure, and then try and repair that by going back to those who are causing it. The first thing that the authorities should do is stop the activity at the plant.

In the case of CIL, where the gas leak happened, the activity was immediately stopped. Gas leak is even more dangerous. This oil leak was dangerous to birds, to fish, not immediately dangerous to people, but it was dangerous to livelihoods. So therefore, their response was not as much as it was for the gas leak. The local people were able to stop the operations immediately. The factory has not started again, people are still protesting opposite the factory. Everyday they go and sit there, they don’t want it to open at all. Though the government will probably open it.

We have industries we can’t close. Industry is one method of saying we need to redefine development. Any development that causes very serious health concerns for people and is hazardous is not development, it is the antithesis of development.

So for me, it’s a simple answer, abatement of activity at CPCL must happen immediately. They must rework and find out all safety issues, all leakage issues or whatever is happening. How are they going to be disposing of effluents? Why are they getting discharged and where are they getting discharged? These are fundamental things. What is the PCB doing?

Q: Do you think that the Tamil Nadu government failed to hold CPCL accountable?

A: Very much, clearly so. The accountability must happen in ways that are for people to see. The PCB should have initiated proceedings to prosecute CPCL. That should have been their first action, that is the harshest action you can think of immediately. You can’t deliver a judgement in a day. But at least you know you’re setting the law in motion and making someone worry about what they are doing.

Then they must have ceased the CPCL operations. Asked them about safety lines, their plan of action, how they will ensure such an incident does not reoccur. They probably sent out notices, but that’s not sufficient. The service has to be terminated and there has to be a long inquiry. They should realise that what has happened is serious and that’s why they are now forced to cease the activity. It will create a major problem in the way of output of fertiliser, oil, and electricity generation, and they have to make alternative arrangements.

Q: Do you think that by not acting in a strong manner the Tamil Nadu government has let down the people of Ennore?

A: Sure. There’s no doubt about that. It’s a gross failure, a gross failure that is systematic, it’s above all party lines. There are two governments led by the DMK and AIADMK that have been  in power since 1967. It’s one or the other, you can see that inaction is for various reasons. You showcase an industry as important development, measured through the setting up of industries and investments that come, but where is the people welfare accompanying that development? At all times we need a social audit… how industry has translated in terms of prosperity for the people. But it is not happening.

Q: And when an incident as serious as a gas leak happens and a few days later you see the owners of the same company sharing the dais with the Chief Minister and other top ministers at an investors meeting, what kind of message is the government sending? 

A: These industry leaders are very important for us. They will be making possible other investments also. But how are the people treated? That’s hardly a concern. The sad thing is the people asked us, ‘Why is the media ignoring us? They visit us when a political party leader visits our area.’ They don’t see any appropriate response for their sufferings from any quarters. The government talks about its investments and what it can do in trade. There is a gross disconnect. People look for answers from the government, but they don’t come at all.

Q: According to you, which are the organisations that have failed in addressing the problem plaguing Ennore and in holding red category industries accountable for the disasters?

A: District administration is the first, this includes the police machinery too. We use police forces only to quell people’s responses, justifiable responses. We don’t see it used against the people who are responsible for these kinds of disasters, they’re hand in glove. So, the district administration at the lowest ground level must respond quickly to ensure that there is action. The Collector should have immediately released the compensation money. These are all people who are earning every day. And if they are out of work for two days, it is a problem for them.

The awareness and recognition of people’s anguish must be there and must come from top downwards. That does not happen at all. If a tahsildar feels very unhappy about things, it is not an issue. If the Chief Minister expresses unhappiness and anguish over things, that really means something. People who are at the top positions in government must be answerable and respond to the sufferings of the people. They must come there and meet the people, that is not happening at all.

There are umpteen orders, from NGT courts to the High Courts, and when someone says we will file another case, that is not what the victims want. What is lacking is executing the orders already issued by the courts. Authorities need to be sitting and discussing how to enforce the orders.

The people of Ennore are very responsible, their suffering is so much that there is a cohesive group working for the implementation of these orders. The implementation of these orders would be required at various levels, starting from giving licence to factories, periodic inspections to be done by the Labour department, in how the labour laws are implemented. How is the housing done? What are the public nuisances that are created?

The PCB cannot merely be reporting when a pollution issue breaks out. It is in a position to stop what is happening, its role is so important now. It has powers to stop any activity, then it can give a recommendation to the Collector and close industries that are polluting.

If the PCB gave a report to the NGT saying CPCL is responsible and ordered its closure, why is it not done?

Q: Okay, then this question comes: the CPCL is partly owned by the Union government. When the Union government is involved in this, why is the CPCL trying to evade responsibility? And why isn’t the state government doing enough to pin down CPCL, to try and ensure that they are held accountable?

A: I won’t be able to answer this question. The level of your strength and your own invincibility, how you roll out your services and how is it perceived in terms of the larger benefit also determines how you will be dealt with. If you’re seen as vulnerable, you will be gone, they will chase you away. But then, wherever a state is involved, the response is always less. If it’s a state that is involved, it sees itself as invincible, it is too big to be seen because courts take action against them. I am quoting a sitting judge, therefore I’m not saying anything new.

For example, during the construction of Goa airport, the Airports Authority of India (AAI) had breached all environmental regulations and Justice Chandrachud, who was heading the bench, declined to give permission. Six to eight months later, everything is alright. So the sitting judge said that the Supreme Court will wink at the big ticket cases and that’s it. They know they’re big. Similarly with CPCL, because they are big enough, the level of operation, the size of operation, the number of years they’ve never been accountable or answerable to what they’ve already done before. They can say ‘Why am I going to be made answerable? I’m employing so many people, I have so many resources. My contribution is seen like this, so I can’t be touched.’

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