Ch Narasinga Rao from Visakhapatnam
IN the wee hours of May 7, the unusual foggy dawn surprised people living around the LG Polymers India Ltd plant in Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. They were caught unawares by the pungent odour and breathlessness. People came out of their homes and ran helter-skelter, with many of them falling unconscious and collapsing on roads. It was a run for survival for many as panic gripped the area. Twelve people died in the gas leak. Fifty-three children are still in the paediatric ward of KGH, the biggest government-run hospital in the state, and 300 others are undergoing treatment in different hospitals.
The gas leak at the South Korean firm LG’s plant could be compared with the Bhopal gas tragedy and must focus on medical needs, not only immediate but also for long term and life time of all people living within a 5-km radius. The LG Polymers plant was completely shut and no proper maintenance was there during the lockdown enforced to check the spread of the novel coronavirus. On May 7, the management wanted to restart production. It was found that gas leaked from styrene monomer (SM) storage tank. The LG management failed to give alarms to the neighborhood and this grave crime caused 12 deaths. After two days of the accident, the management issued a statement on May 9, without giving any reasons for the accident. They tried to hide facts and there is no honesty in the statement.
One view is that the SM storage tank was outdated, which was built in 1961 and using this tank was a gross mistake. Another view is that the company failed to follow the standard safety procedures, when the reopening work at the factory was left to unskilled workers. This accident was a consequence of exemption given to this type of industry during the lockdown period. What happened in Visakhapatnam is a warning to industries across India.
According to the US-based Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, inhalation of styrene gas causes tiredness, sense of inebriation, slows reaction time, concentration problems, balance problems and changes in colour vision. Styrene concentrations that cause these effects are more than 1,000 per cent higher than the levels normally found in the environment. Chronic exposure to styrene can affect the central nervous system with symptoms as headache, fatigue and weakness. It can also cause memory dysfunction and hearing loss.
Hindustan Polymers, established by Sriram Group, manufactured polystyrene and its co-products that are used to make plastic products. In 1978, the company was merged with McDowell company of United Breweries group. The company was totally taken over by LG of South Korea in 1997 and it was renamed LG Polymers. It immediately concentrated on reducing the permanent work force from 526 to 50 now. The number of executives increased to 150 and contract labor to 300. The company deunionised its workforce. They are used to keeping everything secret and maintained no transparency in the company. The company went for highly technological modernisation, including robots. LG Polymers is the first company to introduce robots in Visakhapatnam.
In January 2018, LG Polymers obtained environmental clearance from the AP Pollution Control Board for expanding the company from producing 415 tons of chemicals to producing 655 tons per day with an extra cost of Rs 165 crore. In May 2019, the State-level Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) pointed out that LG Polymers was functioning without a valid environmental clearance. It stated that no clearance was obtained by the company regarding petrochemical-based processing in schedule to the EIA notification of 2006.
After LG took over the factory in 1997, a major accident took place in 1998 and one Chalapathi met with serious burn injuries but survived and the company was shut down for about one month and local people demanded for permanent closure of the company. The company management somehow managed with help from the then ruling TDP and reopened the industry. The company concentrated on removing the permanent skilled workmen and the strength was drastically reduced to 50 from 526. LG has recorded high production in the factory, but has not paid even minimum attention to safety issues to save the lives of the people in the event of a mishap. The company was situated in the R R Venkatapuram area of the city in an extent of 213 acres and the land was in dispute for long and the company managed to have sale deed for 162 acres only in 2015.
The government of AP responded after the accident and Chief Minister Jaganmohan Reddy visited Visakhapatnam on May 7 afternoon and consoled the victims of the gas leak accident. He also announced a compensation of Rs one crore to each of families of the deceased and Rs 10 lakh each to those getting treatment on ventilators and Rs one lakh each to those in hospital for three days or more and Rs 10,000 to each family residing in 2-km vicinity of the company. The total compensation package was of Rs 36 crore. The chief minister also announced an expert committee for investigation into the incident and a ministerial panel for treatment and rehabilitation of the victims. Reddy told the press that LG Polymers will be shifted, if necessary. An FIR was registered at Gopalapatnam police station under six sections of IPC -- 278, 284, 285, 337, 338, and 304(2) -- against the management.
The CPI(M) leadership of the district rushed to the accident spot and KGH where more than 400 people were admitted, including 60 children, for treatment and consoled the victims. CPI(M) leaders met the doctors and enquired about health condition of the victims. The Party also arranged for food for the people who ran away for safety at Mudasarlova park. The Party demanded immediate closure of the factory and shifting it from the densely populated area. We also demanded immediate arrest of the management and a life-long medical aid to all affected families in the vicinity of the factory.
The National Green Tribunal filed a suo moto case against the LG Polymers management and issued an interim order on May 9, formed an experts committee to investigate the gas leak accident and report within two weeks and ordered the management to deposit Rs 50 crore immediately with the district Judge of Visakhapatnam. The Andhra Pradesh High Court and the Human Rights Commission also filed cases against the management on their own.
The victims are not satisfied with the package announced by the chief minister. They are more worried about their health and safety. After post-mortem on May 9, the police shifted the bodies directly to the burial ground instead of their locality. Around 1,000 people gathered outside the plant and staged protest. The police were forced to bring back the bodies to the main gate of the factory. The people demanded immediate closure of the factory. The police filed an FIR against 50 villagers and seven CPI(M) and three CPI leaders, including CPI(M) city secretary B Gangarao and city secretariat member RKSV Kumar. CPI(M) leaders were arrested from the city party office at 6pm on May 10 and were released at 11 pm. Instead of arresting LG Polymers management to instill confidence among the victims, false cases were foisted on them. This is a grave blunder by the government.
The central and state governments must seriously act to check the so-called compromises in hazardous industries on safety issue in the name of “ease of doing business”. The central government by amending various acts is diluting the true spirit of safety – avoiding public hearings, allowing self-certification, fixing responsibility only when an accident arises, failing in implementing standard safety proceedings and conducting special safety audit in hazardous industries and avoiding inspections in factories.