TAMIL NADU: Workers Pay with their Lives for Neglect of Safety by NLC
WITH the ending of the national level ‘lockdown’ and the commencement of the ‘unlock’ process, we have seen some major industrial accidents across the country. This article relates to the two accidents that took place in the second thermal power station (TPS II) at Neyveli in Tamil Nadu, belonging to the Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC), a government of India PSU, on May 7 and July 1. In the accident that took place on July 1, six persons died on the spot; among the 17 who were hospitalised with severe injuries, eight had died at the time of writing. Of the remaining nine persons, one person had got discharged while the other eight were still in hospitals, with some in serious condition.
The occurrence of two accidents in NLC within a period of two months, both linked to the boilers in the plant, have triggered a sense of fear in the minds of the workers. An in-depth analysis of why the accidents occurred is warranted.
WHAT ARE CAUSES FOR THE ACCIDENTS?
The installed capacity of NLC in Tamil Nadu is 5743 MW, nearly one fourth of the total in the state including the private sector. The power station in TPS II has seven units each with a capacity of 210 MW. The capacity of the boilers in each of the seven units is 250 TPH, which means each can produce 250 tons of steam per hour. Temperature at the boiler is maintained at 800 degree celsius while in operation. The lignite fuel to the boilers is supplied from mills which pulverise the large lignite pieces into fine lignite powder of micron size. The pulverised lignite powder fuel is then blown to the boiler through ducts which are supported by girders. During the process of supply of lignite powder to the boiler, the pulverised fuel accumulates in the structures surrounding the boiler and its walls. These sediments must be washed away every day with the help of air or water. This maintenance procedure must be carried out on a daily basis. Moreover, the girders of two metres length and breadth (height: 80 metres) that mount the boiler and the ceiling that support them also get lined with deposits. Those linings also must be removed on a daily basis as part of the maintenance.
For all of the seven units in TPS II, 80 contract labourers were assigned to carry out this very vital operation. The NLC management has reduced 60 workers from the maintenance force, and is currently managing the operations with 20 workers. As a result, the maintenance work is not carried out on a daily basis as per the standard procedure. The boiler in unit six was halted for maintenance on June 30. On the next day, on July 1, when the workers started the cleaning process in the morning around 9.45 am, the boiler was still hot as it was in operation till the previous day. When the workers started the cleaning process, an explosive fire broke out due to the sediments catching fire. As the ceiling also had fine fuel particle deposits, when the workers attempted to wipe them off, they too caught fire and cracks have occurred in the ceiling. The engineers report that the deposits left unremoved in the ceilings resulted in the accident which led to the death of six workers on the spot and of eight workers in the hospitals. Nine workers were severely injured.
NLC management has suspended AK Kothandam, the chief general manager and unit head of TPS II for alleged failure to ensure safety at the units. All the remaining functional units each with 210 MW capacity in the TPS II stage have been ordered to shut down their operations for immediate safety audit. NLC has ordered a high-level inquiry headed by PK Mohapatra, retired director of NTPC to find out the causes of the accident. It has also constituted an internal inquiry committee headed by the director (power), NLC. But the management’s moves inspire little confidence given its track record.
All the seven boilers of the TPS II were installed more than 30 years ago. A boiler after 25 years of operation must be audited for life extension programme. The NLC management has failed to get this done. Moreover, in the past, in the event of yearly maintenance operations, the boilers used to be shut down for 45 days. But nowadays the shutdown period has been reduced to 25 days.
NLC management follows an anti-labour approach. When a similar type of accident had occurred on July 24, 2016 in unit five, the office bearers of the principal recognised union (CITU), A Velmurugan, T Jeyaraman and G Kuppusamy visited the site of accident to understand the causes in order to ensure the safety of workers. The NLC pressed charges against these union representatives and penalised them by cutting one increment. The management neither took any measure to study the causes of the accident nor did it learn any lesson from it. Another accident of a similar nature took place on June 9, 2019 claiming the life of a worker and injuring another. The NLC management constituted an enquiry committee to analyse the cause of the accident. So far, there is no news about the committee’s initiatives and its report is not published. After this particular accident at least, the NLC management should have acted prudently. It should have approached BHEL Trichy, the public sector enterprise which supplied and installed all its boilers in TSP II, to carry out the maintenance work at unit six. Instead, the maintenance work was entrusted to a local contractor as part of cost cutting measures. This could be the cause of occurrence of an accident in the same plant on May 7, 2020.
This is a major lapse on the part of the NLC management which discarded the request of the CITU to employ BHEL in the maintenance works. It did not bother to learn even from the recent May 5 explosion. That paved the way for the recent July 1 explosion.
The installations, operations, and maintenance processes of boilers are regulated by the Indian Boilers Act of 1923. After 1947, the Act has been amended and rules also have been framed to keep in pace with technological developments. Only professionals who are certified as per this Act are allowed to operate in the boiler plants. The guidelines prescribed by this Act have been grossly violated by NLC management.
Under the neoliberal policies pursued by the central government, NLC management has been contracting out jobs of permanent nature. The present strength of permanent employees in NLC is 7,982 whereas the number of contractual workers stands at 14,750. Contractual workers are double in number than the permanent employees. As a result of contractualisation, the quality of the work has suffered badly resulting in several accidents.
The NLC management’s neglect of safety and maintenance is the direct result of pressures from the central government to focus only on profits. NLC management takes into consideration only production and profits as a base for offers of increments and promotions to its officers. As a result, safety and maintenance have been compromised.
In the three accidents that occurred on June 9, 2019, May 7, 2020 and July 1, 2020, 20 workers have lost their lives. After consultations with unions and political parties, the chairman announced Rs 30 lakhs as compensation to the deceased and Rs 5 lakhs for the injured. The workers are not satisfied with this package. But it is learnt that the government of India says that the compensation should not exceed Rs 15 lakh. At the same time, NLC management has contributed Rs 20 crores to the PM CARES (CSR). It is not correct on the part of the central government to fix ceiling for the victims. A reasonable compensation package acceptable to the affected families must be arrived at.
Most important, the unions and the working people as well as the community of Neyveli should put adequate pressure on the NLC management and the union government to ensure accident free operation of the plants.