This article is written by Manya Dudeja from the University School of Law and Legal Studies, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University. This article talks about the Vizag gas tragedy which was a result of another careless regime that could not learn its lesson from the Bhopal gas tragedy.
One thing is a tragedy and the other is an avoidable tragedy. The Bhopal and Vizag gas tragedies were not accidental happenings. They were a result of continuous neglect and ignorance of people concerning their environment.
While the world was waging a war against the horrendous COVID 19 virus, India which was crippling under the pressure had another challenge to face. The wee hours of 7th May 2020 took us back down the sad memory lane of the Bhopal gas tragedy. As if there weren’t already enough victims waiting for justice, we now have an extended queue.
We must draw an analogy of the two horrific events so that it serves as an eye-opener to our ignorance and laxity. However, the absence of the National Disaster Management Authority during the Bhopal gas tragedy deprived it of various safeguards, its role in the Vizag gas leak, has to be scrutinized.
Vizag Gas Tragedy
The LG Polymer Pvt Ltd’, a South Korean electrical giant, had its plant located in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. The toxic gas released by the industrial plant was the harmful styrene gas, inhaling which, a number of people and animals lost their lives. The plant was irresponsibly located near human settlement, at RRV Puram near Gopalapatnam, despite the high risk associated with it. It was just six kilometres away from Visakhapatnam airport and 10 kilometres from the city’s main railway station.
The gas leak killed at least eleven people and several others suffered serious injuries and had to be hospitalised. People woke up to the foul smell of styrene gas which left them baffled. They did not understand what was happening and they were stuck amid chaos.
Reason for the Gas Leak
According to the statement given by LG Polymers, the leak was caused by stagnation and temperature changes in the storage tank, which caused this auto polymerization and vaporization. Styrene’s boiling temperature is 145 degrees celsius, however, the temperature rose to over 150-degree celsius.
The company was operating without proper environmental approval from the competent authority for the substantiated quantity and was only operating with the permission of the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board.
According to a former bureaucrat, the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board consented to the establishment and operation of the company since the beginning of 2019, without obtaining clearance from the State Government or the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests.
High Power Committee Report
The High Power Committee which was constituted to investigate the styrene vapour release accident as M/s LG Polymers India Pvt Ltd identified a runaway reaction (thermally unstable reaction system exhibiting an uncontrolled and accelerating rate of reaction which in turn leads to a rapid increase in temperature and pressure) in the tank from which the gas leaked. The tank held styrene monomer which was the main cause of the leak. Further, the runaway polymerization of styrene monomer took place because of various lapses:
- The tank was poorly designed.
- The cooling system and refrigeration were inadequate.
- There was an absence of circulation and mixing systems.
- The parameters were inadequately measured.
- The safety awareness was inadequate and the safety protocol was poor.
- Risk management and response were poor.
- Poor process safety management systems.
- The staff had insufficient knowledge, was inexperienced.
- There was a lack of knowledge of the chemical properties of styrene, especially during storage.
Response of the National Green Tribunal
The National Green Tribunal held LG Polymers to be responsible under the principle of Absolute Liability for the loss of public life and property it caused. Under the principle of absolute liability, any enterprise or industry which is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and poses a potential threat to the health and safety of the persons working in the factory and residing in the surrounding areas owes an absolute and non-delegable duty to the community to ensure that no harm results to anyone on account of hazardous or inherently dangerous activity taken. This is an absolute principle and there are no exceptions to not be held liable. The company will be held liable under any circumstances. The company was also fined Rs. 50 Crore which would be spent on providing compensation to victims and restoring the environment. An environment restoration committee had to be formulated as directed by the NGT. The committee would include two representatives each of the Environment Ministry and Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and three representatives of the Andhra Pradesh government. The NGT dismissed LG Polymer’s plea for review of the fine imposed.
How is it similar to the Bhopal gas tragedy?
A number of public health experts have drawn a comparison between the two gas leak incidents. They justify their reasons as under:
Effects on people living in their vicinity
The leakage of toxic gases was the root cause that led to the tragedy. The people who lived in the vicinity of these plants were the worst affected.
Underplaying the toxic effects
As was done during the Bhopal gas tragedy, here too, the administration was callous in its attitude and gave out explanations that were dubious. As in the Union Carbide case, LG Polymers case too saw the onus being put on the worker, it was termed as a worker error of mishandling the valve controls for the gas as this caused them to burst and leak.
Ease of Doing Business
In order to attract hefty investment, the environment and labour administration at the Central and State level have overlooked the plight of its own people and environment.
Talking about LG Polymers, Ganga Rao, a CITU member, earlier associated with the worker’s union at LG Polymers said that the company shared a very comfortable relationship with the government, so much that the factories inspector and the Pollution Control Board (PCB) did not bother to test the plant as it had been lying idle for forty days. The company was also granted permission to function over call, just with two days prior notice.
In order to cut costs, both the companies handed down work to untrained casual workers. When the Vizag gas leak took place, there were only fifteen workers available on site, out of whom, none had any experience of re-starting a polymer plant. It was an error on the part of the workers that aggravated the situation in the case of the Bhopal gas tragedy too. Firstly, the operator ignored the rise in pressure and did not communicate the same to the operator who had the next shift. The operator was also under-qualified as he failed to recognize the entry of water into the MIC tank and it took him more than an hour to recognize the reaction. This was a result of the company’s cost-cutting initiatives when skilled employees were replaced with lower-paid workers.
The LG Polymers plant faced a series of warnings in the form of small incidents right from 2000.
2000: There was a reactor blast that shook the surrounding villages. No lives were lost since people ran away.
2017: People repeatedly made complaints to the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board and it did not pay heed to them. Finally, when it did come and inspect, conveniently gave a clean chit to LG Polymers.
The companies denied responsibility
In both the Bhopal and the Vizag gas tragedy, the companies tried to wave off their responsibilities.
While these arguments hold true, there is another set of people who deny the similarity. Their arguments go as under:
It has been argued that the styrene leaked in the Vizag gas leak was far weaker than the methyl isocyanate of the Bhopal gas tragedy and hence it would not be fair to compare them. While it would require 3 parts per million of a given volume of methyl isocyanate to kill a person, the styrene gas would be required in 700 parts to kill.
The Bhopal gas tragedy killed thousands of people and its immediate effects were choking, circulatory collapse, pulmonary and cerebral edema. On the other hand, styrene killed a few people, the scale was less and the immediate effects were irritation of the eyes and skin, as well as gastronomical effects.
The people affected by the Bhopal gas tragedy are still victims of various biological, physiological, and mental problems such as nerve damage growth problems, gynaecological disorders, respiratory issues, birth defects, and elevated rates of cancer and tuberculosis.
But, long-term exposure to styrene can lead to an increased risk of leukaemia, headaches, fatigue, weakness, depression, and effects on the central nervous system.
The provisions that apply to the industrial plant can be divided into two categories: pre-tragedy and post-tragedy. The Bhopal gas tragedy also created an uproar, forcing the government to enact stringent laws. The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 was a result of the same.
The Rule regarding Environmental Protection
The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986
According to the said Act, all industries that process petrochemical-based products like styrene are required to obtain clearances at two levels:
- Environmental Clearance (EC): To be obtained from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEF&CC).
- Consent to Operate (CTO): To be obtained from the State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) and has to be renewed every five years.
From the reports by the Centre for Science and Environment, it can be found out that LG Polymers India had flouted these rules at both levels. The company withheld crucial information and displayed immense irresponsibility.
Provisions regarding Hazardous Chemicals
To understand that the styrene gas leaked is a hazardous chemical, we can refer to Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous chemical rules, 1989. Rule 2 (e) of the said Rules which define hazardous chemicals and read with entry no. 583 of schedule 1 which lists styrene as a hazardous chemical.
According to the National Green Tribunal Act, 2020, the jurisdiction with respect to the Vizag Gas leak incident lies with the NGT due to the impact the hazardous chemicals have on the environment. The NGT can also take up suo motu cognizance of the same.
Other Rules and Acts that govern the use and abuse of hazardous chemicals are-
- Hazardous Waste (management, handling, and trans-boundary movement) Rules (2008)
- Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules (1989)
- Chemical Accidents (Emergency, Planning, Preparedness, and Response) Rules (1996), enacted after the Bhopal gas tragedy
Further, LG Polymers has been booked under the following provisions of the Indian Penal Code:
- Negligence (Section 279)
- Causing hurt (Section 322)
- Endangering other people’s life (Section 336)
- Culpable homicide not amounting to murder (Section 304)
The Andhra Pradesh High Court, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), and the National Green Tribunal (NGT), all took suo moto cognizance of the case.
Need for Stringent Action
It is pertinent that the company faces strict action and is not allowed to wave off its responsibility or else, there will be no end to incidents like this. The worst sufferers of these disasters are the poor. The company and the government might just express regret and get away with menial compensation but the families of the affected will have to live with the consequences of uninvited harm for years to come. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy is the most important example here, the victims of the tragedy are still suffering from various defects and many children have developed birth defects. They are being forced to fight a fight that wasn’t theirs in the first place to which they never consented. Only if it was for the authorities to take stringent action against such companies, such incidents could have been avoided. In order to attract investment, the government is on a lip service drive to its own people while easing and twisting norms for such companies. The Environment Impact Assessment 2020 draft is on the path to ease out norms in turn attracting more risk and danger of the people.
A compensation of Rs 50 Crore will be divided among the victims of the Vizag gas tragedy. The amount estimated to be compensated was derived from the actual value of the plant. Usually, it is directly proportional to the price value of the enterprise. Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy deposited Rs. 10,000 each in the accounts of all the people affected by the Vizag gas leak. Compensations were made to about 19,893 people living in the affected villages.
The Chief Minister also said that they would issue health cards to these families so that they can avail better health services and monitor their health. For this, village health clinics were being established. Also, the Andhra Pradesh government donated Rs 1 Crore each to the kin of people who lost their lives in this gas leak incident. The amount was also paid to those injured.
It is during times like these that we realise the costs that come with the dilution of labour and environmental laws. We should take these as lessons to the test of democracy, encourage public participation and preserve the security of permanent and casual workers. A regulator who is not pliant, should not in any way be relied upon.
The miseries of the Bhopal gas tragedy continue to haunt generations, yet we failed to make that a driving force to curb any such future incidents. We were not yet over the previous trauma and now, a new trauma awaits generations to come. There are various laws and Acts, despite which the incident could not be prevented.
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