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A Tragedy that Unfolded in Visakhapatnam

A severe chemical accident on 7th of May 2020 in India affected thousands of people.

By Shahid Akhter

A severe chemical accident wreaked havoc at Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh in India, causing a nightmare for the country on 7th of May 2020. Distressing images on social media of people breathless, fainting and collapsing unconscious on the streets have stunned millions across the world. A technical glitch in the refrigeration unit connected to two styrene tanks caused a massive toxic vapour leak. The air contaminated with styrene gas had disseminated over a radius of almost 3 km and killed at least 11 people and hospitalized over 5.000 people. Children and the elderly were most affected. A large number of animals including livestock, pet dogs, and birds have died. As precautionary measures, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) team was deployed to evacuate people from the nearby colonies. The Director of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Dr. Randeep Guleria said that the people exposed to the styrene vapour have a low chance of long-term health effects as the gas is not universally fatal. 

According to Vizag’s district magistrate, the emission had not stopped completely after the 9 hours of its inception, and to reach the situation at safety level, it would take another 48 hours. However, as mitigation and response measures, NDRF based specialized team CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear) have extended all sorts of technical support to the authorities. Subsequently, the Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba head of the National Crisis Management Committee has taken necessary steps for effective coordination and implementation of relief measures and operations. Further, to neutralize the effects of poisonous gas, a special chemical called PTBC (manufactured only in Vapi, Gujarat) has also been transported. 

According to State Industries Minister Goutam Reddy, the South Korean-owned plant, established in 1961 as Hindustan Polymers, was not following all the protocols set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) during the process of restarting the company for the first time after the nationwide lockdown. Eventually, Union Environment Ministry and State Pollution Control Boards have also promulgated separate instructions to all companies to hold extreme precautions while resuming their units. After the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, the MoEF sets Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals (MSIHC) Rules, 1989 and Chemical Accidents (Emergency Planning, Preparedness, and Response), (CAEPR) Rules, 1996 to control the major chemical accidents and regulate handling of chemical crisis management. According to the National Green Tribunal Act in 2010, the company will be held liable even though it had done everything in its levels to control and prevent the accident. 

In 2007, the NDMA had published guidelines on chemical disasters. As per the guidelines, there must be a well-structured, proactive, participatory, and multi-disciplinary approach to deal with chemical disasters. And, the knowledge of disaster risks and its framework of mitigation is required to be communicated and mainstreamed to the local people. Because it is very important for the people living in the vicinity to have a sufficient understanding of what disaster is and how they are supposed to react in the case of an emergency. It is also needed to ensure an adequate buffer zone that adheres to strict rules of not permitting people to stay in that zone. It is also essential to identify various mechanisms and preparedness plans to efficiently mitigate industrial incidents. 

This unfolded gas leak incident at Visakhapatnam brings back grim memories of the 1984 Bhopal Gas leak tragedy which is widely recognised as the world’s worst disaster having caused about 15,000 people died and injuring at least five lakh others. As per the government statistics, millions living near the Union Carbide India Ltd’s (UCIL) pesticide plant have been victims of several chronic illnesses such as respiratory and kidney problems, mental disorders, hormonal imbalances, and various forms of cancer. The gas tragedy has changed people’s lives, in fact, it has changed the lives of many generations. After the 36 years of Bhopal Gas mishap, it is painful to say that victims are still fighting the battle to get some compensation, medical care for ailments caused by a gas leak, and proper rehabilitation. 

Besides all these, Goldman Environmental Prize Awardee, Champa Devi said that groundwater over four kilometers around the pesticide factory has been contaminated due to the reckless dumping of poisonous waste till 1984 and outside of it till 1996. This tragedy is an example of violence against the environment in the name of development. These kinds of powerful profit-oriented, anti-people and anti-environment institutions operating along with governments are endless. For instance, Bhilai Steel Plant gas leak in 2014 at Durg of Chhattisgarh killed 6 people and injured over 40. The Tughlakabad gas leak in May 2017 in South-East Delhi caused the hospitalization of almost 400 school children. An ammonia gas leak from a cold storage facility in 2017 at Kanpur killed 5 people and injured 9. Similarly, a chlorine gas leak in 2002 at Vadodara was affected by more than 250 people. As per the website of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), over the last decade, 130 chemical accidents had been reported across the country causing 259 deaths and 563 serious injuries. 

After all, Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, YS Jagan Mohan Reddy has announced a compensation of Rs 10.000.000 each to the kin of those who have lost their lives in the tragedy. The victims who are under the process of treatment on a ventilator would receive Rs 1.000.000 each and others who are hospitalized but not on a ventilator, would get Rs 100.000. Treated as outpatients will be paid Rs 25.000 each and affected families surrounding villages will get Rs 1.000 each. At this moment, the announcements of such compensation for the victims seem captivating but how much transparent and fast of these allowances will be, remains under the shadow of suspicion. It should not be like the horrendous tales of suffering of millions of victims in the Bhopal Gas tragedy where victims have gone through immense hardship for years and years just to get their reparation. However the government must take the requisite initiative for those whose generation might be maimed due to inhaling a high volume of Styrene gas. 

Unfortunately, we have learned nothing from the history of the world’s worst Bhopal Gas tragedy. The Styrene gas at LG Polymers factory started leaking around 2:30 am from a tank containing more than 1,800 tonnes of the toxic chemical and it continued releasing until at 6:30 am. This shows how awful administrative systems the Corporation has to deal with the chemical incidents. How many more such events our country needs to realize the far-reaching consequences of developing unregulated and unsustainable industries in the place of a large number of the population? When will we disclose our concern on all these grave uncertainties and holding companies responsible? When will associated authorities be accountable to conduct a comprehensive scientific disaster risk assessment before setting up such hazardous industries? 

However, India is still facing challenges in enforcing provisions of the Disaster Management Act 2005 and Environment (Protection) Act 1986 for effective on-site and off-side emergency management plans for industries. Certainly, laws without implements are practically similar to no laws. In many cases, environmental laws are being impaired only for the welfare of the companies. And, the business magnets always take precedence of maximizing their benefits and underplay accountability of the incidents. Criminally liable operators for unethical business and industrial disaster are often being escaped from the arms of punishment. One greatest impediment to get legal exemplary punishment of the perpetrator for such homicide crime is the flaws of the judicial system. Because in India, trials in the Court proceed at a snail’s pace. As far as, there is an instant incentive for legitimate punishment based on the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill and adequate safety measures in place, justice for the innocent poor will remain only a dream in the world’s largest democracy. 


About the Author

Shahid Akhter is a Ph.D. scholar at the school of Humanities and Social Sciences, Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS), Pilani, Hyderabad, India. He is also a former student of Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai. Currently, he is working on “Disaster Risk and Its Assessment”. Besides his research and academic interests, he also keeps passion in philosophical discussions and various other societal issues and enjoys writing blogs, commentaries, and short articles on them. 

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