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Deepak Nitrite Nightmare: 700 People Evacuated, Experts Say Industrial Accidents ‘New Normal’ in Gujarat  

|Gujarat | Updated: June 4, 2022 20:37

A fierce fire that broke out Thursday evening at the chemical manufacturing factory, Deepak Nitrite, was one of the most devastating incidents that Gujarat witnessed in recent times, forcing the authorities to evacuate 700 people in its vicinity.

Located at the Nandesari Industrial estate near Vadodara, the factory was engulfed in flames after a series of blasts in the unit that were heard by locals, though the authorities denied the explosions. This accident sent chills down everybody’s backs because of its mere intensity.

The fire was so aggressive that it severely injured at least seven employees and hurt many others. The employees, namely Tushar Panchal, Prashant Thakor, Harshad Patel, Ronak Khatra, Parakramsinh Dodiya, Arvind Baria, and Anathram Iyer, have suffered the most injuries.

Besides this, fearing damage from the chemical exposure and uncontrollable flames, authorities decided to evacuate nearly 700 people from nearby Damapura and Radhiyapura villages and take them to safer regions.

Vadodara Fire Department team’s efforts to bring everyone to safety and get the fire under control were commendable. The team of 60 personnel was led by Chief Fire Officer Parth Brahmbhatt and two station officers, Nikunj Azad and Harshvardhan. The team had to continue working past midnight and managed to get the fire down. They all risked their lives for nine long hours to attain this goal. In fact, during the operation one employee on the team, Deepak Parmar, suffered badly due to exposure to chemical residues and was rushed to the hospital for treatment.

That said, the fire fighting team ended up using nearly five thousand litres of foam and more than one lakh litres of water for this operation. There were nine fire engines, one snorkel, and two Boom Water Browsers being used here. Personnel of the Street Light Department also joined in the operation.

Meanwhile, talking about the cause of the fire, Assistant Director of the Office of Boilers, B.A. Barad, refuted the claims that the boiler exploded. He said, “the company’s boilers were investigated after the incident and no accident or damage was reported in any of them. So, there is no fact in the news that the boiler has exploded. In addition, the steam test of the boilers was carried out on May 12, and an annual inquiry was conducted in April this year as well.” 

GPCB regional officer R.B. Trivedi visited the site to understand what exactly had happened and how the fire had been caused. He said, “Primarily our role is to check the pollution-related issues and decide whether there is an immediate need for evacuation. Then we inform the district administration accordingly. After the incident, we reached the spot and reviewed the area to see if there was a risk of air or water pollution. We will collect the samples and after testing send the detailed report to the head office, who will determine the next step.”

Talking about the information he had received so far, Trivedi said, “From whatever details we have, the company kept organic and inorganic material inside the godown and in the open area too. As far as our understanding goes, the fire started due to oxidation in inorganic material and also engulfed the organic material, which is in liquid form and inflammable. The fire then spread to the laboratory as well as the boiler and turned into a major one. Our team checked with volume and dust samplers and later collected samples for testing.”

Trivedi also said, “We have instructed the company to clean the water and foam used to douse the fire as it is also hazardous. A preliminary report is already sent and a detailed report will be sent after the investigation. Later, the authorities will decide on an action, based on the report. They might also take into consideration past violations of the company.”

Disasters In Motion, The New Normal

Jagdish Patel, health & safety expert, and environmentalist Rohit Prajapati on Friday issued a stinging statement after the Deepak Nitrite nightware, asserting that this is the new normal.

Here is what they say:

“Increasing incidences of industrial accidents including fire, blasts and workplace disasters killing and maiming workers is the new normal.

On June 2, Gohil had returned to his home in Nandesari after a long day at work, when he suddenly heard a big noise and he saw people around him running for shelter. There was a blast and fire in Valiate Organic in Sarigam industrial area in Valsad. It had not even been an hour since the devastating fire at Deepak Nitrite had been brought under control, and there was already another blast in a different factory. 

This is the new normal and people must find a way to minimize the damage as much as possible and live with it. Everyone must be constantly prepared for these situations.

So, why do we see an increase in industrial accidents? How and why has this destructive state become the new normal? There will always be specific causes for particular incidents, but broadly, it is the result of the conducive social environment created by the people in power.

The Director Industrial Safety and Health (DISH), previously known as the Factory Inspectorate, has been made defunct in terms of the number of employees as well as the powers they have. The body has been inoperative when it comes to inspecting the workplaces, monitoring enforcement of the law as well as training and documentation of employees. Clearly, it is the result of political interference from regional as well as central leaders.

Bad governance has succeeded in ensuring that there are no independent credible expert agencies to investigate the pollution, health, and safety issues inside the industries.

Health, safety, and environment – within the workplace and outside – are not the priorities for either the industries or the governments. The Gujarat Pollution Control Board monitors pollution levels outside the industry premise. The DISH, on the other hand, has a responsibility to ensure the maintenance of acceptable pollution levels within the workplace. It is also responsible to help workers keep good health and reduce the number of accidents to a minimum. Nevertheless, considering the circumstances, it looks like both these departments are more interested in being in the good books of the people in power rather than serving society.

Inspectors are now not allowed to visit any factory at their will. Instead, the industry itself is an inspector by way of introducing a self-certification scheme.

The Gujarat Government has a very unique policy. Following a fatal accident, if the employer pays ex-gratia compensation to the victim, there will be no prosecution and if any cases have been filed, they will be withdrawn. CAG criticized this policy in its report.

Even when they prosecute, they are careful. They see to it that the prosecutions are filed under the sections which would draw a minimum fine. Post-Bhopal when Factory Act was amended to include Sec.96 – A, which was penalty for contravention of the provisions of sections 41B, 41C and 41H.

In their report, the Government of Gujarat submitted to the DGSAFLI (Ministry of Labor, Central Government) in year after year they report that they have not filed any prosecutions under Sec.96-A.

In short, there is no fear of law and poor governance creates a conducive social environment for accidents.

But this is not all. There are other aspects, too.

Though the primary objective of any government is to provide rule of law by enforcing existing laws. In the past several years, the capital has seen the Government cease. We have a law called Contract Labor (Monitoring and Abolition) Act 1972. Contract workers can not be employed for routine regular manufacturing activities but there is no will on part of Government to enforce the law and as a result we see that the number of contract workers outnumber the permanent workers. Inexperienced contract workers handle the hazardous plants putting everyone’s safety at stake.

When there are no permanent workers, there are no unions. Neither the industry nor the government wants strong militant unions. Post-new economic policy trade unions have been weakened as part of political will and policy. So, whatever little control the workers had over their plants they lost.

One of the reasons for mishaps can be that the companies do not have regular shut-downs for routine maintenance, in order to maximise production and profits.  Outsourcing of crucial work to the contractors further aggravates in absence of robust monitoring mechanisms.

Post-accident, who investigates to find out the causes? Police? No. Their responsibility is limited to noting if there was any criminal intent. When it is confirmed that there was no criminal element, DISH comes in to carry out further investigations. They prepare reports submitted to the department which are kept hidden from the people. These reports are not accessible to the general public. When you ask for reports, you may be given diluted reports. So, the documentation is poor, lacks technical expertise, and is even kept hidden.

No accountability for the Industries and Department Industrial Health & Safety Department. Neither the Factories Act nor the Environment Protection Act is implemented in letter and spirit and criminal prosecution provisions are not used against the top officials of the industries.

No serious follow-up after the incidents. There is a need to review and evaluate all such incidents every 5 years to understand the reasons and systemic action based on that as a matter of the system.”

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