Disasters waiting to happen: Chemical units, untested products and poor safety record

Srinath Rao
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At two-hour drive from Mumbai, the industrial hub sits on a 1,208.5 hectare plot. (Photo: Deepak Joshi)

Ram Krupal is ready to return to the low-paying safety of his farm in Panna, Madhya Pradesh. Anything to get away from the deadly chemicals at the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) complex in Tarapur.

In the year and a half that the 45-year-old has been moving drums in a small-scale unit, Krupal has no idea about the substances he is dealing with. “The owners do not tell us what they are producing. I am afraid to go back to work after what happened last week. If something happens to me, my family will never find my body,” he said.

Krupal has good reason to be spooked. Of the 1,100 industries operating in the complex, close to 500 manufacture chemicals. And according to figures available with the MIDC, close to 80 per cent of these are small-scale units exhibiting poor safety records.

The industrial hub, which is a two-hour drive away from Mumbai, sits on a 1,208.5 hectare plot of land which the state government began acquiring in the late 1960s. The complex, which is dominated by Tata Steel Global Wires, Jindal Steel Works and the major pharmaceutical firms Aarti Drugs Ltd and Lupin Ltd, became operational in 1973.

The local manufacturers’ association and the authorities blame unscrupulous production of untested products and a cavalier attitude towards safety for frequent accidents, the latest of which claimed eight lives and caused injuries to seven people on January 11. The accused, Natwarlal Patel, the proprietor of ANK Pharma Pvt Ltd., was allegedly conducting trials to produce a new product when the temperature and pressure in his steel reactor rose beyond his control and caused a massive explosion heard several kilometres away.

Since then, the Directorate of Industrial Safety and Health (DISH), the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) and the MIDC have unearthed a raft of violations allegedly committed by Patel and which are not uncommon in Tarapur.

”There is an absence of safety culture among small scale units. These units manufacture products as and when they receive work orders without first studying them in Research and Development laboratories. Employees in these units are mostly illiterate and unskilled and have no idea abut the hazardous conditions they work in,” said A D Khot, Joint Director, DISH, Vasai.

D K Raut, president of the Tarapur Industrial Manufacturers Association (TIMA), claimed that the reasons for frequent accidents begin with high land prices. “Capital expenditure on land is very high along with rates for electricity and water. This is why there are so many units here smaller than 500 square metres or between 500 and 1,000 square metres. An average chemical unit should be at least 2,500 square metres. Industries should have enough space to segregate the administrative wing, the quality control unit, the utilities area, the solvent area and a separate space for storage,” he said.

The recent closure of chemical manufacturing units in China has seen Indian companies step in to fill the breach. “Most owners of these small units are self-made entrepreneurs who are always short of funds and they do not prioritise safety. Since they cannot expand horizontally in the same plot of land, they move vertically. Some others play the market and manufacture products which are in short supply. You cannot operate with such a short-sighted strategy in the chemical industry. You need to give each manufacturing process time to evolve. To cash in on this demand, small units speed up processes and bypass safety procedures. The result is an accident like that at ANK Pharma,” added Raut.

Another aspect of maintaining a breakneck production speed is a fear that a particular product’s components will be leaked. “Company owners do not disclose the components fearing that some of their technically skilled employees will start their own units or give away formulas to rivals,” claimed Raut.

Both Raut and Khot stressed that it is the workers who suffer as a result. Tarapur MIDC has seen 582 accidents since 2015. These mishaps have claimed 21 lives in the last two years while 70 others have been hurt. Deadly explosions claiming lives and permanently maiming workers occur at Tarapur MIDC every few months. After four people were killed in a blast at a chemicals factory in March 2018, the DISH had formed a Mutual Aid Response Group along with industry owners to conduct safety programmes for the workforce.

”After the last blast, we trained over 1,000 reactor operators in safety procedures at the Maharashtra Labour Institute last year. We designed a free three-day module but owners of small units did not send their employees for the programme as they are not mandatory,” said Khot. In the past year, DISH has also conducted 250 mock drills at the complex, he added. Immediately after last week’s accident, DISH conducted a programme for safety officers from 90 companies in Tarapur, a key position that owners of small units do not fill, said Khot.

DISH is also not able to maintain a strict watch on industries it is required to periodically inspect. Its Vasai office employs only four inspectors to inspect 3,500 industries in Palghar district. Ideally, said Khot, one inspector should have not more than 150 industries under his watch.

A retired DISH Joint Commissioner, who currently works as a safety auditor for the department, said the acute shortage of inspectors renders inspections meaningless. “It is simply not possible for inspectors to cover each industry. So they never conduct a thorough check. The chief minister has announced a safety audit of all industries in Maharashtra. But the question to be asked is how thoroughly they will be done,” he said.

The auditor claimed that the government is powerless to prevent such accidents from recurring. “Memory in the government, industry and public is short. No one cares about the lives of the workers. They go to work at chemical factories everyday to feed themselves but there is no guarantee of what will happen to them at work or whether they will return,” the official added.