At around 2.30 pm on October 21, three days before this Diwali, a blast at the Manikanta Fireworks manufacturing unit in the coastal village of Vakathippa near Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh left behind a trail of destruction and 17 bodies. The intensity of the blast at the tiled manufacturing unit was such that the bodies of the victims — 14 of them young women who earned Rs 150 per day — were found strewn nearly 30 metres away in an adjoining rice field.
Four years ago, S Ambiga, a line operator at the Nokia factory in Tamil Nadu’s Sriperumbudur – one of the most modern assembling units in the country – succumbed to her injuries in a hospital after being hit by the arm of an automatic loader machine while reportedly trying to retrieve an electronic chip board on the evening of October 31.
In the first case, chances are that the 17 who lost their lives will not even figure in the official statistics on industrial fatalities as the firecracker manufacturing is bracketed in the informal sector and the Kakinada unit was operating on an expired licence.
In the second, Ambiga was one of the 75 fatalities in 2010 from Tamil Nadu, a state that is among half a dozen others that have seen high accidental fatalities in industrial units, according to data from 2010 to 2012 collected by the Labour Ministry’s Directorate General, Factory Advice Service and Labour Institutes (DGFASLI) from the Chief Inspector of factories of states and union territories.
At Sriperumbudur, the accident happened at about 6.50 pm and Ambiga remained trapped till 7.15 pm, according to testimonies that the factory workers furnished to an inquiry committee. While the Nokia management said that the company investigated the circumstances that led to the accident “as per factory norms and guidelines”, neither the company’s report nor the official inquiry report, prepared by the then Labour Commissioner Hans Raj Varma and submitted to the state government, have been made public. The Nokia India spokesperson did not respond to an email sent on Monday by The Indian Express with a query on the accident.
In statistical terms, a clear trend is that apart from Tamil Nadu, states such as Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Kerala, Punjab and Maharashtra are among those that have either witnessed a steady increase in industrial fatalities or seen high numbers during the last three years for which official data is available.
In absolute terms, the fatalities are the highest in industrialised states such as Gujarat and Maharashtra, as also in resource-rich states such as Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, where mining is a major industrial activity. But the official statistics are updated only till 2012.
But clearly, there are more deaths occurring in the interiors of India’s industrial landscape that do not get documented. Official statistics suggest there were 4,275 documented fatalities in Indian factories between 2010 and 2012. Analysts say that even by the most conservative estimate, the actual numbers could be at least ten times higher if the accidents in the unorganised manufacturing sector are counted.
For a more updated count, The Indian Express collated data of reported industrial accidents across the country in just the last five months and counted at least 63 fatalities, including of the 17 who died in the Kakinada incident.
Venu Srinivasan, Managing Director of Sundaram-Clayton Ltd., and Chairman of TVS Motor Co. Ltd., is also the Chairman of the National Safety Council. He says that while the safety record of the Indian organised manufacturing sector doesn’t fare too poorly by global standards and the gap is gradually being bridged, concerns remain about the safety standards of the unorganised sector.
In a 2005 report, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) had estimated that there could be 40,000 industrial fatalities in India on an average every year, with the actual number of injuries and deaths vastly under-reported because nearly 90 per cent of those employed outside of farming form part of the unorganised, informal sector.
According to P K Das, general secretary of the Steel Workers’ Federation of India and governor, National Safety Council, a major reason for accidents in sectors such as steel is the ‘lowest tender system’, which forces public sector companies to engage contractors, and sometimes subcontractors, who lack experience and expertise for highly specialised jobs.
In most cases, accidents are a direct result of safety norms being ignored, as was evident in the June 27 GAIL pipeline blast. An inquiry report on the incident, submitted to the Home Ministry in September, highlighted the fact that had GAIL – a blue-chip, cash-rich, government company – installed the safety features it had promised the Chief Controller of Explosives (CCOE) while seeking his approval for the project in July 2001, the accident would not have happened.
In its application submitted to CCOE on July 24, 2001, GAIL had committed to setting up a gas dehydration unit at the start of the pipeline to strip water and condensate from “wet” natural gas so as to prevent pipeline corrosion and leakage of inflammable condensate and gas in the open. So while the pipeline was designed for handling dry natural gas, it was being regularly used for transporting wet gas, without the accompanying safety precaution. A senior GAIL officer said the company is in the process of “filling up all the deficiencies pointed out by the committee”.
A series of “freak” accidents in SAIL’s flagship Bhilai plant over the last five months, which resulted in the loss of eight lives, including that of two deputy general managers and an assistant general manager, has now forced a renewed safety vigil across the state-owned steel major’s plants, S.S. Mohanty, Director (Technical), SAIL, told The Indian Express.
For some sectors, there is little hope of a turnaround in the safety record. At 2 per 1,000, the rate of fatal accidents among ship workers at Alang, the world’s largest ship-breaking yard, is several times higher than the 0.27 per 1,000 for the mining industry, which is generally considered to be India’s most unsafe occupation.
The preliminary findings of a study commissioned by the National Human Rights Commission and conducted by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences on Alang – released in May this year — point to an almost complete lack of enforcement of safety regulations, inadequate health facilities and an abysmal track record of punishing those found guilty of violations.
According to TVS’s Srinivasan, going beyond manufacturing, construction and road safety are areas where the gap between Indian and global standards is the highest.
In the US, all accidents are investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an agency of the Department of Labor. In addition, there are specialised bodies such as the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, an independent federal agency that investigates accidents involving industrial chemicals, and with the mandate to pursue changes in systems and practices.
In India, though, inquiry reports dished out by ad hoc committees headed by bureaucrats or labour commissioners are largely seen as fire-fighting measures that are simply not intended to bring about systemic change. Till that changes, the shop-floor could be a very unsafe place to be.