Unless the chokehold of shared vested political and economic interests is broken, India will continue to experience mishaps such as those witnessed in Bhopal and Vizag
The words 'Styrene' and 'Polymerisation' went viral to shake the slumber of the COVID lockdown in Vizag on May 7, although no one realised that the city had miraculously escaped a catastrophe of Bhopal-gas-magnitude that was lurking around. As local administration was frantically making efforts to help the victims, rumours and debates began raging — whether the gas leak was a mere accident or was it a result of polymerisation of vested interests. People rallied to vote more for the last option since no lessons have been learnt from past experiences.
Gas leakage from South Korean LG Polymers, that stores styrene-monomer brought from Seoul to produce polystyrene, etc., spread across villages in a 3 km radius from this factory. By the time the sun rose, many people were lying unconscious on the roads, in gutters and pavements; some in their own houses. Corona-tired-police was already sprinkling water and fanning the victims; rushing them to hospitals by every possible means As for the day's tally, eleven people died, hundreds hospitalised and thousands evacuated to safer places. Hundreds of animals and birds died and trees were found singed. People were angry that the factory did not sound any alarm to alert residents in the surrounding villages.
They were also angry that not many lessons were learnt from the 1997 Visakha Refinery disaster that killed 70 people when LPG leaked, or from the 30 to 40 industrial accidents in which over 200 were killed in 25 years, the latest being the HPCL tragedy in 2013.
As people accused LGP of gross negligence, and complicity of our authorities, LGP pleaded that it was due to stagnation and changes in temperature that there was autopolymerisation of their stock of styrene and resultant vaporisation and leakage. They also maintained that when styrene fumes started to leak from the storage tank that morning, sensors detected the leak and raised an alarm while temporary workers present felt a pungent smell and developed an irritation in eyes and nausea. They reportedly ran to safety without sounding the alarm.
People and experts, however, vehemently maintain that LGP failed to comply with the mandatory procedure, especially when it was handling hazardous chemicals when the factory was reopened after a long time. Even the limited stock of 2000 litres of para-tertiary butyl catechol, the polymerisation inhibitor, got exhausted in no time. And, by the time fresh stocks were received from Gujarat, the surface area of Styrene monomer solidified, rendering the inhibitor useless. Further, in the absence of regular and responsible staff, the general alarm was also not sounded.
It is on record that the LG Polymers has been operating without mandatory environmental clearance for the last 13 years. Instead, they have been widening the range of their products by operating with the mere 'Consent for Establishment' and 'Consent for Operations' issued by the State Pollution Control Board. In addition, as alleged by EAS Sarma, former Secretary to GOI, successive governments have been pampering this firm to the extent that it stands on government ceiling surplus land worth crores of rupees, and does not vacate even when asked to. The expansion plan of such a firm was cleared during the time of the Naidu government. The company's influence on those in power is so strong that it was treated as 'essential' industry and given the NOC when the lockdown rules were relaxed. Now, people are demanding a deeper inquiry into every issue.
The company is now at the receiving end for their lapses committed with impunity. Experts from National Disaster Management Authority not only found several lapses in the maintenance of the plant but made an alarming observation that the chemical reactions of polymerisation have begun in other storage facilities of the plant as well, implying that a great disaster was lurking in the next few days. Now, as per their recommendations, 13,000 MTs of material are being shipped back to Seoul immediately, since 'The preliminary conclusion is that the storage facilities are not designed to keep the material for longer durations.'
The country should have learnt many lessons from the Bhopal tragedy. Thousands died and more than 5 lakh suffered medical problems. Yet, less than 20 per cent received even paltry compensation and no one was punished.
Governments and activists maintain that it was negligent management and poor standards of maintenance which caused the routine pipe maintenance to backflow of water into the MIC storage tank, triggering the disaster. UCC still claims that it was caused by water entering the task due to some act of sabotage. The cause is still an unsolved mystery even after 36 years.
Like in Vizag, although there were several instances and complaints of pollution, deaths, and hospitalisation prior to 1984, except shunting out experts, the ground situation remained the same, according to a CBI official who was involved in the investigations. There were several leaks in 1983-84, of gases such as MIC, chlorine, phosgene and monomethylamine, indicating the unsafe conditions. Like at Vizag, where the temporary workers on a panic-run did not sound the alarm, there was a failure at Bhopal too. Even the government was helpless in providing targeted treatment to victims since the company did not share the details of constituents of their formula in the name of trade secrecy.
Bhopal should have taught an adequate number of lessons to the stakeholders across the country. But, even after several years, Vizag incident does not give us such an impression. The response of authorities was more of bravery than of planning and preparedness.
The situation only gets compounded with the policies of Union Government in providing an exemption for periodic inspections for 'ease of business', since leaving such matters with the factories for self-certification have not produced healthy results.
Whatever are the reasons, and whoever was responsible, styrene and polystyrene have become the villains for the people of Vizag. It is gradually dawning on them that styrene is regarded as a 'known carcinogen' and can also cause ill-effects on the central nervous system.
In view of all the negative factors involved, a question arises whether it is prudent to close down such factories. In fact, for about six decades, it provided employment to many and produced materials used in several areas, toys to appliances. The factory manufactures general-purpose polystyrene and high impact polystyrene, expandable polystyrene and engineering plastics compounds.
Therefore, the solution does not lie in closing them down. When this factory was started in 1961, its location was virtually in a jungle, far away from the city. Sixty years of city's development only ensured that the factory is seized all around by thickly populated colonies. Like how highways get shifted as and when population increases, such factories also need to shift to places away from human habitation. Law requires change for automatic shifting. Similarly, the enforcement mechanisms need to be effective both in facilitating 'easy business' and in enforcing laws and safety norms. It is unsafe to leave matters only in the hands of entrepreneurs.
No one knows whether the truth would ever come out. As of now, NGT has imposed an interim fine of Rs 50 crore. And the city police have filed an FIR against the management for culpable homicide not amounting to murder, rash and negligent act that led to release of obnoxious gas into the air, etc., but the bitter experience of the country is that not a single official will lose their job or be tried for criminal negligence.
Life will only resume with nothing changed unless the polymerisation of vested interests with strong bonding of chemistry for creation and sustenance of sturdy networks of corruption spanning across geographical, economic, political and social boundaries is inhibited.
The writer is a retired IPS officer and a former Member of Public Grievances Commission, Delhi. Views expressed are strictly personal