By B. Sivaraman
On 9 October 2018, the news that came from Bhilai Steel Plant was a shocker. Nine workers were killed and 14 injured in a blast in the plant. Such industrial tragedies routinely keep shocking the conscience of the nation. Let us consider three sectors which are quite illustrative.
In the power sector, the toll was 34 in the boiler blast at NTPC’s Unchahar power plant in Rae Bareli in November 2017. While hearing a PIL in 2005 on occupational health and safety issues of workers in coal-based thermal power plants, the Supreme Court directed the National Institute of Occupational Health, Ahmedabad, to look into the issue and submit a detailed report. The report, submitted in 2010 immediately in the wake of Korba power plant accident in Chhattisgarh, which killed 45 workers, made specific recommendations after pointing out the absence of certain safeguards for workers. Then followed numerous accidents in the 300 power plants of India with the ones in Essar Power plant in 2014 and Mundra power plant in 2016 in Gujarat, Tuticorin NTPC plant in Tamil Nadu, Talcher power plant in Orissa in 2015 and the Rae Bareli Unchahar plant in 2017 topping the list with major casualties.
In the oil sector, 28 workers got killed in a cooling tower blast at HPCL’s plant at Visakhapatnam in September 2013. In fact, according to the report of the Standing Committee on Petroleum and Natural Gas tabled in Lok Sabha in this July, HPCL recorded the highest number of accidents at 149 during the period 2014–15 to 2016–17 resulting in 20 fatalities and injury of 61 personnel. ONGC reported 85 accidents resulting in 15 fatalities and injury to 29 personnel.
The steel story is no different. In 2012, in Rashtriya Ispat Nigam Limited’s (RINL) Visakhapatnam Steel Plant (VSP) a major accident claimed 19 lives. While answering members’ queries the then minister of steel Beni Prasad Verma said a comprehensive safety audit was conducted in VSP by director (Safety), Regional Labour Institute, under Factory Advice Service & Labour Institutes (FASLI), Chennai. The audit report had been submitted and recommendations were under implementation, he reassured the members. Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) had also been advised to take all preventive measures and pro-active action, including safety audits by external independent body / council to avoid such incidents in its steel plants. The National Safety Council had been carrying out the job of safety audits for running plants of SAIL on annualized basis, he added.
But then there were 33 accidents, including 5 fatal ones that occurred in 2012 at Visakhapatnam Steel Plant itself after a major mishap. While the number of fatal accidents in all the SAIL plants in 2011 was 21, the number went up to 24 in 2015.
Replying to a question in the Rajya Sabha on 9 August 2017, Tapan Kumar Sen, then minister of steel put the number of accidents in SAIL steel plants at 46 in 2014; 42 in 2015 and 14 in 2016.The number of accidents in RINL plant at Visakhapatnam during the same years was 18, 17 and 15 respectively.
In these three years, the minister said, a total of 14 workers died in Bhilai Steel Plant in Chhattisgarh, 10 workers died in Durgapur Steel Plant in West Bengal, 10 workers were killed in fatal accidents in Rourkela Steel Plant in Odisha, 5 workers died in Bokaro Steel Plant in Jharkhand and 9 were killed in IISCO Steel Plant in West Bengal.
The problem of industrial deaths in India is much broader. The official figures, referring only to deaths in factory accidents, put number of total on-the-job fatalities between 2013 and 2016 at 4,045. But they cover only registered factories and don’t cover the entire gamut of occupational deaths due to injuries and diseases in all occupations. In fact, last November the British Safety Council, a non-profit outfit, came out with a report in which, quoting ILO’s figures, it said that 48,000 people die in India per annum on an average due to work-related hazards, including both occupational accidents and diseases. The report also pointed out that out of a total workforce of 465 million, only 20 percent has been covered by the country’s existing health and safety legal framework. There is only one factory inspector per 506 registered industries in India, the report added. India has not yet signed the ILO convention on Occupational Safety and Health 1981 or the 2006 convention called Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health.
The Centre came up with a National Policy on Safety, Health and Environment at the Workplace in 2010, which envisaged an effective enforcement machinery. But it has not seen the light of the day. Also not a single new legislation has since been enacted to back up this policy. Compensation to the next of the kin in case of death of a worker or in case of total or partial disablement is provided mainly under the ESI Act and in areas where the workers are not covered under the ESI Act it is paid under the Workmen Compensation Act. ESI also covers hospitalisation and outpatient treatment for workers and their family members. But the maximum amount of compensation paid in case of death in an industrial accident is only a paltry amount of Rs. 140,000. Thanks to union power in some cases, it goes upto Rs.20 lakhs but as ex-gratia subject to the discretion of the management and not backed by law. This is only a civil liability and the Factories Act was amended much later in the context of Bhopal to establish criminal liability but it depends on willful negligence which is difficult to establish. So despite so many worker-deaths not a single employer is behind the bars.
Overtaking Japan, India emerged as the second largest steel producer in the world next only to China. But the Indian success story in steel is paved over the dead bodies of its steel workers. Hope Bhilai this time round would wake up the Indian leadership. (IPA Service)