On the afternoon of May 27, the people of Jamshedpur were caught unaware. They were exposed to a dense, pale green, pungent and poisonous gas, Chlorine. This gas had leaked from an unused cylinder lying in the Tata Motor’s water treatment plant for the past 10 years. By the next day, around 150 to 200 people had been hospitalised. The affected people also included company employees and their family members. So far no deaths have been reported. Later, in a statement, Tata Motors claimed that the chlorine leak has been plugged and about 60 to 70 residents who reported breathing difficulty were admitted to the Tata Motors hospital in Jamshedpur. The Chief Minister of Jharkahnd, Madhu Koda, alleged that negligence by Tata Motors had led to the leakage of chlorine gas.
Chlorine gas is regarded as a pulmonary chemical agent, primarily due to its impact on the human respiratory system. This gas has strong oxidising properties and thus finds its use in water purification plants. Its toxicity irritates the respiratory system. The initial symptom of chlorine exposure is suffocation. Severe exposure to the gas may cause pulmonary edema within 30 to 60 minutes. There is no available prophylactic or postexposure therapy for chlorine. Treatment is directed towards physiological signs and symptoms. Respiratory failure is the prime reason for death due to chlorine exposure. There are no long term complications for people who survive an acute exposure. However, long-term effects of chlorine exposure would be more pronounced if an individual suffers from bacterial infection or other medical complications.
The leak at the Jamshedpur plant brought back haunting memories of the tragic Bhopal Gas leak in 1984. The leakage of methyl isocyanate at Bhopal created the largest chemical industrial accident ever. It is reported that around 2,000 people died during the first weeks. More than 100,000 persons received permanent injuries. Following this, many new laws and acts were enacted as a safeguard measure. These are:
- The Factories Act, 1948, as amended in 1976 and 1987
- The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986
- The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991, amended in 1992
- The Hazardous Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 1989
- The Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989
Under the Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989, it is the responsibility of the company concerned to prevent major accidents and also to limit their consequences to persons and the environment. In addition, the company is accountable for providing information, training and equipment including antidotes necessary to ensure safety of persons working at the site. Several new rules were later incorporated under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. Important among them is The Chemical Accidents (Emergency Planning, Preparedness and Response) Rules, 1996. This rule defines a chemical accident as “an accident involving a fortuitous, or sudden or unintended occurrence while handling any hazardous chemicals resulting in continuous, intermittent or repeated exposure to death, or injury to, any person or damage to any property but does not include an accident by reason only of war or radio-activity.” Under this rule, chlorine is listed as a Hazardous and Toxic Chemical. Further, this rule authorises the Central Government to constitute a Central Crisis Group for management of chemical accidents and set up a Crisis Alert System. Importantly, the Central Government shall set up an information network system with the State and district control rooms, publish a list of Major Accident Hazard installations, publish a list of major chemical accidents in chronological order and take measures to create awareness amongst the public with a view to preventing chemical accidents. The Central Crisis Group, an apex body, shall deal with major chemical accidents and provide expert guidance for handling major chemical accidents. The Central Crisis Group would co-ordinate its functions and duties with State Crisis Groups and the District Crisis Groups.
It is clear that the legal framework to prevent and manage industrial disasters in India is in place. More steps need to be taken to enforce these legal instruments and ensure stringent safe practices to prevent industrial hazards. In addition, the spectrum of public health in India needs to be broadened. Past incidents of industrial disasters in India point out the need to have effective, fully equipped and trained medical personnel to provide immediate relief. The key is to be prepared in advance. Any such effort would require the co-ordination between government agencies as well as most importantly industry participation and civil society groups. Perhaps what has been elusive so far is the issue of industrial co-operation. While technological growth and industrial development has the potential to provide answers to the problems of food, health and general welfare for India, it should be achieved with an equal emphasis on human security and welfare.
- Ingrid Eckerman, “Chemical Industry and Public Health Bhopal as an Example” Available at http://www.eckerman.nu/default.cfm?page=The%20Bhopal%20Saga, pp. 1-60.
- John S. Urbanetti, “Toxic Inhalational Injury”, Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare, Available at www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/report/1997/cwbw/, pp. 255-257.
Major Jamshedpur industrial units that can potentially cause gas leaks have their disaster management plans in place, but the district administration and people living near factories seem neither prepared nor aware of how to behave during an emergency.
A day after Jharkhand High Court directed the state government to file a detailed counter-affidavit to explain the steps taken to safeguard Jamshedpur from gas leaks, The Telegraph, acting independently, spoke to a number of stakeholders to arrive at this worrying conclusion.
East Singhbhum district administration claims to have conducted mock drills to sensitise civilians, hospitals, civil defence volunteers and Indian Red Cross Society (city chapter) about chemical and industrial disaster in October 2015. Six months ago, it also opened an emergency operation centre, mandated by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), but with skeletal infrastructure. The one-room office at the district collectorate has one staffer, a VSAT communication facility, a computer and phone but no breathing apparatus or awareness literature.
The administration has not distributed pamphlets among civilians near industrial units about dos and don'ts during a gas leak, something the NDMA mandates. "The administration should mention the types of gases in industries that may leak in the leaflets with proper information on dealing with specific gases," said a senior official of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF).
Asked, additional deputy commissioner (ADC) East Singhbhum Sunil Kumar said distributing pamphlets would create unnecessary panic among residents.
"We have a separate disaster management plan for civilian evacuation and will hold more mock drills to test our preparedness to tackle industrial disasters. We have started sensitising hospitals about the availability of medicines and apparatuses for industrial disasters. We will also beef up the emergency operation centre after getting funds," the ADC added.
Tata Steel and Tata Motors, two major plants in the city which witnessed industrial mishaps in the past, have categorically said they have enhanced their disaster management plans.
Tata Steel spokesperson Amresh Sinha said they conducted regular mock drill inside Works and had an elaborate disaster management plan in place to meet any industrial disaster.
"We have shared our disaster management plans with the district administration following the high court directive but can't give details as the matter is sub-judice," he said on Thursday.
An explosion in the gas holder inside Tata Steel works in November 2013 left a worker dead and many injured and another blast near an ammonia scrubber injured many in November 2015. But, a company source said the steel-maker had all the necessary apparatus mandated by NDRF for industrial disasters and had even invited senior NDRF officials for advanced training to personnel to enable early detection of gas leaks. "Our onsite disaster management plans are also approved by the Jharkhand chief factory inspector," he said.
Tata Motors, where a chlorine leak had occurred at its water filtration plant in May 2008 causing hospitalisation of several residents in Telco Colony, stopped using the gas.
"We use sodium chloride and sodium bicarbonate in filtration which minimises the prospect of hazardous gas leak. We also have mandatory mock drills almost twice every month at our plant and hospital and once a month in our township (Telco)," Tata Motors spokesperson Ranjit Dhar said.
A human rights activist in Sonari, however, said they could not only rely on industrial giants. "The district administration should carry out more mock drills involving people in this township dotted with manufacturing plants. People don't have awareness," said activist Jawaharlal Sharma.
Deputy commandant of NDRF K.K. Jha posted at Patna, whose survey formed the basis of a media report in an English newspaper that triggered the high court's order, refused to comment when The Telegraph called him up on Thursday.
"What appeared in media about the NDRF survey is very exaggerated. The matter is sub-judice and I have been asked not to speak to the media till the case is disposed of," Jha said.
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The plant of Praxair India in Sakchi on Thursday. (Bhola Prasad)