MAC: Mines and Communities

India - industrial carnage strikes down at least 32 workers

Published by MAC on 2017-11-04
Source: New Trade Union Initiative, National Herald

London Calling draws stark parallels between one disaster and an antecedent

As November opened, at least 32 workers died at a state-owned coal-fired power plant called  Unchahar in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

This industrial disaster was  condemned by the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) as another "Bhopal", amounting to one of the worst the country has suffered in  living memory.

In another commentary, the National Herald argued that prime minister Narendra Modi himself might be guilty of complicity in causing the tragedy, by forcing compromises in safety regulations, so that the opening of the plant could be rushed, and set a "record" for his regime.

Currently it's not known what - if any - independent judicial investigation of the event will be conducted.

But, what's certain is that a similar disaster is unavoidable unless there's markedly stricter enforcement of existing factory regulations, and abnegation of  further measures designed to restrict worker's rights while enhancing the interests of corporate profits and power. 

According to NTUI, workers conditions will worsen "...if the new amendments to the Contract Labour Act are enacted that will allow for more flexibility in hiring irregular workers and short term contractors who do not even meet standard requirements for a project while absolving the principal virtually of all responsibility".

The NTUI is surely right to invoke Bhopal as a precedent for what happened at Unchahar. Nonetheless there's a significant difference between the two events: responsibility for the second being squarely with government, while that for the first was laid at the door of the US corporate enterprise Union Carbide (taken over by Dow Chemical in 1999).

In this respect, it may prove more politically expedient for Modi and his underlings in Uttar Pradesh to impose sanctions on state-owned NTPC, than  it would be to brazen it out with a private company - let alone foreign owned - a task which successive Indian governments have signally failed to do.

Setting aside  such speculation, the fact remains that there are striking parallels between Unchahar and what prevailed at another "malfunctioning" Indian coal-fired power plant  almost a decade ago,  operated by an overseas company.

Buried alive - people and truth

As regularly (indeed relentlessly)  recorded on the MAC website, London-listed  Vedanta - through its majority-owned BALCO -,  commissioned construction of the Korba power plant chimney, which thunderously collapsed in late September 2009, carrying at least 42 workers to their death on and beneath the ground  (See: Vedanta accused of illegally constructing death-dealing power plant) .

A diligent review of those responsible for the disaster was conducted by a judicial commission headed by Judge Bakshi who ruled that: "Compliance with all the statutory requirements for the construction of the chimney was the responsibility of BALCO and the responsibility of determining the safety measures was also that of BALCO, because BALCO was the owner of the Project". (see The killing fields of Korba).

In response, Vedanta took steps to  suppress publication of the Bakshi report in India.

To this day it hasn't' seen the light there. Not so in the UK ( See:Vedanta: calling in on its AGM)

However, at successive Vedanta London AGMs, the company's chair, CEOs, and the board, have continued trying to fence the dire accusations made by the honourable judge, with a thoroughly insufficient and  disreputable "foil", equating solely to paying out money to the victims' families (See: Vedanta - it's deja vu all over again).

This palliative tactic has now been employed by the government at Unchahar, with compensation offers to victims' families and injured workers ranging from Rs. 50,000 up to Rs. 20 lakhs (Vedanta has shelled out only 7-8 lakhs).

Other examples of criminal failures to protect workers at the two sites include:

* a likely under-reporting of a greater loss of life than has been recorded so far at Unchahar. According to the NTUI:"It is still not clear how many bodies are still buried under the ash".  

BALCO was also accused of deliberately bull-dozing  the Korba site, thus concealing an unknown number of further victims.

* Sub-contracting the majority of labour, thus saving money by employing those who have no pension or other social security provision.

* Cutting corners, saving money, with a variety of actions amounting to criminal negligence. At Unchahar, NTPC apparently admits that "ash gathered in the furnace of the boiler, which caused pressure to build up and the boiler burst".

BALCO is accused by judge Bakshi of knowingly using inferior construction materials for the Korba chimney, and ignoring warnings of the fact by some of its own experts.

Ultimately, both these tragic and avoidable tragic disasters, could have been averted.

Of course, that's easy enough to say.

Unfortunately, the lessons of Korba weren't learned and are still being repressed - buried in a fashion resembling the fate of scores of humans at the site itself in 2009.

For this the corporate machinations of Vedanta are largely to blame.

Nonetheless, legal and civil forums exist to bring the company to account in both the UK and India.

What more appropriate way is there to memorialise those who might have been saved at Unchahar?

 [London Calling is written by Nostromo Research and does not neceaarily represent the views of any other publisher, including editors of the MAC website. Reproduction is welcomed under a Creative Commons licence]

Did Narendra Modi's "pressure"cause the death of 32 NTPC workers?

National Herald

3 November 2017

Clamour for an independent inquiry into the accident at NTPC Limited's Unchahar plant grows with information that the PMO pressured the company to cut corners on safety standards

The sixth unit of the NTPC at Unchahar in Sonia Gandhi’s constituency of Rae Bareli was the first 500 MW unit to have been approved and commissioned by the Modi Government. And sources in NTPC now confirm that the corporation was under pressure to complete the project in record time so that the Prime Minister could take credit for it.

While there is no official confirmation, sources in NTPC confirmed that they had been told that the Prime Minister wanted to inaugurate the unit on November 9. The first date suggested by NTPC was November 7 but the PMO wanted it changed to November 9, presumably because of his preoccupations with elections in Gujarat.

This was why NTPC engineers compromised on safety standards that has already caused the death of 32 people following a blast in the ash pipe on November 1.

While NTPC officials remain tight-lipped and maintain that the inquiry being conducted by the senior most director of NTPC’s Board will identify the reasons for the accident, there is growing clamour for an independent inquiry. Workers, unions and engineers, on condition of anonymity, told NH the following :

They were told that the trial run of the sixth unit, completed by BHEL in a record time of one and a half years, would stop on October 31 and would resume commercial production on November 9 after the formal inauguration.

There is no explanation why the unit was still running on November 1.

While the unit was ostensibly on a trial run, it is alleged to have started commercial production ahead of schedule.

It is suspected that the commercial production was started in order to claim certain subsidies from the Centre.
Contrary to the claim of NTPC, the unit was not operating on the automated mode, which would have called for the presence of only three or four workers in the area.

The fact that there were over 200 workers (300 according to other estimates), mostly on contract, working at the time of the accident, engineers say, prove that the operation was being done manually.

Had there been no haste, the priority of the NTPC would have been to fix the automated system first.

Holding the trial run along with commercial production , engineers say, is not generally done.

The workers are believed to have drawn the attention of the management towards the malfunction of the ash-pipe and formation of clinkers but the warning was ignored.

It is also alleged that the Boiler Inspector, reporting to the state government, had given a certificate without physically inspecting the boiler at Unchahar.

The allegation is that the Prime Minister’s penchant for ‘records’ and for claiming achievements never attained before put undue pressure on the NTPC to complete the project and make the unit functional ahead of time.

The allegations have gained strength following the unusual manner in which the PMO bypassed the normal procedure of appointment in the case of the NTPC Chairman-cum-Managing Director Gurdeep Singh last year.

The PMO bypassed the Public Enterprises Selection Board ( PSEB), which normally selects PSU heads, and formed a special search committee to appoint a new CMD of NTPC.

The committee chose Gurdeep Singh , who was Managing Director of Gujarat State Electricity Corporation.

Bhopal…Rana Plaza … and now Unchahar

Union Power (NTUI)

3 November 2017

The New Trade Union Initiative expresses its deep anguish at the huge loss
of life at the National Thermal Power Corporation Limited’s power plant in
Uttar Pradesh on Wednesday, 1 November 2017 and strongly condemns the
criminal negligence on the part of NTPC, BHEL and the Governments of India
and Uttar Pradesh.

 A boiler explosion in the Unchahar Plant of the NTPC in Rae Bareli has
already claimed the lives of 29 workers, with over a 100 others suffering
70%+ burns. The incident occurred at 3:30 pm when the newly commissioned
Unit 6 of the plant was undergoing a trial-run when a pipe leaked of the
boiler releasing steam at high pressure. According to NTPC management, ash
gathered in the furnace of the boiler, which caused pressure to build up
and the boiler burst. The equipment was supplied by Bharat Heavy
Electricals Limited. The Unit has a capacity of 500 MW and has around 870
employees. Anomalies had been found in the boiler and it was to be shut
down for rectification on 28 October but was still kept running.

At the time of the incident about 300 workers were working at the unit. Most of
the victims were cleaning the ash collected at the site as a result of
burning of the coal. It is still not clear how many bodies are still
buried under the ash. The National Disaster Relief Force was called in.

The injured workers were taken to the NTPC hospital but are now being
transferred to Lucknow and Rae Bareli hospitals while the two injured
managers have been flown to Delhi for treatment.

Dismantling Regulation to allow Ease of Business – an Attack on Right to

 The Indian Boiler Regulation, 1950 required all boiler manufacturers to be
certified by the Central Boiler Board. PM Narendra Modi in a speech while
introducing self-certification in 2014 had said "When we purchase a new
car, do we require a government inspector to check if the brakes, the
accelerator and the gears function as they should? No, we don’t. We very
well know that to maintain our car, its brakes and gear box is in our own
interest — it is a question of our own life and death.” The PM then went on
to suggest that the same applied to the maintenance of a boiler in a
factory. A factory owner knows it is a matter of life and death and hence,
government needs to have confidence in him and trust that he is capable and
will act responsibly. Therefore, the factory owner should be allowed to
self-certify that his boiler functions properly and that the factory is
compliant with respect to all standards.

With this logic, within a few days of coming to power, the Prime Minister had called for a new national
approach to boiler safety and written to states, that companies should be
allowed to “self-certify” industrial boilers, or hire credible third-party
evaluators. Further, in violation of ILO Convention 81, the BJP government
had removed statutory inspection for industrial workplaces for provisions
of industrial safety and workers health. These moves were an early signal
to the current phase of labour reforms.

The majority of the workers killed and injured in the disaster are contract
workers. In both the public and the private sector the most unsafe jobs go
to those with least employment security. These workers work clearly under
hazardous conditions, are paid substantially lower than the regular workers
and have no social security coverage. This disaster will only get worse if
the new amendments to the Contract Labour Act are enacted that will allow
for more flexibility in hiring irregular workers and short term contractors
who do not even meet standard requirements for a project while absolving
the principal virtually of all responsibility.

Both the BJP’s Government of Uttar Pradesh and the Government of India have
announced monetary compensation for dead and injured workers ranging from
Rs. 50,000 upto Rs. 20 Lakhs. Having diluted the law and having made
workplaces more unsafe, the BJP government is now displaying largess. The
costs of compensation is far less than the costs of safe workplaces. The
BJP government is paying out this compensation from the exchequer while
allowing the employer to get away. This is a signal from the BJP to all
employers that they can get away with anything while it will bear the cost.

Thirty three years have elapsed since the world’s worst industrial disaster
due to corporate criminal negligence occurred at Bhopal that led to an
amendment of the Factories Act to ensure higher accountability of employers
for workers’ safety and health hazards. The amendment to the Boiler
Regulation along with the proposed amendments to the Factories Act, the
Contract Labour Act and the 4 codes on Labour have magnified the
vulnerability of the workers. The Unchahar disaster is a symbol of the BJP
government’s promise of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’. It is
time for more regulation and not less.



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