In the span of just one week, at least 17 people died and 75 were injured in two major industrial accidents in India.
The first, on August 28, was an explosion in a chemical factory in Maharashtra’s Dhule district in which 13 were killed and 72 injured. The blast was caused by a leak in a chemical-filled barrel in the plant, which triggered explosions in several other barrels and nitrogen cylinders. Since several factory workers had found accommodation in temporary shelters near the site, many of the dead were members of their families. Two children were among the dead. According to the Indian Express, local residents had complained to district authorities about foul fumes coming from the plant two weeks before the incident, but they were ignored.
The second incident took place on Tuesday morning, when a massive fire at an Oil and Natural Gas Corporation plant off the coast of Mumbai killed four and injured at least three people. Three of the dead were from the Central Industrial Security Force, which worked with fire fighters to contain the blaze within two hours. State-run ONGC – India’s biggest producer of oil and natural gas – said that the fire started in a storm-water drain.
Accidents of this sort are far too common in India, even if it is just the tragedies with significant tolls that make the headlines. According to data from the Labour and Employment Ministry, 3,562 workers died in factory accidents across India between 2014 and 2016, and more than 51,000 were injured in that period. This works out to an average of three deaths and 47 injuries every single day.
A 2017 study by the British Safety Council painted an even bleaker picture: 48,000 workers die of occupational accidents every year in India, of which 24% are from the construction industry.
These devastating accidents have been taking place even though India currently has 13 labour laws dealing with the safety, health and working conditions of workers in various industries. In 2018, the central government proposed a bill to merge these 13 laws into a single labour code on Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions.
But could an amalgamation of well-intentioned laws on paper help to bring down the unconscionable number of industrial accidents on the ground? Not unless the norms laid down by law are followed, of course. And on that front, Indian industries have been grossly negligent.
In 2017, for instance, an Uttar Pradesh labour department report found that the deaths of 32 workers in an explosion at an National Thermal Power Corporation plant in Rae Bareli could have been easily avoided if boiler ducts had been cleaned regularly.
In January last year, after 17 workers died in a fire in Delhi’s cramped Bawana industrial area, it was found that their factory had just two fire extinguishers, one exit gate and no fire evacuation plan. Worse, the building was illegally being used as a warehouse for firecrackers. Across the industrial area, operational licences had been granted to factories without adequate inspection of their safety measures.
The problem is compounded by a shortage of inspection staff. The British Safety Council study found that India has just one inspector for every 506 registered factories.
For too long, Indian industry has been lax about following safety norms. Neither governments nor the public have held them adequately accountable for the loss of thousands of lives on their watch. The message this sends out to industrial workers is chilling: that their lives do not matter in India.