On Thursday, at least 11 people were killed and over 300 were hospitalised after styrene gas leaked at a plant run by LG Polymers in Visakhapatnam.
Details about the plant that have emerged since the incident paints a disturbing picture of regulatory failure. According to the Indian Express, LG’s petrochemical plant did not have environmental clearances for its operations between 1997 and 2019.
The company acknowledged that it had expanded “beyond the limit of environmental clearance or changed the product mix without obtaining prior environmental clearance as mandated under the Environment Impact Assessment notification, 2006”.
The unit had been shut due to the Covid-19 nationwide lockdown. It was preparing to reopen on Thursday and had obtained passes for its staff for maintenance work during the interim. Across the country in Chhattisgarh’s Raigarh district, seven workers fell sick after inhaling a toxic gas at a paper mill on Thursday. Here, too, cleaning operations were underway to reopen the plant after the lockdown, an unidentified official told PTI. The same day, a factory in Nashik in Maharashtra and a power plant in Tamil Nadu’s Neyveli witnessed accidents, leaving several injured.
These incidents present serious warnings for India as it tries to emerge out of the nationwide lockdown and restart production in manufacturing plants. With many plants operating with thin workforces for maintenance, there is a real danger of such tragedies being repeated when units restart for full production. As the Visakhapatnam incident shows, the problem is not just about the lull in production due to the lockdown, but a casual negligence of regulations aided by slack administrations.
While the Centre on Thursday advised chemical industries to exercise caution while reopening, state governments are diluting industrial and labour laws in the mistaken belief that a lack of regulation makes for a liberal economic policy.
On Thursday, even as Visakhapatnam was counting its dead, news emerged from Uttar Pradesh that the Adityanath government had cleared an ordinance that suspends almost all labour laws in the state. The ordinance exempts all establishments, factories, and businesses from the purview of all but four labour laws for three years. This includes laws relating to occupational safety and working conditions.
Other states like Madhya Pradesh have also initiated measures to dilute regulations.
Such exemptions are a clear violation of India’s fundamental rights, which guarantee the right to a safe environment for workers. The exemptions from labour and industrial laws reflect a reckless disdain for the lives and livelihoods of the labourers, who are already battling the distress caused by Covid-19.
Pushing for economic growth that ignores the conditions of the people who labour to produce that expansion reflects shallow, short-term thinking.