On July 1, what should have been a routine maintenance check in Unit 5 of the Thermal Power Station- 2 of the NLC India Limited or NLCIL, formerly the Neyveli Lignite Corporation in Neyveli, Tamil Nadu, turned deadly for the 23 men who were still inside the Unit. The boiler in the unit blew while the men were carrying out their work. The blast was so powerful that 13 workers died since then and 10 reportedly are still in the hospital. It is only two months since a similar blast in the nearby Unit 6 of the same station had claimed five lives and injured three critically.
This is the latest sordid incident in a spate of industrial accidents in India since the Covid-19 lockdown. Since May 2020, there have been at least four industrial accidents, two in Neyveli and two in Andhra Pradesh’s Visakhapatnam, claiming at least 26 lives and injuring many more. India’s already poor record on industrial safety has reached a new low following these recent incidents.
A disaster in waiting
Out of the 23 persons who were in the unit when the accident took place, only six were employees of NLCIL, while the remaining 17 were labourers employed by a contractor. Labour unions in Neyveli alleged that these labourers are not advised on any protocols for health and safety.
“NLCIL employees attend some health and safety training sessions but nothing is organised for these contract labourers,” said C Sugumar of the Labour Progressive Front, Neyveli. “Even when something is organised, because a lot of the NLCIL management is Hindi- or English-speaking now, all the instructions are lost in translation. This is because the labourers, who are from nearby villages, understand only Tamil.” The Labour Progressive Front or LPF is associated with the political party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
Sugumar, who is familiar with the operations at Neyveli, added, “Cleaning these units is not like general housekeeping, you need to know what to do. There is a layer of highly flammable slag and wastage lined inside the unit. The smallest spark because of electricity or any other reason can set the whole thing on fire.”
The union leader also flagged cost-cutting leading to such dire situations. He said, “instead of the focus being on the work done well and safely, it is on work being done cheaply and fast.”
No lessons learnt
Following the incident, the state police department are investigating the blast and have filed cases under various sections of the Indian Penal Code. “We have filed an FIR against unknown persons for culpable homicide and criminal negligence. A senior officer has been appointed to investigate the blasts. Apart from this, NLCIL have also shut down all the units in Thermal Power Station- 2 and have formed inquiry teams,” said Sree Abhinav, Superintendent of Police, Cuddalore district. Since the district collector had assumed office only a day before the incident, he declined to comment on the issue.
In a press release issued immediately after the accident, NLCIL management stated that a high-level inquiry into the accident will be conducted under the leadership of a retired director of the National Thermal Power Corporation Limited and that an internal inquiry is also being conducted. They also stated that the person-in-charge of the unit at the Thermal Power Station- 2 has been suspended.
Following the boiler blast in May, NLCIL had announced similar measures but clearly to no avail, as a worse accident took place just months later. A senior engineer at NLCIL who has worked at the company for more than three decades, who did not wish to be named, told Mongabay-India, “These are extremely sophisticated equipment and need highly trained personnel to work on them. In recent times, people without the required education and training are allowed to take up these tasks and when a situation arises, they do not know how to respond. These lignite type boilers are a different ball game and are highly volatile. Those without familiarity with these systems are at risk when they go inside for maintenance work.”
The senior engineer also raised the issue of ageing equipment which are in dire need of upgrading. He said, “Also, many of the units are over 25-30 years old and are due for a life expansion programme, this has not been done either.”
According to the report Heat on Power published by the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, in 2015, a thermal power plant’s efficiency drops drastically after 25 years. An earlier report in CSE’s environmental magazine, Down To Earth, had found that a large number of units in Neyveli are older than 25 years. According to the National Electricity Plan 2018 published by the Ministry of Power, Government of India, both the units where the accidents took place produce 210 megawatts of power and are overdue for retirement – older than 25 years. They have remained operational because of prolonged delays in commissioning new units.
T Swaminathan, retired professor of Chemical Engineering, IIT-Madras, resonated the engineer’s concern. “The safety culture is extremely poor in Indian industry and these employees at Neyveli are the latest victims of this. The mechanical integrity of the systems should be regularly checked and there should be inspectors who visit the units on a periodic basis to make sure all safety norms are adhered to. In Tamil Nadu, this is seldom carried out properly. Also, with increasing outsourcing of work, the contractors should be held liable for not informing workers about safety protocols. Companies such as NLCIL should make sure that the contractors ensure workers’ safety. When they are sending people to work in such precarious conditions, this is the least they can do.”
As the senior engineer said, “Once the NLC used to be looked up to for its efficiency and success but sadly, this is not the case anymore. I am afraid that if the systemic issues are not fixed soon, an even worse accident is just around the corner.”
This article first appeared on Mongabay.