Before Ludhiana Gas Leak this week, 5 industrial disasters that shocked India

Sushim Mukul
Sushim MukulMay 04, 2023 | 18:59

Before Ludhiana Gas Leak this week, 5 industrial disasters that shocked India

The Bhopal Gas Tragedy remains India's worst industrial disaster that claimed around 4000 lives(official sources).

A gas leak from a sewer in Ludhiana's Giaspura in Punjab claimed 11 lives and hospitalised many on April 30. A high level of hydrogen sulphide gas was detected by the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) in the vicinity of the incident.

The authorities have pointed to a high level of gas buildup in the sewer. Days after the incident, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) directed the District Magistrate of Ludhiana to immediately compensate the families of the dead and injured. Most of the victims were migrant labourers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

PPCB team collecting air samples near the leak site in Ludhiana. (Photo Credit: PTI).

What are industrial chemical disasters?

Industrial chemical disasters are occurrences of accidental release, leakage, or spillage of toxic gases or chemicals, resulting in contaminating air, water, soil, crops, livestock, and the environment around them, causing harm to people, property, ecology, and the economy.

Industrial settings, including chemical manufacturing plants, oil fields and rigs, refineries, storage facilities, mines, waste disposal facilities, and management facilities, are hotspots for such mishaps.

What causes these disasters?

  • Non-complaint of industrial safety norms, mainly in the unorganised sector. As a result, in India, rarely does an industry house state-of-the-art technology with the required safety margins.
  • Lack of legal clarity on roles and responsibilities as states are largely clueless about prevention, preparedness, and mitigation efforts.
  • Penalty provisions aren't tight enough to fix accountability. The Public Liability Act is not strong enough either.
  • Periodical safety checks are often skipped.
  • Budgetary constraints.
  • The ageing and decay of industries, designs, and technologies used in the industry are outdated.
  • The presence of gases and organic solvents makes industries vulnerable to fires and explosions.

How frequent have we seen these disasters in India?

Spread across 301 districts, 25 states, and 3 Union Territories, between 2001 and 2010, India has seen around 130 significant chemical accidents, resulting in 259 deaths and 563 crucial injuries. Apart from these, there are many minor cases, especially in medium and micro enterprises, along with the country's vast unorganised sector.


Before the Ludhiana Gas Leak this week, 5 industrial disasters that shocked India:

Ahmedabad Chemical Factory Blast, 2022

The explosion took place in a chemical factory in Pirana, Ahmedabad, which led to the instant collapse of the building. The apartment building housed a garment godown, which collapsed with 30 people inside. The rescue personnel recovered 12 dead bodies, including four women and two minors, and nine severely injured people from the rubble. Three arrests were made, including the owner of the chemical factory and the owner of the estate.

Firefighters putting out the fire at the blast site in Ahmedabad (Photo Credit: AFP).

Subsequent investigations showed that the chemical factory operated without a license, and despite the presence of the chemical factory next door, the space was rented out for garment storage, which is prone to fire. The Indian Express reported that among the 12 deceased, there was a 14-year-old boy employed in hazardous conditions at the chemical company and a 17-year-old girl employed in the garment company. The people responsible for the incident were also charged under the Child Labour Act (prohibition and regulation) Amendment Act.

Hapur Chemical Plant Explosion, 2022

A major explosion took place at an electronics manufacturing unit in Hapur, Uttar Pradesh in 2022. It led to the death of 13 workers and 20 were injured. It was later found that the plant was discreetly used to manufacture toy gun pellets. Investigations found the presence of gunpowder at the site.

Local Police looking for evidence after the blast in Hapur.

The state government's and the locals' prompt response in carrying out relief work at the site saved several lives.

Bhagjan Gas And Oil Leak, 2020

The incident took place at the Indian Oil Corporation's Bhagjan Oilfields in the Tinsukia District of Assam, resulting in a leak of natural gas and oil and subsequently catching fire. The incident caused three deaths, triggered a large-scale evacuation of nearby villages, and caused environmental damage to the nearby Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and Maguri-Motapung Wetland, which are part of the sensitive Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot. The hotspot is home to a variety of rare and endangered species, including the Gangetic dolphin, wild horses, tigers, capped langurs, hoolock gibbons, slow loris, rare butterflies, and fish.

NDRF Personnel on standby before snubbing the eruption(Photo Credit: PTI )

Monsoon-induced floods in two local rivers, Dibru and Lohit, threatened aquatic life and degraded the river's health. After 173 days, the blowout was 'snubbed'. The NGT-backed investigation committee revealed India Oil Limited's failure to obtain prerequisite legal clearances, non-compliance with environmental laws, and neglect of internal safety procedures at the oil field.

GAIL Pipeline Explosion, 2014

Site of the pipeline fire in the East Godavari District, Andhra Pradesh(Image Credits: PTI)

A huge fire broke out after a blast in the Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) 18 inch underground gas pipeline at Nagaram in the East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh in June 2014. The incident took place near the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation's (ONGC) Tatipaka refinery and claimed around 23 lives and injured around 40. The fire caused massive losses of standing crops, coconut trees, cattle, and wild birds. Over 10 acres were reduced to ashes.

Bhopal Gas Tragedy, 1984

Known as India's worst industrial disaster, the Bhopal Gas Tragedy occurred when a leakage at a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) released approximately 40 tonnes of toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas into the air, which quickly spread to the surrounding neighbourhoods. The incident resulted in the deaths of over 3,000 people immediately, with many more dying later due to exposure to the gas and over 500,000 suffering from long-term health problems.

Entrance of the Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh after the tragedy (Photo Credit: GettyImages)

Inadequate safety measures and operational procedures at the plant are said to be the prime reasons for the hight number of deaths. The critical safety systems were either dysfunctional or turned off at the time of the disaster. The plant's refrigeration system, which was designed to keep the MIC gas cool and prevent it from reacting with water and other chemicals was not functioning properly, and the gas storage tanks were overfilled, causing the release of the gas.

The primary investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) found that the disaster was a culmination of negligence and a lack of safety measures by the plant's management, including UCC, and a lack of awareness, training, and preparedness among the plant workers and emergency responders. The CBI filed criminal charges against several UCC and UCIL officials, including the CEO of UCIL, Warren Anderson. However, Anderson fled to the US and was never extradited to India to face trial. UCIL ultimately paid a settlement of $470 million to the Indian government in 1989, but many activists and survivors have criticised the amount as insufficient and inadequate. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy remains a tragic reminder of the importance of proper safety measures and corporate responsibility in the industrial sector.

Years after the Bhopal incident exposed the disaster preparedness of the country, India continues to witness a series of chemical accidents and disasters, more so after the resumption of industrial activities post-Covid-induced lockdown. Although there are sufficient constitutional and statutory safeguards in place, implementation remains a challenge.

Last updated: May 05, 2023 | 12:54
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