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Industrial accidents: Why are cops cautious with big industries, but target small units?

By NS Venkataraman*  

Accidents may happen in industries in shop floor during handling of materials or noxious fumes arising due to any unexpected process reactions or fire accidents and so on. This may happen in spite of the care and caution taken during plant design erection and operation. Even well known multinational companies like Du Pont operating with high safety standards could not avoid such occasional accidents.
It appears that not a month would pass without accidents taking place in the fireworks factories in Sivakasi and Virudhunagar region in Tami Nadu resulting in injuries and deaths. Several other accidents have taken place all over India in industrial operations.
The Visakhapatnam gas leak (also referred to as the Vizag gas leak) , was an industrial accident that occurred at the LG Polymers chemical plant. Venkatapuram village of the Gopalapatnam neighbourhood, located at the outskirts of Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, during the early morning of 7 May 2020. The resulting vapour cloud spread over a radius of around 3.0 km, affecting the nearby areas and villages. As per the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), the death toll was 11 and more than 1,000 people became sick after being exposed to the gas.
Of course, the biggest and most serious accident happened in the pesticide unit of Union Carbide in Bhopal killing hundreds of people and leaving several thousands of people seriously injured.
The question is as to what extent the factory head or the supervisory staff should be held responsible for such accidents that may happen in shop floor due to several unforeseen reasons and factors beyond the control of the factory head.
It appears that the practice so far all over India is to arrest the factory head or the operational head immediately when serious accidents happen, even without any enquiry and then lodge the person in jail for several days. This condition has certainly created fear and panic amongst the senior persons in factories as in many cases, they may not be directly or even indirectly responsible for such accidents and the accidents may happen not due to lack of care and caution but inspite of it.
When such accidents happen in industries it should not be straightway viewed as wilful act or due to unlawful activity that would warrant the arrest of those in charge of industrial unit.
Accidents may happen in the shop floor due to non-observance of safety practices by the operating personnel or sudden failure of some equipment like valves bearings or rupture in pipeline or even some explosive reactions suddenly happening due to reasons which cannot be immediately identified and for such accidents there may not be any precedence.
When such accidents happen, the local police immediately visit the spot and straightaway arrest the senior personnel even without conducting a preliminary enquiry.
Considering the complicated technology issues that may be involved in causing the accident the policemen do not have the expertise or experience to ascertain the reasons and fix the responsibility. The accidents call for thorough investigation by technical personnel to establish the reasons. In such conditions, when executives are straightaway arrested, this amounts to harassment and undue pressure and humiliation of the executives.
In many cases, such executives who are arrested without enquiry and later on not found to be responsible for the accidents suffer life long mental depression and lose their morale.
Now that the Uttar Pradesh government has issued orders that the preliminary investigation should be conducted before registering first information report (FIR) against the factory heads and entrepreneurs in the case of accidents or any other reasons. Its aim appears to beo reduce the number of baseless cases filed against senior industry executives. The government described it as a step to stop hindrances in accelerating the state’s development and to prevent any form of harassment against entrepreneurs and managerial personnel.
In this connection, one has to point out that when such accidents happen in the private sector in the case of small and medium scale units, police rush to the spot and arrest the senior executives, as if they are directly responsible for such accidents. However, it appears that the police are much more cautious in dealing with accidents in large scale industries and pubic sector units, particularly those headed by IAS officers, and rarely arrest their executives.
One wonders if all state governments will adopt the Uttar Pradesh government move to deal with such issues. This would go a long way in boosting the confidence of the project promoters, technocrats and executives while setting up and operating industrial projects.
The view is not that the responsibility for the accidents should not be fixed and the concerned persons if found guilty should not be punished but the accident issues should be viewed in a holistic manner without knee jerk reaction by the police.
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*Trustee, Nandini Voice For The Deprived, Chennai

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