The grisly nature of the accident that claimed four lives in the Hyundai factory in Chennai makes it imperative that the UPA government steps in to ensure corporate responsibility of foreign multinationals and their Indian subsidiaries, and not allow the tragedy be buried merely on account of the hasty announcement of compensation by the guilty firms. This is vital at a time when Persons of Indian Origin are being subjected to racial humiliation or religious discrimination in many parts of the world, and Indian manufacturers are being subjected to harassment on specious grounds like use of child labour.
The methane gas tragedy in Chennai brings to mind specters of the MIC gas tragedy in Bhopal two decades ago. It is truly shameful that the thousands affected in the latter are suffering for want of medical relief and compensation, while the Union Carbide'snew owners, Dow Jones, try to evade corporate responsibility. Even worse is the fact that corporate barons like Shri Ratan Tata wish to help them get this immunity.
What is pertinent here is that in the name of attracting foreign investment, India cannot let its citizens become fodder for foreign companies. Nor can friendly labour laws be a cover for denial of labour rights, dignity or safety. The Hyundai-Thermax tragedy is instructive for sheer callousness in corporate functioning, followed by swift announcement of interim relief of Rs. two lakhs to the family of each victim, in order to stave off legal consequences.
It appears that Thermax was responsible for commissioning a sewage treatment plant at Hyundai Motor India at Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu. The treatment facility was to store wastes of paints and other chemical materials. It was being tested by site engineer Maran of Villivakkam, Chennai, who entered the pit without even a mandatory face mask, much less a safety suit to check a defective pump. Maran seems to have fainted after inhaling poisonous gases from the sewage, and when he failed to come out, four other men entered the pit one after the other to help and were in turn overcome by the noxious fumes. In this manner, electrical engineer Mohan, chemical engineer Sirish (both from Pune) and contract labourer Muthu of Villupuram district lost their lives.
This is atrocious. Thermax did not have a Safety Officer on the spot to supervise the proceedings and ensure mandatory safety standards be followed while undertaking a hazardous task. When a qualified engineer entered the pit and did not come out, how could the company have let other men enter the pit?
As many as four men died when ordinary workers waiting outside the pit, anxious that no one was responding to their repeated calls, took a decision to send another contract labourer, Santosh of Pune, to enter the pit with a rope tied on his hip. This was a simple but wise precaution as Santosh managed to raise an alarm before he too fainted after climbing a few steps into the pit. He was pulled out and rushed to hospital, where he is recovering. The other four men were found dead.
This shows the level of noxious fumes in the pit, and the callous attitude of the company towards safety standards and human life. Given that the pit had such harmful chemical emissions like methane, it is shocking that there was no provision for a sensor and an alarm bell to indicate the rise in dangerous levels of these chemicals. Even after the first engineer failed to come out of the pit, no safety masks were available for the men who followed him to their deaths, and the company failed to call emergency services like the police and fire brigade, which might have saved the remaining lives. This is criminal negligence and culpability of a very high order.
A case has been registered at the Sriperumbudur police station and an official investigation ordered, which has prompted the two firms involved to level charges at each other. It is too soon to say who is responsible; though I believe both must be called to account.
Shri S. Ganapathy, vice president (Administration and Human Resources) of South Korean giant Hyundai Motors India Ltd, told mediapersons that three of the four deceased were Thermax engineers, while one was an employee of a civil contractor. Shri Ganapathy said the accident happened when one of the pumps leading to the sewage tanks began malfunctioning and the Thermax engineer was inspecting it when the methane leak happened; he inhaled the gas and those who went to his aid also became victims. Hyundai insisted it could not be blamed just because it owned the premises, as the job was outsourced to Thermax.
On its part, the Pune-based Thermax is equally keen to shelve responsibility and has demanded a high-level probe into the deaths of its three engineers and a worker hired by Hyundai on December 7, 2007. Thermax executive vice-president (Human Relations) Sudhir Sohney urged the State Directorate of Safety, Health and Environment to probe the entire gamut of the accident. Shri Sohney claimed that the civil construction of the sewage treatment and water-recycling plant was Hyundai'sresponsibility. Thermax'sjob was confined to the mechanical part and the commissioning of the plant.
It is not yet clear if the gas poisoning occurred due to a structural defect or fault in the machinery. Preliminary reports suggest the poison gas was a mix of hydrogen sulphide and methane which, along with carbon dioxide, are typical emissions at any waste recycling plant. The preliminary post-mortem report confirms death by gas poisoning.
After India'sloot-and-scoot experience with Union Carbide, it is crucial that foreign firms and their Indian subsidiaries be held to account for bad management, bad design, and poor corporate responsibility. The design and operations of Thermax water and wastewater solution must be sharply scrutinised to avert future catastrophes. Nor can Hyundai avoid its share of responsibility for a disaster on its premises.
It bears stating that the Managing Director of Thermax, Ms. Anu Aga, took the lead in getting the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) to express contrived anguish over the Gujarat riots of 2002, to the embarrassment of the Vajpayee government. She must have thought that letting her country down before the international community showed her foreign partners that Corporate India has a soul. Now her crass negligence of safety standards and her sheer indifference towards all forms of life must be given no quarter. Far from having advanced technology to monitor gas emission levels and sound a warning bell, the two companies glibly stated that standard procedure to test levels of emission is to let down a live chicken or rat! Surely India does not need this kind of foreign investment and development.