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When Workers Die

The callous disregard of worker safety is the cost of “ease of doing business.”

 

Human life is cheap in India. So cheap that when the poor, or members of the working class, die, there is little by way of outrage. The media fuels outrage on any number of other issues, but rarely on one where we stand exposed as a society that fails to care for those who are the most vulnerable. And so the death of 32 workers and grievous injuries to another 100 in a major public sector thermal power plant went past as yet another accident. The state government offered compensation, an inquiry was instituted, and the subject disappeared from our consciousness. The “accident” at the 500 megawatts thermal power plant operated by the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) in Unchahar, Raebareli district, Uttar Pradesh, on 1 November has exposed the callous disregard for worker safety and the violation of labour laws that is virtually a norm in India.

While the details of precisely what happened at the NTPC plant will hopefully emerge from the inquiry, some facts are already known. The high pressure steam boiler in the newly commissioned Unit 6 of the Unchahar thermal power plant was supposed to have been shut down to rectify technical problems. Yet, it was still running even as workers were asked to manually remove the ash that had collected in the boiler as a result of the malfunction. When the pressure built up in the boiler, leading to the blast, there were around 300 workers in the vicinity. Surely, this could have been avoided had the safety of workers been a priority.

We must also remember that this tragedy has not occurred in an unregulated factory, or a small unit operating outside regulatory laws. This was a thermal power plant run by the NTPC, India’s largest power utility that manages 48 thermal power stations. We must also note that the majority of the workers affected were migrant contract workers, brought to the unit by contractors to whom jobs had been subcontracted. This is a ploy used by many large industrial units. It helps employers minimise their liabilities to a smaller number of permanent workers who are covered under labour laws, while much of the work, often the more hazardous tasks, are farmed out to contractors who employ casual workers, often on daily wages. These workers have no health insurance in the event of accidents or exposure to hazards. This murky underbelly of the formal sector in India stands exposed when such accidents take place.

Even in the best-maintained industries, there can be accidents. These can be prevented, and their effects minimised if there is no compromise on routine maintenance. We know, however, from the example of the Bhopal gas disaster at the Union Carbide factory on 2 December 1984, that poor maintenance eventually contributed to the explosion in the methyl isocyanate tank on the factory premises. Till today, the fallout of that poisonous gas cloud that enveloped parts of Bhopal, is being played out. It was this tragedy that led to the tightening of laws with regard to worker safety.

Today, under the excuse of enhancing the “ease of doing business,” these laws are being deliberately diluted in many states under the prompting of the Narendra Modi government. Since 2014, there have been proposed amendments to the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970, the Factories Act, 1948, and the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. Even the Indian Boiler Regulations, 1950 that required inspection and certification by the Central Boilers Board, have been changed to permit self-certification. The justification is that “inspector raj” must end. Instead, what is happening is that there is little by way of oversight to ensure that safety regulations are not compromised.

Furthermore, there are proposals to dilute laws governing contract labour that will facilitate the use of casual labour for the more hazardous jobs, as in Unchahar. Under the existing law, the NTPC can be held liable for all workers, permanent and contract, following the landmark Asiad case (Peoples Union for Democratic Rights v Union of India and Others, 1982) in which the Supreme Court held the government responsible for contract workers as the principal employer. We must also emphasise that government’s largesse in the form of compensation to injured workers, or to the families of the deceased, cannot replace the responsibility of the NTPC to all the workers. Unfortunately, if amendments to the contract labour law come through, this could change to the detriment of the rights of contract workers.

This government has also brought in rules restricting labour inspections, thereby violating Article 81 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) to which India is a signatory. It has introduced the Shram Suvidha Portal that permits employers to “self-certify” compliance to 16 central labour laws. Such “self-certification” has been proved to be a fraud in compliance with environmental laws. How can it be any different with regard to labour laws or industrial safety? In the name of “Make in India,” and encouraging investment, the government is turning its face away from egregious violations of worker safety and rights, particularly for the most unprotected amongst them, the casual and daily wage workers. Unchahar is a grim reminder of this emerging reality.

Updated On : 12th Nov, 2017

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