Vizag: Caution needed as industries re-start | Daily News


Vizag: Caution needed as industries re-start

Thursday’s tragic industrial accident in the Indian industrial and port city of Visakhapatnam (Vizag) must surely alert our own industries as they hurry to re-start production after the pandemic shutdown this past month. India is reacting with horror over the deaths, suffering and evacuations in that city due to a toxic gas leak from a chemical plant that the owners were just starting up again after the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.

Eleven people died, over 350 required urgent hospital treatment and, thousands more were evacuated from their homes when a toxic gas leaked out of a chemical plant in an industrial suburb of the major Andhra state city. Visakhapatnam, which until recently had a direct air link to Colombo, is a major port on India’s East Coast and the home base of the Indian Navy.

According to media and agency reports from India, several thousand residents in the suburban area surrounding the giant private sector polymer chemicals factory were affected when the highly toxic styrene gas began leaking out of storage. The leak began at about 3.30 a.m. early on Thursday morning and the gas spread over a 3 kilometre radius area while most residents were asleep. News photos showed small white clouds of the deadly gas yet hovering over the neighbourhood in daylight while the whole area was evacuated.

The poisonous gas is also highly inflammable and the local authorities were compelled to be cautious in their rescue effort due to the risk of explosions.

Following the industrial tragedy, the Indian Government has directed chemical firms in both the public and private sectors to exercise caution when reopening plants after India’s lockdown began to be lifted earlier this week. Environment monitors are recalling the far more deadly industrial gas leak in the central Indian city of Bhopal in December 1984. Known as the world’s worst industrial accident, the gas leak from a huge Union Carbide industrial plant in Bhopal immediately killed 3,787 people and injured 574,366.

Following Thursday’s Visakhapatnam incident, India’s Environment Ministry and State Pollution Control Board have issued separate directives to all companies to take extreme precautions while restarting their units that remained suspended due to the lockdown.

A technical glitch in the refrigeration unit attached to two styrene gas storage tanks in the Visakhapatnam factory had caused the deadly vapour leak.

The Visakhapatnam Police have now registered a criminal case against the plant management on charges including culpable homicide not amounting to murder and causing death by negligence, reports said. Indian environment watchdogs are calling for compensation to be given by the companies involved in the Visakhapatnam chemical venture.

The Central Indian Government’s National Green Tribunal (NGT) yesterday directed the chemical plant’s owning company to deposit an initial amount of Indian Rs. 5 billion for the damage caused by the gas leak. An NGT bench headed by Chairperson Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel also issued notice to the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board, Central Pollution Control Board and the Central Indian Government.

While Sri Lanka does not have massive industrial production plants as in India, we have also experienced industrial pollution issues from time to time, as is normal with industrialisation anywhere in the world. The challenge is to prevent or at least minimise the damage and to properly prosecute wrongdoers while adequately compensating the victims.

After the weeks-long economic shutdown due to the pandemic, the manufacturing sector in Sri Lanka, too, is naturally impatient to re-start production and make up for lost time and orders. At stake is our niche in various international product markets that we could lose if there is too much of a delay in getting our productivity back on track.

Here, too, there are many plants in which various chemicals and materials have remained unused for weeks and storage conditions will need a thorough review and inspection before production processes begin afresh.

We hope that the supervising authorities will work with the manufacturers in enabling a smooth re-commencing of the country’s manufacturing sector.

This is an added burden on the authorities who are already having to manage the resumption of industry and services in a strictly graduated manner to minimise the risk of worsening the COVID-19 contagion.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has, for the past fortnight, has paid special attention to the process of easing the lockdown and reviving of the economy.

Just as much as the Government worked in haste to shut down normal economic activity to save lives and avoid overwhelming our healthcare system with the onset of the pandemic, the revival of the economy must be done at a slow pace to minimise the contagion’s spread.

The business leadership will be wise enough to coordinate the re-start with an eye on both the pandemic risk on the one side and any industrial risks on the other.

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