Bhopal…Rana Plaza … and now Unchahar

The New Trade Union Initiative expresses its deep anguish at the huge loss of life at the National Thermal Power Corporation Limited’s power plant in Uttar Pradesh on Wednesday, 1 November 2017 and strongly condemns the criminal negligence on the part of NTPC, BHEL and the Governments of India and Uttar Pradesh.

A boiler explosion in the Unchahar Plant of the NTPC in Rae Bareli has already claimed the lives of 29 workers, with over a 100 others suffering 70%+ burns. The incident occurred at 3:30 pm when the newly commissioned Unit 6 of the plant was undergoing a trial-run when a pipe leaked of the boiler releasing steam at high pressure. According to NTPC management, ash gathered in the furnace of the boiler, which caused pressure to build up and the boiler burst. The equipment was supplied by Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited. The Unit has a capacity of 500 MW and has around 870 employees. Anomalies had been found in the boiler and it was to be shut down for rectification on 28 October but was still kept running. At the time of the incident about 300 workers were working at the unit. Most of the victims were cleaning the ash collected at the site as a result of burning of the coal. It is still not clear how many bodies are still buried under the ash. The National Disaster Relief Force was called in.

The injured workers were taken to the NTPC hospital but are now being transferred to Lucknow and Rae Bareli hospitals while the two injured managers have been flown to Delhi for treatment.

Dismantling Regulation to allow Ease of Business – an Attack on Right to Life

The Indian Boiler Regulation, 1950 required all boiler manufacturers to be certified by the Central Boiler Board. PM Narendra Modi in a speech while introducing self-certification in 2014 had said “When we purchase a new car, do we require a government inspector to check if the brakes, the accelerator and the gears function as they should? No, we don’t. We very well know that to maintain our car, its brakes and gear box is in our own interest — it is a question of our own life and death.” The PM then went on to suggest that the same applied to the maintenance of a boiler in a factory. A factory owner knows it is a matter of life and death and hence, government needs to have confidence in him and trust that he is capable and will act responsibly. Therefore, the factory owner should be allowed to self-certify that his boiler functions properly and that the factory is compliant with respect to all standards. With this logic, within a few days of coming to power, the Prime Minister had called for a new national approach to boiler safety and written to states, that companies should be allowed to “self-certify” industrial boilers, or hire credible third-party evaluators. Further, in violation of ILO Convention 81, the BJP government had removed statutory inspection for industrial workplaces for provisions of industrial safety and workers health. These moves were an early signal to the current phase of labour reforms.

The majority of the workers killed and injured in the disaster are contract workers. In both the public and the private sector the most unsafe jobs go to those with least employment security. These workers work clearly under hazardous conditions, are paid substantially lower than the regular workers and have no social security coverage. This disaster will only get worse if the new amendments to the Contract Labour Act are enacted that will allow for more flexibility in hiring irregular workers and short term contractors who do not even meet standard requirements for a project while absolving the principal virtually of al responsibility.

Both the BJP’s Government of Uttar Pradesh and the Government of India have announced monetary compensation for dead and injured workers ranging from Rs. 50,000 upto Rs. 20 Lakhs. Having diluted the law and having made workplaces more unsafe, the BJP government is now displaying largess. The costs of compensation is far less than the costs of safe workplaces. The BJP government is paying out this compensation from the exchequer while allowing the employer to get away. This is a signal from the BJP to all employers that they can get away with anything while it will bear the cost.

Thirty three years have elapsed since the world’s worst industrial disaster due to corporate criminal negligence occurred at Bhopal that led to an amendment of the Factories Act to ensure higher accountability of employers for workers’ safety and health hazards. The amendment to the Boiler Regulation along with the proposed amendments to the Factories Act, the Contract Labour Act and the 4 codes on Labour have magnified the vulnerability of the workers. The Unchahar disaster is a symbol of the BJP government’s promise of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’. It is time for more regulation and not less.

The NTUI stands with the affected workers and their families and we demand:

• Charge of criminal negligence be brought against the management of the NTPC and BHEL and all third party agencies and contractors involved in the manufacture, installation, operation and maintenance of the boiler.
NTPC bear all medical and rehabilitation expenses of all affected workers and provide employment to next of kin of deceased workers.
• The Chief Inspector of Boiler, UP and the Director General of Factory Advice Service and Labour Institutes conduct a complete safety audit of the plant at the earliest.
• Immediate withdrawal of the proposed amendments to the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act
• Ensure equal pay for equal work and equality in all conditions and standards of work for all workers

An Injury to One Is an Injury to All

Gautam Mody
General Secretary