On 6 July, 2004, a little after 2 a.m., residents living downwind of the Hindustan Insecticides Ltd (HIL) pesticide factory in Eloor, Kerala, were alerted to a fire in the factory’s endosulphan plant. Based on varying accounts, the fire raged for between three and four hours and gutted most of the five-storey endosulphan plant.
Twelve fire tenders, including units from Fertilisers & Chemicals Travancore (FACT), the Indian Navy, the State Fire Department and Kochin Refineries, were deployed and the fire was brought under control using large amounts of water. A westerly breeze carried the thick grey smoke plume over at least 250 dwelling units in Pallipuramchal and all the way across the river to the Varapuzha panchayat. Smoky conditions prevailed in Varapuzha as late as 7 a.m., well after the fire was put out.
Neither HIL nor the district authorities initiated any off-site emergency response procedures. HIL also had no onsite emergency response, and fire control did not begin until the FACT fire tender arrived at 2.35 a.m. As will be outlined in the report below, Hindustan Insecticides Ltd is guilty of negligence on several counts. The Eloor Police has, however, registered a simple case of “fire occurrence”. No action has been initiated against the company for negligence.
The Eloor industrial area hosts about 250 industries, of which more than a dozen, including Hindustan Insecticides Limited, are large chemical factories. The authorities – particularly, the Kerala State Pollution Control Board and the Factories and Boilers Inspectorate – have sought to treat community demands for information about the hazardous chemicals and processes as unnecessary interference rather than legitimate concerns. Repeated requests for information on emergency preparedness, and for the building of a bridge across the River Periyar at the Eloor ferry point to escape the island during emergencies have fallen on deaf ears.
The absence of emergency response procedures, the casual attitude of the district authorities and the industry, and the lack of appreciation of the magnitude of the incident and what it embodies is a shocking reminder that no lessons have been learnt from the 1984 Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal. Twenty years after the world’s worst industrial disaster, communities and workers continue to operate in complete ignorance when it comes to the hazardous substances stored and processes deployed in their neighborhoods. Throughout India, if more communities are not being wiped out by chemical disasters, that is not because of the legally mandated precautions or policing by regulatory authorities, but by sheer chance, favourable wind conditions and the communities’ good fortune.
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