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|July 31, 1997||
Did the gas leak occur in Sterlite or Ramesh Flowers?
A Ganesh Nadar in Tuticorin
On the 5th of July, 1997, Sterlite was back in the news. Controversy never seems to subside as for as Sterlite is concerned. When they came to Tuticorin in 1994, the people rose up in protest. The reason: they were thrown out of Ratnagiri in Maharashtra, therefore something must be wrong with them. When they tried to lay a waste disposal pipeline into the sea, one man, Anton Gomez, went on a hunger-strike and they had to give up the pipeline idea.
After many hiccups, they managed to start this year. Since then the 10 billion copper smelting plant has stopped production twice. First, when they had technical problems, and second, when there was no water.
On the midnight of the 5th of July, they were asked to stop the plant on the express orders of the district collector. The order was not delivered by a peon or junior officer. It was personally delivered by Tuticorin Subcollector Sandeep Jain. What had Sterlite done to have an Indian Administrative Service officer prowling about at midnight?
Sterlite's immediate neighbour is Ramesh Flowers. Ramesh Flowers is an export-oriented unit with a turnover of 270 million. Fortynine per cent of it is owned by Indians and 51 per cent by a German firm. Ramesh Flowers buys fresh flower, dries them, dyes them, and exports them for decorative purposes. At a time, more than 100 girls work in their godown.
On the 5th of July, in the afternoon at about 1330 hours IST, work was going on as usual in Ramesh Flowers.
Managing Director Mahendraraj Singhwi says, "I was in my office when my wife entered and said she couldn't breathe, and girls had started coughing," Singhwi vacated the godown and brought the girls out into the open space. Some girls started vomiting and a few had fainted. The managing director phoned Sterlite but when he couldn't get a proper response, he decided to go there.
Singhwi says he explained the problem. The Sterlite officers contacted their technical people who immediately stopped the "gas leakage." This is Singhwi's claim. Sterlite, however, has a different story.
Anyway, Singhwi came back to his own place and found his workers breathless, vomitting and few unconscious. They were immediately taken to the government hospital in Tuticorin.
Officers in Ramesh Flowers had already telephoned the environmental office, subcollector, collector, and the superintendent of police.
The district environment engineer Selvam did not have his vehicle on the premises when he got the panic call from Ramesh Flowers. Ramesh Flowers sent their car to bring him to Sterlite. He was the first government official to reach Sterlite on that fateful afternoon. He was closely followed by the superintendent of police and his deputy, the collector, and the subcollector.
Meanwhile, hearing that about the 96 girls had been hospitalised, Tuticorin town came alive. A few people started blocking the roads demanding the closure of Sterlite.
Sterlite claims that the gas must have formed because Ramesh Flowers uses dangerous chemicals. Singhwi denies the charge. "We only use lacquer. We do not heat any chemicals. The only boiler we have here produces steam which we use for drying," he said.
Ramesh Flowers allowed me to see their entire place. Sterlite said I could not see their plant for security reasons.
Singhwi says, "We have been dyeing flowers in various places in Tuticorin for 17 years, we moved in here three years back, such an accident has never occurred."
The smoke that is normally emitted from the chimneys in Sterlite hasn't bothered the workers in the neighbourhood. The gas leak on that particular Saturday afternoon occurred from a shed near the plant, say the Ramesh Flower workers. They point to a bend in two gigantic pipes emerging from the plant. The workers allege that everyday at certain times, the smoke starts irritating. Singhwi says he has complained in the past and once in writing too. "This irritation occurs late in the evening for about 1/2 an hour. Something unusual is released out every 24 hours. What, we don't know."
Singhwi concludes, "If the government allows Sterlite to function I'll move my workers to some other place, I'll convert this into a godown, we'll challenge the judgment in court, our German collaborator has been very firm that we cannot risk the lives of our workers".
All the hospitalised patients have been discharged. Most are resting at home. A few have returned to work. All are still taking medicines.
One of the workers, Makalakshmi, describes their harrowing experience. "We were working in the other hall, must have been 1.45 pm. I started coughing continuously. The bright light darkened. A smog descended on us -- our throats and lungs started burning. We ran out into the open yard. The smoke was coming from Sterlite. Not from the chimneys but from that shed. See, you can see where those pipes bend. That shed was hardly visible, there was so much smoke. Some girls started vomitting. I started choking. I drank water -- it helped. The girls were taken into our air-conditioned office. Then we want to the hospital. The gas leak lasted for about half an hour.".
"Many girls were carried into hospital unconscious, their eyes watering. After treatment the vomiting stopped. The unconscious girls woke up, but the headaches lasted for a week," said Mahalakshmi.
Another worker Vijayarani, a young girl says, "We had just had lunch when smoke invaded this place. We were vomitting and barely conscious when we were taken to hospital. We were treated well. The smoke had the smell of rust. My head felt like it was swelling. The pain was unbearable. The headaches still occur. I'll not leave my job come what may, our MD will look after us."
While I was at Ramesh Flowers, news reached us that their godown in Vakaikulam, near the airport, had caught fire.
The security men at Sterlite were indifferent as usual. I was directed to a junior officer Satyavendan. He wanted to know why I had come so late after all the daily papers had published the news. I told him that I liked to meet people after they had decided what they wanted to say.
He sent me to the general manager (commercials) Ranganathan who said it would be better if I meet the vice-president Bandhopadhya. Ninety minutes later, there was no sign of the vice-president. Ranganathan then said he would speak to me though the government had told the company not to talk to the press. Since when has the government applied the Official Secrets Act to the private sector? Boggles the mind.
The godown where the actual accident occurred is empty today. Singhwi says he has shifted his workers to a safer place to protect them from Sterlite. Sterlite claims that the godown was emptied because incriminating chemicals would have been found there.
Ranganathan says, "There were a 1,000 employees in our plant during that time 1.30 pm-2.30 pm. Nothing happened to them. The Ramesh Flowers MD came here at 2.15 pm. And left at 2.45 pm. He said there was a gas leak. We asked our technical people. They found nothing wrong. Our canteen, which is 30 metres from Ramesh Flowers, was full at that time. Nothing happened there. Opposite Ramesh Flowers, our housing complex is coming up. About 250 employees of Nagarjuna housing were working there. They are alright.
"The Ramesh Flowers MD's car came here. The district environmental engineer Silvan got down from that car. Then the collector, subcollector, superintendent and deputy superintendent of police came. Nobody found anything wrong," he says.
"The subcollector came again at 10.30 pm and served a showcause notice. The same subcollector come again at midnight with a closure notice."
Ranganathan adds, "The closure notice was given because the collector had promised the road-roko agitators that he would close the plant. "First they pointed to our chimneys, next they pointed to another point."
Ranganathan went on in his defence: "At that time, wind speed was 45 km and blowing from 217 degree N was the southwest monsoon wind. Our chimney is 200 feet high and 750 metres from Ramesh Flowers. The Tamil Nadu Electricity Board, Ahmedabad Electricity Board, Siemens, Larsen & Toubro workers were on the premises. Contract labourers were around. The sulphur dioxide content in the chimney exhaust was between 283-312 ppm (part per million). The government limit is 586 ppm.
The first government official to reach the premises was the Selvan. Thinking that he could give me an impartial view, I reached his office. He made me wait for 22 minutes before saying, "The government has asked me not to talk to the press, please meet our member-secretary Rangaraj in the pollution Board at Madras."
"But sir! You are the one who went to Sterlite when the incident occurred, not Rangaraj," I point out.
"My hands are tied, I have sent the report to him, he'll talk to you," Selvan says.
I went to the government hospital. The doctors who were on duty that day weren't available for comment. I want to the subcollector's office. He had gone to Vakaikulam to enquire about the fire mishap there.
Sterlite says that Ramesh Flowers uses chlorine as a bleaching agent -- that must have caused the accident. Ramesh Flowers claims that it was sulphur dioxide.
The doctors at the GH can tell us the truth if the government will allow them. I thought Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi had made 'Right to Information' a law. The government appointed an expert committee from Annamalai University to find out the truth.
The expert committee has sent its report to the government. The committee members have refused to talk to the press.
Everybody is waiting for the government to act on the report. Yet, government committee reports always favour the rich. When money ,talks people listen with interest. In case of a Rs 10-billion plant, money doesn't just talk, it hollers.
Sterlite Chairman Anil Agarwal never talks to the press. It was amusing to see him address a press conference, first in Tuticorin and then in Madras that Sterlite is in a soup.
In Ramesh Flowers I was allowed to use my recording tape. The Sterlite general manager, Ranganathan, did not allow me to use the tape.
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar
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