In this piece, Salonika explains how this culture prioritizes economic gains over human and natural welfare. She describes how series of toxic accidents in India (of which the Vishakhapatnam gas leak is one example) lays testimony to this fact. In such a culture, is it possible to hold the responsible actors accountable for their actions?

Vishakhapatnam Gas Leak: Who do We Hold Accountable?

By Salonika

On 7th of May, 2020, a gas leak on the outskirts of Vishakhapatman (R. R. Venkatapuram village) has killed 12 people, including 2 children, and injured 1000 others. Vishakhapatnam is one of the largest cities of Andhra Pradesh, the eastern state of India.

LG Polymers, along with other similarly damaging industries, were established in the outskirts of Vishakhapatnam in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Within the five decades since then, urbanization has moved the city nearer to the industries.

Many fled their homes in the middle of the night. Some were fortunate enough to reach a place of safety, while others fell unconscious on the streets. At least 3 of the deaths were due to people falling unconscious under unfortunate situations: two people crashed a bike while fleeing the area; one woman fell off her window. Many more were found unconscious on their beds.

The gas, Styrene, caused itchiness in the eyes, drowsiness, light-headedness, and breathlessness. In severe cases, the gas causes irregular heartbeats, coma or death. A district health official stated that the long-term health effects of this accident is yet unknown.

The gas leaked from an LG Polymers plant around 2:30 AM, and spread around a 3 km (2 miles) radius. Workers reportedly failed to alert the local residents after they found out about the leak. The police were informed around 3:30 AM, and went to the scene, but had to retreat for fear of being poisoned.

It took hours before the situation could be stabilised. LG Polymers did not have any mechanisms in place to prepare for emergencies like this. This led the local youth, local police and personnel from National Disaster Response Force to act as first-respondents.

Who caused the leak?

Speculations have arisen suggesting that chemical reactions occurred during the lockdown in the plant due to inactivity, clogging the cooling systems, which caused the tanks to heat up eventually causing a leak. No inhibitors were found on the plant to slow the process in cases of emergency. The leak occurred after the operations on the plant restarted following the lockdown was eased in India.

LG Polymers (a South-Korean company) stated that it would be investigating the cause of the incident. It has also offered apology for those affected and promised support to affected and their families.

Meanwhile, the state Industries Minister, Goutam Reddy, stated that it appeared as if the plant did not follow proper procedures and guidelines during its reopening, and that legal action would be taken against the company. Investigators have also found that safety precautions had not been followed, calling it a “crime of omission“.

An official statement from LG Polymers itself suggests that management were aware of a possible disaster. Industries Minister Reddy has placed the burden of proof on LG Polymers to prove that there was no negligence on its part. A negligence and culpable homicide complaint has been lodged against the management of the plant.

LG Polymers have also admitted that it had expanded operations without due consent from regulatory authorities. On top of that, no preparatory mechanisms (a mandatory rule in India) were in place to handle an emergency state.

Contrary to this, other governmental and investigation authorities have issued statements that might suggest an act of compliance between the company and the authorities. The Director General of Police (Andhra Pradesh) claimed that all the protocols were being followed. Similarly, Chief Minister of the state stated that the company involved was a “reputed” one.

India: A history of toxic ‘accidents’.

When accidents become a regular phenomenon, is it even fair to call those ‘accidents’? Workplace accidents that kill humans and nonhumans, and pollutes natural entities (making the impacts last years, or decades, after the original accident) are not new to the country. Some of the most notable accidents being the Union Carbide gas tragedy (1984), Bombay docks explosion (1944), Chasnala mining disaster (1975), Korba Chimney collapse (2009), NTPC power plant explosion (2017), and Jaipur oil depot fire (2009).

The gas leak in Andhra Pradesh was one of three similar accidents within the same day in India. A paper mill in Shakti Paper Mill, Chhattisgarh (a state bordering Andhra Pradesh) hours before Vishakhapatnam accident, due to which seven workers were hospitalized. Similarly, later the same day, a boiler exploded at Neyveli Lignite Corporation in Tamilnadu (southernmost state of India), killing 1 and injuring 5.

These leaks comes just weeks after the coal plant accident in Singrauli. The coal plant leak itself was third of its kind in the past 12 months in the same area.

The new gas leak has also reminded some of the tragic Bhopal gas leak in 1984. More than 40 tonnes of deadly chemicals used in the manufacture of pesticides were released, resulting in an estimated fatalities between 16,000 and 30,000. After 35 years, the effects of the gas leak is still being felt among new born babies. The maximum charges faced by the perpetrators of the “world’s worst industrial disaster” was a two-years’ sentence in prison, and a fine of ₹5,00,000, sentenced 25 years after the incident.

Where do we place the accountability?

Perhaps the gas leak was a result of the Indian government’s premature decision to reopen the economy despite increasing cases of Covid-19 infections.

Perhaps the regulatory agencies are also at fault for failing to ensure that proper procedures were followed by the management while reopening the plant. In a place where enforcement of regulations have always been lax, the temporary closure of plants during the lockdown only exacerbated the problem.

Or perhaps, the plant’s management are a fault for not following the procedures and protocols, especially given that they were aware of the potential hazards and still failed to act on them.

Where we place the accountability for this gas leak often follows directly from who we believe is responsible for the leak in the first place. Given the frequency of industrial ‘accidents’ in India, would it be fair to place the accountability of this particular leak based on closely weighing which actor is most at fault for this isolated event? Or should this event be viewed as only the latest in a long series of industrial “accidents” occurring in India?

Certainly the government and the management could be held accountable for their negligence.

But where do we place the responsibility of opening a potentially toxic-gas-leaking plant in a residential area in the first place? Toxic chemicals like Styrene have always been a risk to the health and lives of humans and nonhumans. This, however, does not stop new plants (with inherent risks of fatal accidents) from being built in close proximities to natural communities.

The corporations and the elite classes that reap the benefits from these plants, after all, do not have to live anywhere near to these plants. The ones who are the most vulnerable to the risks of such accidents (both human and nonhumans) do not have a say in any operation of the plant. This is a classic example of ‘privatization of profits, externalization of costs and risks‘ notion upon which the current globalized, imperialist, capitalist system is based.

Corporations, by their very definitions, are created to maximize profits for their shareholders, disregarding any concerns for morality or compassion. When a corporation’s actions harm others, but maximizes its own profits, should it be blamed for acting in a way consistent with its design, or should we blame the culture that came up with this design in the first place?

In this case, the corporation failed to abide by the regulations and protocols in its jurisprudence. Even this is not a novel behavior for a corporation. In some cases, corporations have challenged, or even modified, laws of a nation.

As much as the corporation could be said to be acting in a way consistent to the rules of its creation, the same could not be said for the government. Ideally, a government should give precedence to the greater good of the (human) society over the selfishness of an individual (or in this case, a legal entity). The government failed to do so in two ways: by allowing the plant to open in the first place, and by reopening the plant without consideration of the risks involved. In both instances, economic gains were prioritized over the wellbeing of the human and natural communities.

Eventually, the burden of responsibility has fallen on the ones most vulnerable to these risks. Initially, the local people have organized protests to permanently shut the plant, after which LG Polymers began transporting 13,000 tonnes of Styrene gas back to its parent company in South Korea. Statements from authorities indicate a “revamping” of the plant. Closure of the plant seems to not have been discussed.

More recently, the demands have been modified to take a more moderate stance: including free ration for the villagers for 2 months, and that the workers previously employed on a contract basis be provided with a permanent job.

Salonika is an organizer at DGR South Asia and is based in Nepal. She believes that the needs of the natural world should trump the needs of the industrial civilization.

Featured image: Vishakhapatnam skyline by Av9, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.