Opinion | A gas tragedy no less haunting than Bhopal

The styrene leak from a chemical plant in Visakhapatnam has evoked outrage across India. It raises alarming questions as well. Under pressure, are we failing to stay alert?


In an eerie incident reminiscent of the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984, a chemical gas leak in the port city of Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh has left at least 11 dead and hundreds sick. Dramatic visuals showed scores of people lying unconscious in lanes and ditches after styrene, a toxic gas used mainly to make polystyrene plastics and resins, escaped storage tanks at a facility near Gopalapatnam of LG Polymers India, an arm of South Korea’s LG Chem Ltd. Reports suggest that the leakage may have started at around 2:30am on Thursday. A probe will be needed to establish the sequence of events and lapses in safety protocols, but the accident is said to have occurred around the time some workers carried out a check on an unattended gas tank in order to resume operations after more than a month of lockdown. According to a statement issued by the company, the leakage had been contained, while local officials claimed that the gas had been turned into a harmless liquid and thus neutralized. This is of little comfort to those exposed to the factory’s noxious fumes. Inhalation of styrene can harm the central nervous system, cause breathlessness, and result in gastrointestinal failures. The ill have been taken to King George Hospital, and the death toll is likely to rise. This industrial disaster has evoked outrage, and justifiably so.
How much worse the fallout of the LG Polymers gas leak could get is a broad guess at the moment. This may not be on the scale of what befell residents of Bhopal in early December 1984, when deadly methyl isocyanate gas escaped into the air from a Union Carbide pesticide plant, instantly killing about 3,500 people, and sickening over half a million more, with the after-effects an endless trauma for its victims. Nor is this anything like the nuclear radiation suffered by people in some other countries. But it is no less serious. It is also alarming enough to raise not just a cry for justice, but also a series of questions that need to be answered by all those whose negligence led to this tragic outcome in Visakhapatnam. What did the operating manual for the polymer plant specify as procedures for shutting down and starting production? Were they being followed during the lockdown? If not, why? Did a scramble to re-begin production result in some oversight? Or did curbs on the movement of people get in the way of maintenance? All of this is in the realm of speculation right now. In many such mishaps, it is often a combination of factors that are found to have played adverse roles. It is vital that there is no cover-up in this case. A credible investigation should be done so that lessons are learnt, accountability fixed and safety norms are tightened across the country. This is particularly important for industrial units that use hazardous chemicals.
The leak serves us a reminder of the responsibility borne by all those in positions of authority, be it in private or public roles. These are times that are far from normal. Both literally and figuratively, pressure has steadily been building up on gauges and people at every level. Yet, this is a period that demands heightened alertness. The consequences of slip-ups are heavy even as the means at our disposal are overstretched. As manufacturing activity gets going again, quality control deserves special attention. In every sphere—not just in processes, but in all that we do.



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Thought of the day

"Happiness is not something you postpone for the future; it is something you design for the present."
Jim Rohn