Andher Nagri Chaupat Raja – A PUCL Report on the Fire that Destroyed Sumit Chemicals, a Chemical Factory in Kanpur
May 22, 2012
The following article reports on an incident in which a fire completely destroyed a chemical factory in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. The investigation reveals a tale of criminal neglect of factory laws, collusion between local officials and industrialists, and incredibly callous attitude towards the factory workers. Two and half months after the accident, the factory management is yet to release the full list of workers inside the factory at the time of the accident. This report forms a part of the flow of reports emanating from the ground (for example from Gurgaon), describing the brutal conditions under which the working class is forced to work by middle capital in India today. – Ed.
In the early hours of 17th January 2012 a major fire broke out in Sumit Chemicals Private Ltd, a chemical factory situated in the Panki Industrial area of Kanpur. Over 19 fire tenders were pressed in service to douse the flames, and yet it took around two days to completely extinguish the fire. The five-storey high factory premises were completely gutted by the massive fire destroying everything – plant, machinery and people. It may be possible to get a near accurate account of material losses in the incident, but even over two and a half months later there is no reliable estimate available regarding the loss of lives on that fateful night. The following is an account of the incident which we could piece together from various sources followed by the official responses of the various authorities entrusted to investigate into the incident and take adequate actions against responsible individuals.
The manufacturing unit of Sumit Chemicals Private Ltd. (SCPL) is situated in the Uptron Industrial Estate in Panki Kanpur. The Panki industrial zone houses hundreds of manufacturing units and employs over a lakh workers. The typical premise of the industrial estate includes a high boundary wall, with a formidable front entrance and back to back and wall to wall construction with almost no space between two units. The unit premises have only a numerical address and no other identifying feature – there are no name plates, company symbol, emblem, etc. The SCPL factory was 5 storied and had only one entrance to the front. The stairs leading to the upper floors are barely a couple of feet wide and are not amenable for quick access in case of emergencies. The Delhi Howrah train track runs at the back of the factory barely a few feet away. The plant had permission to employ 50 workers but the estimates of the actual number of workers employed range from 60-70 to 250. At the time of the fire the plant was working on its night shift and according to eye-witness accounts there were around 30-35 cycles parked in the cycle stand.
The fire might have started around 4.30 – 5.00 am because passengers in the Delhi bound Rajdhani which would have crossed the spot around 5.30, reported to have seen the flames, which had leaped up to the tracks. It is still not clear what caused the fire – or where did it originate. One could not ascertain whether the fire spread from the front to the back or the reverse direction. All the surviving victims of the incident claimed that the first they became aware of the fire was when they heard a very loud explosion at around 5 am. Of the five-storey building what remains is the gate in the front, everything else has been razed to the ground – from the remains it is very difficult to ascertain that the building had 5 floors. There is a tanker parked in front of the entrance which has been charred beyond recognition, metal has melted, the tyres have been burnt to the rims, a couple of cycles parked across the street have also been completely burnt. One cannot go a few feet beyond the entrance – the entire machinery weighing several tonnes has come down to the ground mangled beyond recognition. The pillars supporting the building have bent to impossible angles causing the remaining structures to recline unnaturally, and it seems it may come crashing down any moment. Till at least three weeks after the incident there seems to have been no effort made to even attempt to clear the debris. From the entrance itself one could see at least half a dozen LPG cylinders (hopefully empty) charred to the metal. The view from the back of the building is even more revealing. Nothing remains of the structure except some wire meshes, the whole edifice has collapsed and only the single wall around the front entrance remains standing. The soot and the heap of charred rubble are the only indication that there was a structure at the place. The Times of India correspondent reporting on the day after the fire had the following to say:
A major fire broke out at a chemical factory, situated in Panki area, on Tuesday morning. It was only in the evening hours that over 19 fire-tenders finally managed to douse the flames. By then, the flames had gutted the four-storeyed building of the factory, with loss worth over Rs 20 crore reported to the factory-owner.
Shiv Dash Prasad, fire station officer, Meerpur Cantt Fire Station, said, “We had to use foam and water to douse the inferno. It was around 8.00pm that the fire could be extinguished, but as a precaution to avoid any further mishap, four fire-tenders have been positioned outside the factory.” It would take nearly a week for the debris to be removed from the chemical factory site, he added. The gravity of the fire mishap could be gauged from the fact that the chemical stored in the tanks in the factory spilt over on the road and damaged a major portion of it. The chemical spill was a threat to safety of locals and also made the task of firefighters tougher. The situation was so critical that the movement of the trains on the Delhi-Howrah rail line passing from the area had to be suspended for some time. Sensing the gravity of the incident, fire-tenders from Meerpur, La Touche Road, and Fazalganj fire stations were sent to the spot. Initially, the firefighters were unable to enter the building due to intensity of the flames. A dark cloud of smoke could be seen emanating from the premises. The fire-tenders had to take turns in filling their empty tanks for dousing the flames, but they could not save the factory building from collapsing.
Though at the end of the report it added that there were no casualties in the fire because the owners said so and the ADM City ‘confirmed it’.
From the size of the plot and the remains of the SCPL factory it seems to have been very similar to the Parle G factory building in the adjacent plot. The Parley G factory seems to employ at least 300 to 500 persons. According to the Report by Labour Enforcement Officers they could identify only four persons who were working at the factory at the time of the accident, and, survived the fire. They were
· Ms Rani (18 years) – sustained 66 % burns and had been employed in SCPL for over 1.5 years. She hailed from Allahabad and used to work in the packaging department. Ms Rani subsequently succumbed to her injuries.
· Ms Khushboo (20 years), – sustained 31 % burns (Ms Rani’s sister), had been employed in SCPL for 2.5 years also in the packaging department.
· Sri Manoj Kumar Yadav (30 years) was employed in SCPL for 12 years, worked as a machine man, has sustained 25% burns – his hands and legs have got badly burnt.
· Sri Harswaroop Srivastava (41 years) was employed as a machine man in SCPL for 12 years. He has sustained serious burn injuries in his face, chest, hands and legs.
All of them had been admitted in the hospital at the time of the enquiry conducted by the Labour Enforcement Officers. From the testimony of Ms Khooshboo it seems that there were at least 25-30 persons working in the factory at the time of the accident. Interestingly one week later when the PUCL went to meet Ms Khooshboo and Ms Rani (she was alive then), they refused to say anything regarding the incident. In spite of probes they could neither tell the exact time of the fire nor the source for it or the exact number of people in the factory at the time.
Two persons’ bodies were recovered from the site and their kins had been paid Rs 2 lakh each as compensation. But one can reasonably guess that since the regular night shift was at work at the time there would have been many more people inside the factory.
We tried to get information from the tea shack exactly opposite to the SCPL factory site and other workers working in nearby units including the residential plot adjacent to the factory. But everyone claimed that they had no knowledge of the details of people employed in the night shift. There seems to be an atmosphere of extreme fear among the workers. The area seems to be completely under the hold of the owners’ and they have powerful political backing. Therefore in spite of such a serious accident occurring just before the state elections, the tragedy could not garner the deserved attention from either the local or national media or the political parties. The estimates of the number of people working in the premises that night range from 18 (submitted by the owners) to anywhere up to 60 or 70. Besides the people at work, apparently some workers and their families were housed on top of the building. The estimates to the exact number of families vary from 3 to 12, but it has been confirmed by several people in and around the factory site that there were families residing in the premises. No one could provide us any reliable lead to their whereabouts at present.
Sumit Chemicals Private Limited is the flagship company of the MLA Group of Companies based in Kanpur. MLA Group was set up by Mr Murari Lal Agarwal in 1975, and at present it has four manufacturing units producing various chemicals which find a variety of applications in industries such as rubber/other polymers, paints & coatings, insecticides/pesticides, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, feedstuff, etc. According to their website they are the largest manufacturers of Aluminium/ Calcium silicate in India. Their clients include some of the biggest players in the domestic and international markets – Hindustan Lever Limited, Unilever, Pfizer Ltd, Asian Paints, Nicco Cables, Berger Paints, Universal Cables, etc.
MLA Group claims to have one of the most sophisticated R&D setup:
Our R & D Division equipped with the most sophisticated labs and testing equipments, carries out intensive research’
It further claims that the main secret of their success is:
..our uncompromising attitude with respect to quality. We have well-defined and stringent Quality Assurance Systems wherein all employees of MLA Group are responsible for quality, both of the product and the services.
The company claims to have the latest and the most stringent quality control standards in its manufacturing units:
All our manufacturing units are ISO 9001:2000 certified by DNV, Netherlands and TUV-R, Germany.
And yet according to all available accounts Sumit Chemicals Private Ltd flouted even the basic norms of the Factory’s Act 1948. The list includes, illegal construction of the factory flouting laid out norms – wall to wall construction, only one exit in the whole structure, improper ventilation, not a single window, no safety measures of equipment, etc., employing women workers in the night shift, running two shifts instead of three (i.e. making the workers work for 12 hours instead of the stipulated 8).
Duplicity of SCPL
According to SCPL’s own Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) which it provides to its clients there are several safety norms and procedures for handling the chemicals supplied by the company. The two chemicals mentioned as hazardous and need special handling are Zinc Stearate and Calcium Stearate. According to MSDS of SCPL in case of fire the following should be ensured:
· Special Fire Fighting Procedures
Burning will produce toxic fumes. Wear self-contained breathing apparatus and full turnout gear to fight fires.
· Unusual Fire / Explosion Hazards
Concentrated dust may present an explosion hazard.
Further there are elaborate recommendations in the MSDS for employee protection and spill and leak procedures which are to be followed:
· Eye Protection Requirements
Safety glasses or goggles.
· Skin Protection Requirements
PVC gloves with impervious boots, apron or coveralls. Employees should wash their hands and face before eating, drinking or using tobacco products.
· Respirator Requirements
Work ambient concentrations should be monitored and if the recommended exposure limit is exceeded, a NIOSH/MSHA approved dust respirator must be worn.
· Ventilation Requirements
Use local ventilation if dusting is a problem, to maintain air levels below the recommended exposure limit.
· Additional Protective Measures
Emergency showers and eye wash stations should be available. Educate and train employees in the safe use and handling of hazardous chemicals.
· Spill or Leak Procedures
Utilize recommended protective clothing and equipment. Clean spills in a manner that does not disperse dust into the air. Spill area can be washed with water. Collect wash water for approved disposal. Keep from entering water or ground water.
All this elaborate procedures are recommended for the client setups which need to handle only a relatively lesser quantity of the hazardous chemicals. Ironically the plant manufacturing the chemical at large scale (the largest producers in the country according to their own websites) did not have any of the safety requirements in place.
Response to the Accident
The response of the owners and industrials has been to either highlight their own losses or evade any responsibility towards the injured and dead workers. Till the date of writing these lines in end of March, almost ten weeks since the tragedy struck the workers of the plant, the owners have yet to share any sort of information on the events of the 16th-17th Jan night or to provide details regarding the workers who were working at that time, or the working conditions in the plant. Instead of acting with any sense of responsibility, the owners and the industrialists have tried their best to brow beat the government into submission to their interests. Several industrialists and trade association representatives of the city met the highest district authorities, the DM, IGP and commissioner, two days after the incident on 19th January and expressed their displeasure at the FIR filed by the Panki police station one day before where serious charges under Section 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) and Section 326 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt) of the IPC were slapped against the owners. The industrialists insisted that it was a routine accident and in fact the head of the local industrial association went on to compare this incident with the deaths caused by falling into open drains in the city. Moreover, between 20th and 23rd the industrialists went to meet the district authorities thrice in progressively larger groups, the last time being in a group of forty along with several candidates of the ongoing assembly elections cutting across party lines, including Irfan Solanki (now the sitting Samajwadi Party MLA from Kanpur), Satish Nigam (now a sitting Samajwadi Party MLA from Kanpur) and Salil Bishnoi (another sitting MLA now but belonging to BJP). Incidentally none of the contesting candidates bothered to take any such petition on behalf of the worker victims and their families.
Response of the Authorities
The response of the district administrative as well as labour authorities has been far from generating any confidence and they have provided little relief to the victims of the 17th January tragedy in the plant. Beyond the FIR being registered by the concerned police station authorities immediately after the accident, the authorities seem to be either in a denial or at best a damage control mode. In spite of the seriousness of the accident, they seem to be either ignoring the accident, passing the buck, or blithely stating that they were ‘taking care’. A good indicator of the state of affairs is a meeting with the district magistrate (DM) of Kanpur, Mr. Hari Om, immediately after the accident. When a delegation of trade union representatives went to meet him, the DM, who has been since transferred, simply attempted to dismiss the whole accident and wash his hands off by stating that, as far as he was concerned, only two persons had died and the families of the two dead victims had done an out of court settlement with the owners not counting the fact that the Employees Compensation Act 1923 specifically makes any such settlement illegal. When the delegation contended that there might have been more victims he put the onus of finding such victims on the citizens themselves and refused to take it up any further. Thus in the past ten weeks since the accident and the FIR, there is no visible sign of any attempt to book the guilty, efforts to understand the causes of the tragedy or most importantly to consider steps for prevention of recurrence of such accidents in the large industrial metropolis of Kanpur, where prima facie many other plants operate in similar conditions. Some of the concerned citizens, members of PUCL and trade unionists persuaded various authorities through meetings, memoranda and RTIs but even then the primary motive of the authorities appears to be to drag their feet rather than think of any proactive measures in the face of the tragic incident.
The primary reason of such a response by the authorities appears to be the fact that there is a nexus between industrialists and the officials at various levels. So far the authorities have accepted a large number of acts of omissions and commissions on the part of the owners (and to which the authorities had turned a blind eye and now have been forced to accept in the aftermath of the accident). Some of the more glaring of such facts are:
· The plant had permission to employ not more than 50 persons under the Factories Act 1948, while the FIR claims that 60-70 persons were employed (most likely much more than that was the actual employment).
· Employees were working 12 hour shifts regularly
· Women workers were employed in the night shift at the time of the accident in contravention of the article 66 (b) of the Factories Act 1948.
· In a four-five storey plant, there was only one exit and there were no empty spaces around the plant as well as no ventilation in violation of the Factories Act 1948.
· In a meeting in the UP Labour Commissioner’s office, the Asst. Director (Factories) accepted that that though there were inspections of the safety standards in SCPL, but the management did not obtain NOC from the department for the last four years.
· The plant was dealing with a large number of hazardous chemicals without any adequate safety measures. In a reply to an RTI dated 6th March, the Asst. Director (Factories) accepted that there has been systemic and persistent negligence of safety issues, like missing safety committee, non furnishing of the data on the hazardous chemicals, lack of competent supervision for the safety issues, that had been in the knowledge of the authorities for the last three years and for which no preventive or punitive measures were taken by them.
· Also the Asst. Director (Factories) accepted that till date the owners have refused to provide them a list of workers in the plant at the time of the accident.
· During the process of writing this report, PUCL got hold of copies of five cases that have been filed by the Asst. Director Factories in the court of the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate under various clauses of the Factories Act, 1948. The cases reiterate various violations that have been already stated in this report and the filing of these cases almost five weeks after the accident appears to be an exercise in self defence by the concerned authorities to cover their negligence, at least on paper, rather than a serious move to prosecute the guilty.
In view of the series of accidents which are taking place with increasing regularity in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere in the country, there is an urgent need for the Central Government to make a direct intervention. The Factories Act, 1948, provides for such a direct intervention:
Art 41-D (1) states, ‘the central government may in the event of the occurrence of an extraordinary situation involving a factory engaged in hazardous process, appoint an inquiry committee to inquire into the standards of health and safety observed in the factory with a view to finding out the causes of any failure or neglect in the adoption of any measures or standards prescribed for the health and safety of the workers employed in the factory…….’.
Thus we demand:
- An Immediate enquiry under Section 90 of the Factories Act 1948 whereby the state has the power to direct enquiry into cases of such grave accidents.
- Implement the provisions of the Employees Compensation Act 1923 for all the affected workers and their families.
- Punish the guilty, both the state officials and the owners and managers of the plant, under the relevant labour laws and initiate the criminal proceedings under the relevant IPC clauses.
 The incident has been pieced together based on the report filed on 18th January, 2012 by Labour Enforcement officers entrusted to probe into the accident, investigations by PUCL team at the site of the accident carried out on 25th January, 2012 and 5th February, 2012, and the FIR filed by the Police Sub-Inspector Sri Ratanlal Tomar on 18th January, 2012.
 Based on the declarations signed by three survivors of the incident as part of the report filed by the Labour Enforcement Officers
 Survived by three sisters and mother; both Rani and Khooshboo used to draw a daily wage of Rs 115/- for their 12 hour duty.
 He used to draw a salary of Rs 4800/- per month.
 He used to draw Rs 4800/- per month, and the dependents in his family include his wife and four minor children.
 Case No. 4694/12 Dt. 24.03.2012 filed by the Asst Director Factories in the Court of CMM Kanpur
 Details in the section on Response of Authorities
 Both punishable up to life imprisonment.
 The Labour Commissioner after initially denying the responsibilities of his office regarding the irregularities in employment and work conditions in the SCPL factory (and other such units in the area), in the course of discussion admitted that the facts presented by the PUCL team has been an ‘eye opener’ for him.
 Stated by the Asst. Director (Factories) in the office of the Labour Commissioner (UP) on 24th Feb. to the PUCL team. Violation of the provision for safe means of exit in case of fire (clause 38 (1(a)) of the Factories Act 1948.
 Violation of the provision for ccompulsory disclosure of information on the hazardous processes (clause 41B of the Factories Act 1948).
 Violation of the provisions for proper procedures to handle hazardous substance, qualified personnel to handle such hazards, and routine drill for contingencies like fire (clause 41C of the Factories Act 1948).
 Case nos. 4693-97/12 dated 24/02/2012: state govt. versus KM Agarwal, filed in the court of CMM Kanpur.