Reeling under the weight of the deadly coronavirus which has brought death and misery upon thousands across the world, and faced with prolonged lockdowns, the port city of Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh has been the scene of a disastrous leak of a toxic chemical. A close parallel of the gas leak in Bhopal from a Union Carbide factory 35 years ago which claimed thousands of lives and was an epitome of multinational callousness, the Vizag tragedy has occurred at a South Korean plant of LG Polymers.
The Vizag leak of the hazardous styrene vapour swept through the area at night rendering many unconscious even as they were fleeing from its initial effects. That the death toll has gone into double figures while many are in critical condition in hospitals is a sign that the death toll would go up. The first lesson from the tragedy is that when exiting a lockdown (there was a 40-day lockdown in place) safety has to be paramount. From first reports it appears that the standard protocols were violated with impunity. Apparently, though a detailed enquiry would follow, the safety mechanism built into the storage structures of something so hazardous was either faulty or allowed to be overridden. It is also surmised that the reopening work at the factory after the lockdown was left to unskilled people which is deeply shocking. The clear signal for the future is that as India aims for a wider manufacturing base, it needs to strengthen its approach to public and occupational safety.
It is now incumbent on the Central and State governments to ensure that proper accountability is fixed and the guilty are brought to book regardless of how high their position and clout. At the same time relief measures have to be swift and expertly handled. It has also to be ensured that effective deterrent is created to deter companies from violating safety protocol and playing with people’s lives.