Vizag Gas Leak Case and the NGT

In these chaotic times when human lives across the country are at stake due to the spread of COVID- 19 and everyone is forced to stay indoors, the gruesome tragedy has come as a bolt from the blue. News of the leakage of a hazardous gas called Styrene from the LG Polymers and Private Limited Industries raises the following questions – How did it happen, could it be prevented by the industry working with half the staff due to the situation with the lockdown. We shall systematically discover all of it in the following article.

Background of the Industry

This industry traces its establishment back to the early 1960s. The incident took place in the LG Polymers India Pvt. Ltd. on the 7th of May, 2020 in Vishakhapatnam situated in RR Venkatapurum around 3:00 AM. It became the reason for the death of 11 citizens and more than 150 citizens were hospitalized who were partly or permanently paralyzed. There has been a finding that suggests that the above-mentioned industry had been in talks with State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) for grant of Environmental Clearance permit without which an industry cannot produce any hazardous chemicals, gas or products. This suggests a grim point that the industry had been running without any permission and on its own accord. 

Role of National Green Tribunal (NGT) in the present Mishap

The National Human Rights Commission along with the National Green Tribunal on the 8th of May, headed by Justice Adrash Goel, immediately took suo moto cognizance of the matter and urgently asked the industry to pay 50 crore rupees as compensation to the district management in order to pay the victim. NGT took into considerations sections 14 and 15 of the NGT Act, 2010[1]. Not only this, it has also served notices to the State Pollution Control Board, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), Union Ministry of Environment Forests, and Climate Change (MoEFCC).

The NGT has constituted a five-member Committee to inspect the site and to submit a report within ten days. The five-member Committee, comprising of Justice B Seshasayana Reddy and CSIR – Indian Institute of Chemical Technology and Head, NEERI, Vizag has been instructed to visit and inspect the site at the earliest and give its report before the next date. Further, it took the doctrine of Strict Liability rather than Absolute Liability as pointed out by Justice P.N Bhagwati who suggested that the latter shall prevail in every situation wherein accidents or mishaps are concerned with gas leakage. This step of NGT is highly debatable and shall be taken ahead on the next date of hearing.

However, the NGT observed in the order that the situation attracted the principle of “strict liability”, “leakage of hazardous gas at such a scale adversely affecting public health and environment, clearly attracts the principle of ‘Strict Liability’ against the enterprise engaged in hazardous or inherently dangerous industry “. However, this principle contemplates the accountability of a person, industry carrying out hazardous activity in cases where some sort of “negligence” is attributable to them. But this decision was overturned in the landmark case of MC Mehta v. Union of India AIR 1987 SCR (1) 819, wherein the court evolved the principle of “Absolute Liability”, to remedy “the undeserved suffering of thousands of innocent citizens”.

What Violations Really Occurred

During the wee hours on Thursday, a major leak of Styrene gas occurred from the polymer plant near Vishakhapatnam, impacting villages in a five-km radius. According to the guidelines laid down by Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules, 1989[2] for running an industry, it has been specifically given that an industry processing petro-chemical has to go through two levels of clearance to function which at the first level involves clearance from Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEF) and at the second level involves consent from the State Pollution Control Board which in turn has to be renewed in every five years. In this case, now it has been established that styrene gas is a ‘hazardous chemical’ under Rule (2) Entry 583 of Schedule I of the said act.

In the present case, LG Polymers happens to be a very old industry which had been time again by the SPCB for securing clearance from Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) since the year 2017. Further, the main work which is carried on is mainly production of Styrene from alcohol so it was natural for the industry to apply for the same.

In a nutshell, we could easily say that if the workplace was adequately approved by the ministries above them it could have stopped the mishap to occur and consequently it could have lessened the amount of compensation which they owed to them.

Furthermore, what happened in Vizag is more or less in consonance to the disaster of Bhopal Gas leakage of Methyl Isocyanide that took place in the year 1984. It is considered as one of the most dangerous and drastic accidents of all time. Here, it is an attempt that is made to see the pattern in which it could be similar to that of Bhopal Gas Leakage in the following terms.

  1. Storage – the storage of hazardous gases is often marked by limitations, which means that there is a permissible amount that needs to be stored. We saw here the amount of Styrene was in tonnes and it could have been avoided which was similar to that of methyl Isocyanide being stored in containers whose amount was more than one tonne, and roughly amounted to forty-two tonnes.
  2. Lack of Information – Lack of information or knowledge of how to act in such a tense scenario or how to handle machinery or how to use them is by far the most common aspect which helps to draw a similar analogy for both the cases. In Vizag, only two people had the knowledge related to emergency situations as to how to act accordingly, whereas in Bhopal it was just a person who had the knowledge to operate the machines and control situations accordingly. Thus, it is proved beyond doubts that it is time that these industries which engage with such products should be vigilant enough to educate the staff working in it. 

Adding to it was one more factor of cutting costs which was highly promoted by these kinds of industries which should be taken down. Not only this there is no procedure which is followed up by the industries to even conduct audit or inspection.

  • Lack of Communication – A point where a similar analogy could be drawn would be that the people who cohabit in that area are unaware of the kind of industry that surrounds them. It should be an initiative of such industries to communicate to them about the nature of work that is carried on so that they could calculate the risk and beware of the danger which might come in their way.
  • Formulations of Legislation – Soon after the Bhopal gas leak, Bhopal Gas Act, 1984[3] was brought in by the legislation to file for claim applications and suits. With this, we need a proper legislation to improvise, plan, and bring out to us a law that could be used for such emergencies. Just like the Congress in the United States Of America made a law, Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA) [4]in 1986 after the incident which took place in 1984.

Concept of Parent Company

An important lesson India learnt from the Bhopal Gas Tragedy was that multinational corporations (MNCs) must be held liable. In 1984 and shortly after that, it was very difficult to fix liability on officials of the Union Carbide Company even though there was clear neglect on their part. In the Vizag leak the Indian company LG Polymers India Pvt. Ltd is owned by the South Korean battery maker LG Chem. The government of India should undertake every effort to prosecute the people responsible for the tragedy. This is why cost-cutting is not considered as a good option since it only takes into account the promotion of industrial activities but at the cost of human lives.

Conclusion

Industries should be held liable for all acts happening because of their negligence leading to loss of life and should start taking responsibility for all loss of human life. In order to achieve this goal, there needs to be active participation of the industry to interact and communicate with the people around, only then will they be able to understand the type of work they are to carry on. Moreover, training mechanism should be inculcated in the industries in order to gather an equal amount of men to resist any escape of chemicals after the incident and lastly, there should be an encouragement to adopt the principle of mob safety drills in such industries as reason being, it is carried out in a populous area and it has to take this very fact into account for enhancement of safety measures only then will be able to achieve discipline in curbing such incidents.


[1] National Green Tribunal Act, 2010

[2] Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules,1989

[3] Bhopal Gas Leak Act, 1984

[4] Emergency Planning and Community and Right to Know Act, 1986.  

Tuba Aftab from IIMT and School of Law Affiliated to Indraprastha University, Delhi

“I take keen interest in International and Environment Law and am an avid reader.”

Editor: Sanskriti Sood

One thought on “Vizag Gas Leak Case and the NGT

  1. Very informative in terms of Facts of all the Acts. Didnt know about many of these but thanks to Ms. Tuba Aftab for this brief Explanation on this topic. Strict and powerful Amendments should be made in the law so innocence would not be neglected again..
    This Article was surely useful and meaningful 👍

    Liked by 1 person

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