Vizag, Dahej, Baghjan: Death by a thousand cuts

Recent environmental disasters caused by negligence in India have caused irreparable damage to the environment and are eerily similar to what an author described in his 1972 novel

By Ratish Srivastava
Published: Tuesday 04 August 2020

While I was completing my post-graduate degree, I had a course on ‘Environmental Politics’. The class was structured around watching documentaries and reading fictional content to grasp the discourse on environmental policy.

My faculty recommended a book by John Brunner called The Sheep Look up. It was a novel and had less to do with factual information about the environment or the politics surrounding it but more to do with imagining a future that is moving towards a global ecological and political catastrophe.

The basis for the novel was imagining a future where the environment had degraded beyond repair, where humans have to pay to access clean air and water. It opened an avenue of another form of environmental disaster, not characterised by an apocalypse event but a story of death by a thousand cuts.

The Sheep Look Up, seen from the vantage point of 1972, is a warning to a world starting to spin out of control to act to protect its environment and its people. Seen from the vantage point of 2020, even though we have avoided the scenarios detailed by Brunner to an extent, echoes crop up in the news and online.

Since I first read the novel, I have frequently heard or read things that take me straight back to the novel. With the coronavirus affording me more time to follow the news online, I could not help but remember this novel in light of the recent events in India that typify environmental negligence.

The first news during the lockdown period that hit me was the LG Polymers India Pvt Ltd factory leak of styrene in Visakhapatnam. It occurred in the early hours of May 7, some 818 tonnes of styrene was leaked when the temperature of the tank rose higher than 20 degrees Celsius that vaporised into the air and was eventually inhaled by the nearby residents.

This event led to the death of 15 people, 585 residents were taken to the hospital and 17,000 households were evacuated within a five-kilometre radius of the factory. In the days following the leak, it emerged that LG Polymers India Pvt Ltd had been operating since 2017 without the necessary environmental clearance.

The investigation revealed that the factory had no technicians capable of responding to an unforeseen event such as this. Apart from the lack of technical staff, the tanks were 50 years old and not properly maintained and did not have a suppression system in place in case the internal temperature of the tank rose. The NGT ordered LG Polymers India Pvt Ltd to deposit an initial amount of Rs 50 crore to the district magistrate of Visakhapatnam as compensation. 

The second news that I heard was from Dahej in Gujarat at the site of Yashashvi Rasayan Pvt Ltd on June 3. There were more than 200 workers on site when the blast occurred. Eight workers were killed, with more than fifty injured, when a huge fire broke out after a blast in the boiler of the factory.

The NGT slapped a penalty of Rs 25 crore on the company as the NGT applied the principle of strict and absolute liability. The interim compensation for death was set at Rs 15 lakh each for grievous injury, Rs 5 lakh million per person for other injuries, Rs 2.5 lakh for hospitalisation of each person and Rs 25,000 for displacement of each person.

The third and the final news that this article will cover is the gas leak and eventual fire in the Baghjan oil field of Upper Assam’s Tinsukia district, operated by Oil India Ltd (OIL) on May 27. The fire broke out two weeks after a gas well in the area started leaking gas and condensate uncontrollably, with two firefighters losing their life.

The blowout occurred due to inadequate safety norms and an inability to take action earlier to contain the blowout. This event also displaced over 3,000 local people, as this leak went viral but little was known about the causes.

The area is a biodiversity hotspot and can possibly harm some of India’s most endangered migratory birds. The leak occurred not too far from the Dibru-Saikhowa national park, home to nearly 40 different types of mammals, 500 species of birds, 104 species of fish and 680 types of plants. The NGT ordered for a high-level committee to look into the blowout as well as for OIL to deposit Rs 250 million as compensation.

Neha Singh, a conservation biologist, perfectly encapsulates the three events of negligence. She says, “Environmental clearances are often given on the premise that environmental damage will not happen, or if it does happen, it will be mitigated. This spill shows us how there’s little ability to mitigate.”

Perhaps the biggest lesson I drew from Brunner’s novel was that the systems of environmental control lack resilience or the ability to plan responses or predict outcomes, especially in India. NGT is a redeeming feature of the environmental system and without its existence, it would be very difficult to hold authorities or people accountable for environmental disasters.

However, the events mentioned above can cause irreparable damage to the environment and are exactly what Brunner described in his novel, would happen over time, when he says a thousand cuts. These three cases occurred over a period of two months and many other cases of negligence have taken place before them with little media coverage.

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