Highways of death

High risk levels and pathetically inadequate disaster management plans tar Indian roads as danger zones

By Anupam Goswami
Published: Saturday 15 April 1995

Highways of death

-- (Credit: PTI)INDIAN roads, arguably some of the most treacherous in the world, have always been short cuts to disaster. But 3 major accidents involving the bulk transport of hazardous chemicals in early March are evidence of just how lethal the country's macadam is.

On March 7, on the Delhi-Hardwar highway, a truck carrying 2,000 litres of concentrated sulphuric acid and 32 illegal passengers, keeled over after a tyre burst, killing 22 and blinding 6.

Two days later, outside Kochi (Cochin), a tanker carrying 12 tonnes of liquid petroleum gas (LPG) from the Cochin Refineries Limited (CRL), overturned and sprung a leak. Fortunately, CRL's crisis management team was promptly informed, and cleaned up the mess in 8 hours.

The worst accident was on March 12 near village Sendhamangalam in Tamil Nadu: a tanker carrying 10 tonnes of benzene-based paint thinner raced past a tractor-trailer carrying 60 members of a wedding party and slammed into an oncoming bus carrying 48 passengers. The crash set the thinner on fire, which enveloped all 3 vehicles and torched 93 people.

These mishaps proved conclusively that the transit handling of hazardous chemicals, in India a routine and grossly unpoliced affair, leaves much to be desired, both in terms of the reaction time to the disasters and in the quality of disaster management. At Muzaffarnagar, wellmeaning bystanders doused the victims with milk and water from nearby dhabas. Unfortunately, sulphuric acid reacts badly with milk and water. The medical personnel who came in later were hardly better informed. They threw pailfuls on the victims, bravely disregarding minor burns to themselves. Meanwhile, there was a tragic delay in shifting the victims to hospital.

At Sendhamangalam, the initial fireball lasted three-and-half minutes. Lakshmi Ammal, who was working in the nearby paddy fields, testifies that "the flames went higher than the coconut trees". The fireball has been computer recreated by Delhi-based environmental risk analyst Sagar Dhara with the ALOHA software used by the US Environment Protection Agency (US-EPA). He posits that the fireball would have had a radius of 60 metres, with a fringe temperature of 1,200 degrees C. The intensity of the fire burnt the bodies beyond recognition.

The relief agencies were inadequately geared. Benzene is a known carcinogen and no effort was made to determine the quantity that was left unburnt. Chengalput district officials say they had collected samples of the chemical which "have been sent to the state forensic laboratories in Madras for analysis". This sampling, as well as the 4-hour-long rescue operation, may well have exposed relief workers and voluntary helpers from the local populace to the deadly chemical. According to USEPA, an exposure to 7,500 ppm of benzene for 25-30 minutes is lethal. USEPA safety manuals insist upon protective suiting with self-contained breathing apparatus while handling accidents involving benzene, which the relief workers did without.

Rules in the Indian Central Motor Vehicles Act, 1989, aimed at preventing information gaps in disaster management, were, and are, flouted with impunity. The Act lists 179 hazardous substances (including benzene and sulphuric acid). Transporting these substances must be accompanied by safety equipment for "preventing fire, explosion or escape of hazardous goods".

In addition, the details of the cargo and its hazards, emergency procedures in case of accidents, first aid and protection requirements must be carried in the form attached to the Transport Emergency Information (TREM) cards in the vehicle. It must be also conspicuously displayed in a comprehensively prescribed format on individual packages, if any, within the container, as well as on the body of the container vehicle. Finally, any person in the vehicle -- driver or passenger -- must be made explicitly aware of the nature of the cargo.

C S Khairwal, joint secretary (roads) in the Union ministry of surface transport, agrees that the law is observed more in its violation, and blames lax monitoring by state and local regulatory agencies for the laxity. Neither in Muzaffarnagar nor in Sendhamangalam was safety equipment available, or information which would have given relief agencies a clue to what they were up against. Some victims of the Muzaffarnagar accident had actually been sitting atop the acid containers in the speeding truck.

Union transport officials point out that transporters brazenly flout the laws for training and licensing of drivers. According to Rule 30 of the Motor Vehicles Act, the drivers of vehicles transporting hazardous goods have to carry a special license, valid only for 12 months. Any renewal has to be accompanied by a mandatory 3-day refresher course at training facilities run by state transport departments. The officials, however, accept that the lack of adequate training facilities in the states may also be an important reason for the tardy implementation of the laws.

"Barring Delhi and Maharashtra, training facilities run by the states are in a shambles," says J R Kapoor, the Union ministry official monitoring road safety regulations countrywide. Local transport authorities readily accept certificates of training granted by dubious private "driving institutes" all over the country. Kapoor estimates that 70 per cent of drivers of heavy transport vehicles in India work on the strength of these dud certificates.

Wheels within wheels
The problem is compounded by increasing traffic density on the country's often unkempt national highways. In 1988, the Planning Commission stated in a report by the Steering Committee on Transport Policy that the national highway network was "totally inadequate to meet present and projected traffic requirement". It reported that the while national highways occupied only 6 per cent of the total road area in the country, they carried 30-35 per cent of the nation's traffic.

As shown by the 3 accidents, the problem intensifies closer to large urban settlements where traffic volumes shoot up rapidly. At present, 37 per cent of the overall national highway roadlength are still 1-lane affairs close to city approaches. In technical terms, these are adequate for traffic volumes of 10 000-15,000 passenger car units per day. The truth is that far larger volumes of traffic jampack long stretches.

The Planning Commission has also estimated that hazardous chemicals and drugs being transported by road will increase from 4.5 million tonnes in 1982-83 to 11.47 million tonnes by AD 2001. This excludes data for petrol and other petroleum goods, whose transport is projected to rise from 20 million tonnes to 49 million tonnes over the same period.

One of the few bright spots is a recent attempt by several public sector petroleum, fertiliser and chemicals firms to evolve better route planning and crisis response capabilities. Since 1989, under overall coordination by Indian Oil Ltd, these firms have established special groups to plan routes that bypass large habitats. Alternatively, they identify timetables which facilitate the transit through such places during day hours, when the efficiency of the drivers would theoretically be at peak levels.

Khairwal, however, is more enthusiastic about the acquisition and upgradation of accident handling capabilities such as those demonstrated by the CRL safety staff. Dhara draws attention to other ways by which this nascent capacity could be augmented. He gives the instance of a voluntary scheme called Chemical Emergency Scheme for Assistance in Freight Emergencies (CHEMSAFE), which networks chemical manufacturers to respond to emergencies involving any of its members. A similar countrywide mutual-aid network could successfully attract small- and medium-sized chemical firms. He also calls for the creation of a computerised data bank for emergency procedures in case of accidents involving hazardous substances. "This can be hooked right up to the district level through the NICNET," says Dhara. With road transport burgeoning far faster than any other medium, India could well have disasters too frequent to handle.

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