The night the air turned poisonous

...the much-flouted crisis management system failed to activate itself, leaving the residents of Kardampuri colony in Delhi gasping for breath

By Anirudh Bhattacharyya & Rahul Shrivastava
Published: Thursday 15 December 1994

The night the air turned poisonous

Toxic aftermath: children afec THE residents of Kardampuri colony in East Delhi woke up to a noxious nightmare in the wee hours of November 13. Toxic fumes from a heap set afire by a local junk dealer sent them scurrying out of their beds. The panicky exodus of reeling men, women and children put paid to all India's claims of having created a crisis management system.

The narrow lanes foggy with poisonous air, the absolute absence of coordination among agencies mandated to synchronise efforts under such circumstances, as well as the holes in the environment protection laws brought back memories of the Union Carbide leak in Bhopal 10 years ago. The sloppy manner in which the crisis was handled revealed the pitiable state of the affairs in a capital metropolis which is yet to prepare an inventory of industrial units that use hazardous substances.

As people gasping for air were bundled into the nearby Guru Tegh Bahadur Hospital (GTBH) in Shahadara, the doctors started symptomatic treatment. The medical superintendent of GTBH, K K Jain, says, "The patients, complaining of severe breathing distress, irritation and pain in the throat, vomiting and dizziness were treated for ammonia and chlorine poisoning as the exact nature of the toxic gas was not known for the first 3 days." This delay in analysis was fatal to 2 infants. At last report, the junk dealer himself, Muqis Khan, and 70 others were in a critical condition at the Lok Nayak Jaiprakash Narain (LNJPN) Hospital and the GTBH.
Too little, too late Identifying the chemicals released by the fumes should have been accorded top priority, but agencies like the Central Forensic Science Laboratory (CFSL), the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) collected samples almost 12 hours after the toxic release. According to a senior environmental scientist with the CPCB, "The leak started at 3 am, but the orders to collect samples came only after 12 hours. The gas had dissipated by then and random samples were collected from the heap that was lying there." The CPCB and the DPCC submitted their reports only on November 16, 3 days after the incident.

The results were shocking. Says S B Chakroborty, member secretary of the CPCB, "Tests showed that the chemicals were cyanide, cadmium, selenium and arsenic. Traces of lead, aluminium and copper were also found." The CPCB, which had till then chosen to ignore the presence of hazardous chemicals, has suggested to the Union ministry for environment and forests (MEF) to ban recycling activities and burning of hazardous substances in the Capital.

The CFSL created another controversy by reporting that the gases that affected the people contained chlorine and sulphur. Doubting the credibility of the results declared by the CPCB, Ram S Hamsagar, chemical expert and head of the Hazard Management System -- General Programmes in Safety Research Centre, suspects that the burning of metals like cobalt and manganese along with pesticides like organophosphates and carbonates, caused the noxious fumes.

But the most appalling aspect was the total absence of coordination. The Central Crisis Group (CCG), created 2 years ago for just a situation like this, failed to activate itself. And this despite the fact that D K Biswas, the chairperson of the CPCB and Indrani Chandrasekharan and M Sengupta of the MEF, are members of the CCG. The mishap also revealed the failure of the MEF to create state-level "Crisis Groups" to formulate strategies to combat disaster situations.

Says a senior MEF official and member of the group, "The CCG was created as an apex body under the MEF to deliberate on problems arising out of contingency due to chemical accidents, suggest the course of action to minimise effect and coordinate efforts of different agencies. But this was only for major accidents." Incredibly, the mandate for the CCG does not clearly define what exactly is a major accident and it makes the group responsible for accidents in the formal sector only, leaving out the units in the unorganised and informal sectors.

Also, while the MEF has proposed a centre for testing blood, urine, sputum and vomit samples for early analysis of toxic components, such an institution is yet to be created. Says Jain, "We took samples and tests are on to establish the exact nature of the gas. We are not aware of the existence of any special group to look up to for advice. What is the point in having a crisis management strategy if the hospitals do not know how to combat such exigencies." Hamsagar asserts, "Despite the need, there is still no specialisation in this field 10 years after the Bhopal tragedy."

The GTBH fell short of beds required to admit the affected persons, who had to be shifted to the Swami Dayanand and the LNJPN hospitals. The Delhi health minister, Harsh Vardhan, however, sounded self-congratulatory. "The treatment was up to well-defined standards and handled commendably. There was no lapse," he said. Delhi health secretary S Malaichamy's report also stressed that "adequate treatment was provided".

Delayed response
The guidelines under the "Contingency Plan" for Delhi created for such exigencies were never put into practice. Although the first effect of the gas was felt around 3.30 am, the Delhi police responded at 4.18 am (the response time is supposed to be 5 to 10 minutes) and the Delhi Fire Service personnel reached the scene after 4.30 am.

Maxwell Perreira, additional commissioner (New Delhi range), still maintains, "The role of police was prompt and the force helped moving affected persons to the hospitals." But the Chief Fire Officer, S K Dheri, rues, "We only arrived after the drama was over. The fire was already extinguished."

According to the US Department of Transportation's Emergency Response Handbook, in case of such incidents, victims have to be immediately moved to fresh air areas, the area has to be cordoned off and masks provided to those afflicted. In India, there is a Red Book which prescribes similar actions but they are followed more in breach. Also, there is no specialised force like the US Chemtrec for handling such crises. Perreira admits, "We are not geared to handle crises involving chemicals. Our men used handkerchiefs and teargas masks, which proved useless and several policemen had to be rushed to the hospital."

But the problem does not lie with the crisis management groups alone. The environment laws are also replete with loopholes. Chakroborty reveals, "The Environment Protection Act of 1986 lays down no specific laws against burning of hazardous substances. Disposal by burning is permitted only under stipulated controlled conditions. But what can be termed hazardous is not clearly defined."

The ambiguous role played by the CPCB and the DPCC in the mishap was also a result of the legal technicalities that govern their existence. While DPCC officials claim that they have powers conferred on them for regulating air and water pollution, Chakroborty says, "The powers have not been delegated to the DPCC as they have never asked for them." But this does not help matters as the executive authority lies with the DPCC, with the CPCB assigned only an advisory role.

P P Chauhan, chief secretary of Delhi, washed his hands off the affair, saying, "This incident occurred due to an individual's fault, but action can only be initiated against an organisation." Chauhan is absolving himself of the responsibility while, not only the number of industrial units has increased, but also the number of godowns storing hazardous substances in highly populated areas has skyrocketed.

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