The complete story of
Vizag gas leak
What happened, why it happened and who is liable
The Visakhapatnam gas leak highlights the need for industries to be extra cautious while starting production after the lockdown

Soundaram Ramanathan, Digvijay Singh and Nivit Kumar Yadav

Women outside a mortuary to receive the body of a relative who died after the gas leak at the LG Polymers plant in Visakhapatnam on May 8; Photo: Reuters


3 accidents in 24 hours

THE GAS leak incident at Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, in the early morning of May 7 was not the only industrial accident in the country that day. In the evening, two boilers exploded at NLC India Limited’s thermal power station at Neyveli, Tamil Nadu, injuring eight people.

The previous day, on May 6, another gas leak accident had taken place at a paper mill in Raigarh, Chhattisgarh, after which seven workers had to be hospitalised. What’s common to the three accidents is that they happened while the factories were being prepped for opening after the covid-19 lockdown. Poor operational and maintenance practices during the lockdown and shortage of skilled staff appear to be the common thread in all the incidents.

In its scope and damage, the styrene gas leak at Visakhapatnam was the worst of the three. It left 11 dead while hundreds had to be hospitalised due to difficulty in breathing, headache, fatigue and fainting. On May 8, the National Green Tribunal took suo moto cognisance and ordered the owners, LG Polymers India Pvt Ltd, to deposit Rs. 50 crore with the district magistrate as an interim penalty for the damage caused to life and habitat. As per an assessment by Delhi non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the accident can be attributed to the company’s negligence and failure to adhere to the safety protocol. See also: DTE coverage on Bhopal Gas Disaster

LG Polymers plant, Visakhapatnam; Photo: Reuters


Styrene Pollutant Dispersion Analysis

Note: The study has made the following assumptions – Inversion – 100m, Class F Stability, Temperature in tank 18 degree Celsius and weather parameters
Source: Awakash Kumar, 2020

Source: Awakash Kumar, 2020

The Vizag accident

The plant was using styrene monomer (C8H8) to produce expandable plastics. Styrene monomer must be stored at temperatures strictly below 17°C.

There was a temporary partial shutdown of the plant owing to the covid-19 pandemic, excluding maintenance activities, which were being carried out in the plant as per a predetermined schedule. Since styrene was not being stored at the appropriate temperature, there was a pressure build up in the storage chamber which caused the valve to break, says an official with the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (APPCB), requesting anonymity. The result was leakage of 3 tonnes of the toxic gas (see ‘What is styrene and how toxic it is’).

On the day of the leak, the levels of styrene in the air in the area were 500 times higher than prescribed limit. Media reports said they were more than 2,500 parts per billion (ppb), while World Health Organization norms require them to be under 5 ppb. The Visakhapatnam facility is spread over 240 hectares (ha), including the nearby residential areas. There is also a revenue village nearby, which resulted in a higher rate of exposure.

The levels of styrene (C8H8), a volatile organic compound, were 2,500 times higher than the limits prescribed by regulators on the day of the Visakhapatnam gas leak and the day following it, an analysis by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has found. Styrene levels in the region were more than 2.5 parts per million (ppm) on the evening of May 7, 2020, according to media reports. It should be less than 5 parts per billion (ppb) according to rules.

“Styrene in air yesterday when the leak was occurring could have been over 20 ppm up to 2 km of the plant, assuming an hour’s leak. These significantly high levels of pollutant dispersion could have led people to fall unconscious,” said Awkash Kumar from the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, and an air pollution dispersion modeller. In his study, Kumar assumed the storage tank’s capacity to be three kilo tonnes. The leakage happened from a 10 cm diameter opening for one hour, in his view.

The real-time ambient air monitoring stations network of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) monitor three volatile organic compounds (VOCs) - Xylene (C8H10), Benzene (C6H6), Toluene (C7H8) - in Visakhapatnam district, 14 km downstream of the spot where the gas-leak incident occurred.

These pollutants are monitored on a continuous basis by the board every 30 minutes. CSE analysis of this data shows xylene levels up to 18 ppb, toluene levels up to 35 ppb and benzene levels up to 12 ppb.

These are significantly higher than the levels recorded in Amaravati, the capital city of Andhra Pradesh, located about 400 km south of Visakhapatnam during the same time period. Historic data suggests such high levels of VOCs as a usual phenomenon in the ambient air at Vishakhapatnam. The standard for hydrocarbons in the ambient air is 5 ppb (annual average) according to the CPCB ambient air quality standards.

See also: DTE coverage on Bhopal Gas Disaster

Residents speak with a local politician outside the LG Polymers plant following the gas leak in Visakhapatnam ; Photo: Reuters

How the company bypassed safety rules

Industries that process petrochemical-based products, such as styrene, require two levels of clearances—an Environmental Clearance (EC) from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) and a Consent to Operate (CTO) from the State Pollution Control Board (SPCB), which needs to be renewed every five years. CTO documents give production limits on products that can be manufactured, limits on treated effluents and ambient air surrounding the factory compound. LG Polymers India has not adhered to rules at both these levels.

As the company has been operating since the 1960s, much before the legislation of the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification of 2006, it was not required to obtain EC unless it expanded its production, changed raw material or modernised its units. However, the company has been increasing production and changing raw materials since 2004 and has not obtained EC.

In 2004, the expandable polystyrene capacity of the plant was 45 tpd which increased to 65 tpd in 2009, 71.5 tpd in 2012 and 100 tpd in 2014. Similarly, its polystyrene production capacity has increased from 235 tpd in 2014 to 315 tpd in 2017.

In 2017, APPCB warned the company about the need for an EC, saying it would otherwise not grant CTO. After this, the company filed a petition with MoEF&CC seeking an EC. It also gave a proposal to APCCB saying it is importing plastic granules to prepare extended plastic, which may not require an EC. It succeeded in obtaining consent from APPCB, brushing impact assessments studies. In 2018, it withdrew its petition for EC from MoEF&CC saying there were typo errors.

“The plant by failing to seek Environmental Clearance has violated informing the competent authorities over two things: One is changing product mix and related impacts, and, two, are the expansion and importing. Expansion means more storage, importing means risk associated with transportation, handling in port related to loading and unloading and the same in factory premises. It is an absolutely new dimension,” says DD Basu, advisor, CSE. “In fact, fresh application is required. Renewal CTO is not the only issue. Since it has changed product mix and production process risk associated with accidental release is more dominant,” he adds.

It is also pertinent to note that APPCB has been granting CTO to the company, despite the latter mentioning that it is changing its raw material and expanding capacity of final products without any EC.

In 2018, the company also submitted a Rs. 168 crore-proposal to MoEF&CC to expand its production capacity by 250 tonnes per day (tpd)—from the current 415 tpd—but withdrew it later.

LG Polymers India has flouted general CTO requirements as well. One condition stipulated in CTO is maintaining a suitable system of leak detection and provisions to immediately repair any instances.

Under Point 11 of the general conditions of CTO, the industry is required to maintain Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) analysers with recording facility and maintain records, while Point 19 mandates installation of a system of leak detection and repair of pump. LG Polymers did not adhere to both these rules. The VOC detection system at the plant was defunct, says an APPCB official, and there is no monitoring mechanism to specifically detect styrene. Even the container that was being used to store styrene gas was old and not properly maintained, the official says.



STYRENE IS an organic compound used in the manufacture of polymers/plastic/resins. It is manufactured in petrochemical refineries and is a likely carcinogen. It can enter the body through respiration, but also through the skin and eyes. According to India’s Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules 1989, styrene is classified as a “hazardous and toxic chemical”. Short-term exposure to styrene in humans results in irritation in the mucous membrane and eye, and gastrointestinal problems. Long-term exposure impacts the central nervous system, leading to headaches, fatigue, weakness, depression, dysfunction, hearing loss, and peripheral neuropathy. If the concentration of styrene goes beyond 800 ppm, then the person exposed to it can go into a coma. Experts say that immediately after the leak, the levels could have crossed 1,000 ppm in the nearby areas, which is why people started fainting.

The duration of the exposure and its relative concentration will determine toxicity – we currently know that roughly 3 tonnes of the gas leaked from its storage tank and the feeding line. We now need to determine exposure. “Styrene can stay in the air for weeks. It is highly reactive, it can combine with oxygen to form styrene dioxide which is more lethal. The presence of other pollutants can also affect the reactivity. On a sudden note operating one reactor in full load can also lead to such disasters,” says Thava Palanisami, senior research scientist, University of Newcastle, Australia.

The most important immediate treatment is to give oxygen to the affected people. The people in the zone also need to be evacuated as long-term exposure can be detrimental to their health. Also, as styrene reacts to form styrene dioxide, the air could remain contaminated for some time. However, the winds blowing from the sea could also help to disperse the gas.


People sleep on a pavement after being evacuated from their homes following the gas leak at the LG Polymers plant; Photo: Reuters


Victims being rushed to hospital following the gas leak; Photo: Twitter

Post-lockdown hurry and the deadly fallout

After the Bhopal gas disaster of 1984, India enacted a plethora of laws to prevent such accidents and to issue clear guidelines on storage of hazardous chemicals in plants. The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, is the omnibus Act that gives sweeping powers to the Central government to take all measures to protect the environment.

There are clear rules on hazardous chemical storage under the Act. These include Hazardous Waste (management, handling and trans-boundary movement) Rules, 1989; Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989; and Chemical Accidents (Emergency, Planning, Preparedness and Response) Rules, 1996. That such an accident could happen despite these laws shows negligence on the part of all parties.

The unit in question is also an ISO certified facility, which means it has a protocol for everything. What seems to be the case is that the management, in its haste to restart the plant, ignored the protocol pertaining to maintenance of the plant before resuming operations.

See also: DTE coverage on Bhopal Gas Disaster

The National Green Tribunal; Photo: YouTube

What NGT’S action means

In its order, NGT has issued notices to APPCB, district magistrate of Vishakhapatnam, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), MoEF&CC and LG Polymers India Pvt Limited for their response on the accident. The court has also appointed a five-member committee comprising B Seshasayana Reddy, former judge of the Andhra Pradesh High Court; V Rama Chandra Murthy, former vice chancellor of Andhra University; Pulipati King, head of chemical engineering department at the Andhra University, member secretary of CPCB, and director of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research-Indian Institute of Chemical Technology.

The committee has to report its initial findings on what went wrong, extent of damage and remedial measures initiated within 10 days. It remains to be seen whether NGT’s order on the Visakhapatnam gas leak will set a precedent to discourage industrial disaster. But the order should not have been silent on the two other accidents. The order also is unclear on whether district magistrate can use the Rs. 50 crore to initiate relief measures.

Though the cognisance of the Visakhapatanam accident is a welcome move, the court could have widened its scope and directed the government to circulate an immediate directive to industries asking them to ensure safety while resuming operations. In case the lockdown continues, these safety precautions must not be forgotten. These accidents have shown that as the lockdown ends and industries start resuming activities, there’s a need to be extra cautious.

See also: DTE coverage on Bhopal Gas Disaster


Women outside a mortuary to receive the body of a relative who died after the gas leak at the LG Polymers plant in Visakhapatnam on May 8; Photo: Reuters

Thirty five winters since the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal caused India's biggest industrial disaster, water and soil around the factory are still loaded with hazardous chemicals; Photo: Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)

  States with high fatality (2014-2016)


  States with high injuries (2014-2016)


  A list of other accidents between 2002 and 2006 is given in table

Source: Down To Earth

Surge in industrial accidents in India

With high industrial growth, India is also witnessing increasing number of industrial accidents and related fatalities. In just two years - 2014-2016 – factory accidents have killed 3,562 workers and injured over 51,000, according to the Labour and Employment Ministry. It means an average of three deaths and 47 injuries every day (see Table 1: States with high fatality due to factory accidents; Table 2 for injuries).

Gujarat, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu together account for 41 per cent of total deaths in the country due to factory accidents. In case of non-fatal injuries, West Bengal has the country’s highest share at 64.89 per cent of total such cases. Maharashtra and Gujarat, along with West Bengal, account for four-fifths of the country’s total non-fatal injuries in factory accidents.

According to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), in the recent past, over 130 significant chemical accidents have been reported in the country, which have resulted in 259 deaths and caused major injuries to more than 560 people. There are over 1,861 Major Accident Hazard (MAH) units spread across 301 districts and 25 states and three Union Territories in all zones of the country. Further, there are thousands of factories, both in organised and unorganised sectors, dealing with hazardous materials. Some of the widely reported accidents in the past five years are:

❶ 2014, GAIL Pipeline Blast: On 27 June 2014, a massive fire broke out following a blast in the underground gas pipeline maintained by the Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) at Nagaram, East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh.

❷ 2014, Bhilai Steel Plant Gas Leak: This accident in June at Bhilai Steel Plant in Chhattisgarh’s Durg district killed six people and injured over 40. This was due to a leakage in a methane gas pipeline at a water pump house.

❸ 2017, Delhi Gas leak: A chemical leak in the Delhi’s container depot near two schools resulted in hospitalization of 470 school children.

❹ 2018, Bhilai Steel Plant Blast: A blast in the state-owned plant killed nine people and injured 14.

❺ 2019, Chemisynth Chemical Factory Explosion: On August 28, an explosion in a chemical factory in Maharashtra’s Dhule killed 13 and injured 72. The blast was caused by a leak in a chemical-filled barrel in the plant, which triggered explosions in several other barrels and nitrogen cylinders. Local residents had complained to district authorities about foul fumes coming from the plant two weeks before the incident, but they were ignored.

❻ 2019, Fire at the ONGC plant: Massive fire at a plant off the coast of Mumbai killed four and injured at least three people.

See also: DTE coverage on Bhopal Gas Disaster

India has 128 contaminated hazardous sites and another 196 “probable” contaminated sites. It has over 1,400 hazardous chemical units.

CONTAMINATED SITES are created when industrial hazardous wastes disposed by occupiers in unscientific manner or in violation of the rules prescribed. They may include production areas, landfills, dumps, waste storage and treatment sites, mine tailings sites, spill sites, chemical waste handler and storage sites located in various land uses

The toxic waste left behind by the Union Carbide its now defunct factory is under intense public scrutiny; Photo: Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)

Laws and legalities on industrial accidents

The recent surge in industrial accident has resulted in loss of lives, life-long injuries, destruction of property, and adverse impact on the environment. It is about time that stricter norms and provisions are put in place to ensure these incidents do not occur.

India has a plethora of laws and regulations to ensure industrial safety. Penalties for violation of rules and liabilities for accidents are also codified. Below are the key legal provisions that deal with industrial safety and violation of regulations:

1.Under the Indian Penal Code (IPC)

IPC is India’s comprehensive criminal code. This covers all aspects of criminal law and is used for deciding punishment for offences committed within India.

The provisions in IPC that pertain to industrial accidents are:

Section 278 (making atmosphere noxious to health)

Section 284 (negligent conduct with respect to poisonous substance)

Section 285 (negligent conduct with respect to fire or combustible matter)

Section304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder)

Section304A (deals with death due to negligence and imposes a maximum punishment of two years and a fine)

Section 337 (causing hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others)

Section 338 (causing grievous hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others)

2. Under various environmental Laws

After the Bhopal gas tragedy, Indian parliament enacted many laws to protect and safeguard the environment. Many of their provisions deal with anthropogenic activities including industrial activities. These include:

a. Environment (Protection) Act, 1986: Omnibus act that gives sweeping powers to the Union government to take all measures to protect the environment.

b. Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986: Set discharge and product standards – source standards for restricting pollution; product standards for manufactured goods and ambient air and water standards – for regulating quality of life and environmental protection.

c. Hazardous Waste (management, handling and trans-boundary movement) Rules, 1989: Its objective is to control generation, collection, treatment, import, storage and handling of hazardous waste. It stipulates identifying major accident hazards, taking preventive measures and submitting a report to the designated authorities by the industry.

d. Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989: It defines the terms used in this context, and sets up an Authority to inspect, once a year, the industrial activity connected with hazardous chemicals and isolated storage facilities. This Rules details out how the importer must furnish complete product safety information to the competent authority and must transport and store the imported chemicals in accordance with the amended rules.

e. The Chemical Accidents (Emergency Planning, Preparedness, and Response) Rules, 1996: This rule provided a statutory backup for setting up of a Crisis Group in districts and states, which have Major Accident Hazard (MAH) installations for providing information to the public. The Rules stipulates the formation of the Central Crisis Group (CCG) and Standing State Crisis Groups (SSCG) for the overall management of chemical accidents. These rules enable preparation of on and off- site emergency plans, updating and conducting of mock-drills. These groups are also required to set-up a quick response mechanism termed as the Crisis Alert System.

3. Under judicial scrutiny

National Green Tribunal (NGT) Act, 2010: This Act enables the establishment of special law courts or tribunal with an objective to take up matters and litigations related to the environmental issues. This special court is also formed to carry out expeditious hearings and disposal of cases. It draws mandates from Article 21 of India's constitution that ensures “protection of life and personal liberty and assures the citizens of India the right to a healthy environment”.

Most industrial accidents have been dragged to courts to ensure right legal actions and deliverance of justice. Presently, most such cases are filed in NGT if they are within the purview of one or more of the following regulations: The Water (Prevention and Control) of Pollution Act, 1974; The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980; The Air (Prevention and Control) of Pollution Act, 1981; The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986; The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991; and The Biological Diversity Act, 2002.

For example, in the gas leak accident at the LG Polyester India Pvt. Ltd., NGT applied Sections 14, and Section 15 of the NGT Act to instruct the company in question to pay a sum of Rs. 50 crore, which was determined as per the capacity of the company to pay and the extent of damage caused. Further, since it was a leak of a classified hazardous chemical (styrene gas) NGT has used the Rule 13 of the MSIHC Rule 1989, which requires the occupier to have an on-site emergency plan, to hold the occupier labile. So clearly, in cases where the prosecution happens, different provisions under different acts, rules and notifications are being used to ensure that all perpetrators are held liable for the accidents and also provide the necessary compensations for the damages.

Prior to enactment of the NGT Act, such cases were heard in the National Environment Appellate Authority and the courts.

Before this, the regular courts used to hear such cases. In this period, courts used to charge the perpetrators using various provisions of IPC. This restricted the power of the courts and the penalties were more on the basis of overarching causes, rather than specifics.

India established the first National Environmental Appellate Authority in 1997, immediately after the enactment of the National Environment Appellate Authority Act, 1997. It had a limited objective of addressing cases where the civil society challenged the environmental clearances granted by the then Ministry of Environment and Forest (now Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change) for various violations. Interestingly, India had enacted a separate Environment Tribunal Act in 1995. It is considered as the predecessor of the NGT and was never pursued or relied upon vigorously. Both these acts were repealed when the NGT Act, 2010 was notified.

4. Under laws dealing with factories and accidents

The Factories Act, 1948: First Act that expressed concern for the working environment of the workers.

Factories Amendment Act, 1987: This amendment to The Factories Act, 1948 sharpened its environmental focus and expanded its application to hazardous processes. It brought in provisions to regulate setting up of hazardous units; safety of workers and nearby residents and mandated for on-site emergency plans and disaster control measures.

Model rules under Factories Act, 1948, amended in 1987: It details out the provisions for overall safety, both onsite and offsite, which also includes Emergency Plan and Disaster Control and Management Plan. Further, under Chapter 9, it details out the special provisions for “dangerous” manufacturing processes or operations, notification of accidents and dangerous occurrences.

Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991: The Act provides for public liability insurance for the purpose of providing immediate relief to the persons affected by accident while handling any hazardous substance. It imposes a no-fault liability on the owner of hazardous substance and requires the owner to compensate victims of accident irrespective of any neglect or default. For this, the owner is required to take out an insurance policy covering potential liability from any accident.

Although the Centre has enacted the Factories Act, 1948, the provisions of which takes care of issues related to the occupational safety, health and welfare of the workers employed in industries registered under the Factories Act, 1948. The state government is responsible for the enforcement of the Factories Act, 1948 and the State Factories Rules. However, the ccupiers of these registered factories, in many cases, do not comply with the provisions of the Act and the Rules framed there under. Due to this, currently there are over 46,000 prosecutions within these three years across all states as a result of various factory accidents, of which 29,911 have been convicted.

5. Under relevant legal principles

India adheres to certain principles of “legal liabilities” applicable to industrial disasters. These are relevant to both civil law and criminal law and can arise from various areas of law, including torts or fines given by government agencies. Two of the main components of liabilities are the “absolute liability” and the “strict liability”.

a. Principle of absolute liability

If an industry or enterprise is engaged in some inherently dangerous activity from which it is deriving commercial gain and that activity is capable of causing catastrophic damage then the industry officials are absolutely liable to pay compensation to the aggrieved parties. The industry cannot plead that all safety measures were taken care of by them and that there was negligence on their part. They will not be allowed any exceptions nor can they take up any defense like that of ‘Act of God’ or ‘Act of Stranger’. In other words, under it, a party/company in a hazardous industry cannot claim any exemption. Thus, it is mandatory to pay compensation, whether or not the disaster was caused by its negligence.

If an industry or enterprise is involved in any inherently dangerous activity, then for any damage arising out of the conduction of that activity, the defendants (the owners of the industry) will have no access to any defense or exception and will be absolutely liable to pay compensation to the aggrieved parties. The enterprise will be held responsible for all possible damages or consequences resulting from the activity. This will make such industries provide safety equipment to its workers to prevent any mishap. Therefore, this will safeguard the interests of the workers and will give them a refined, safe working atmosphere.

The element of escape may be ignored here as this restricts the application of this Doctrine of Absolute Liability as often incidents may arise where escape of the dangerous thing like poisonous fumes may not take place outside the industry premises but may damage the workers inside. In this case, the workers’ right to compensation will not be ignored. Therefore, the extent of this principle is to be applied in a wider context ruling out the element of escape.

b. Principle of strict liability

As per this principle, a party/company/industry/occupant is not liable and need not pay compensation if a hazardous substance escapes its premises by accident or by an “act of God” (Force Majeure) among other circumstances. The earlier definition of the “absolute liability” can become “strict liability” since it remains half-done, when the following terms are not emphasised upon:

i. Dangerous thing: According to the above-mentioned rule, the liability of escape of a thing from a person’s land will arise only when the thing or substance collected is a dangerous thing i.e. a thing that is likely to cause mischief or damage to other people in person or their property on its escape. In various torts cases filed worldwide, the ones involving the doctrine of strict liability have held large bodies of water, gas, electricity, vibrations, yew trees, sewage, flag-pole, explosives, noxious fumes, rusty wires, etc. as dangerous things.

ii. Escape: The thing that has caused damage or mischief must “escape” from the area under the occupation and control of the defendant.

iii. Non-natural use of land: Water collected on land for domestic purposes does not amount to non-natural use of land but storing it in huge quantities like that in a reservoir amounts to non-natural use of the land. This distinction between natural and non-natural use of land can be made possible by its adjustment to existing social conditions. Growing of trees is held as natural use of land but if the defendant is found to grow trees of poisonous nature on his land, then it is non-natural use of the land. If the land has been used naturally yet a conflict has risen between the defendant and the plaintiff, owing to natural use of land, the court will not hold the defendant liable.

iv. Mischief: To make the defendant liable under the doctrine of strict liability, the plaintiff needs to prove that the defendant made non-natural use of his land and escape of the dangerous thing caused mischief/damage to him. The resultant damage needs to be shown by the plaintiff after successfully proving that the defendant did unnatural use of the land.

In some cases of strict liability, compensations have been decided on the basis of nature and quantum of damages caused. However, in cases of absolute liability, compensation or damage to be paid are generally exemplary in nature and the amount decided upon is usually more than the damage caused as industrial hazardous accidents generally cause mass death and destruction of property and environment.

The Supreme Court of India made the term “strict liability” redundant in 1987. The NGT Act, 2010 incorporates the “absolute liability” principle through its Section 17. This provision mandates that the Tribunal should apply the absolute liability principle even if the disaster caused is an accident.

See also: DTE coverage on Bhopal Gas Disaster


The foetus of a 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy victim remains preserved at the Medico-Legal Institute of the Bhopal; Photo: Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)

Other Acts and rules applicable in case of industrial accidents

Besides the Acts and Rules mentioned above, some of the other rules that are applicable are

✿ The Inflammable Substances Act, 1952
✿ The Petroleum Act, 1934 & its rules
✿ The Insecticide Act, 1968 (amended 2000) & its rules
✿ The Explosives Act, 1884 (amended till 1983) & its rules

After 36 years Bhopal gas affected still waiting for justice; Photo: Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)


Shama Bi: A lone survivor fighting after effects; She was barely six months old in December 1984, Photo: Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)

Why we need more empowerment of regulatory and legal systems

It is clear that despite our experiences of rising industrial accident, and also several judicial interventions, we are yet to deploy them for effective environmental and safety regimes. Here is a list of immediate reforms that we need to take up to not just avert accidents but also to punish the perpetrators in exemplary manner:


The current set of legislations, though comprehensive and covers all aspects, is more inclined towards the civil suits than criminal ones. Even though there are provisions for criminal litigation that are applicable for industrial accidents, they aren’t used very often. Most cases in NGT end up with compensations—the initial one, which is mostly towards the beginning of a case being based on a rough estimates in order to provide some immediate relief, whereas the later one being more after considering all the facts and estimating all the damages.

This prevents the justice system to function at a capacity that is lesser than it is intended for. Therefore, there is an urgent need for mandating criminal law along with the civil law for cases related to industrial accidents.

Fixing accountability for an accident or negligent actions is another aspect of the legal system that we often ignore. A suit is usually against a company involved in an accident. But, in such situation, we let free the company employed individuals – responsible for the negligent behavior. In some cases, the industry does suspend or terminate their employment but that’s the maximum that it goes to. Therefore, it is important that the person whose negligent behavior resulted in the damages due to the industrial accident must also be prosecuted under criminal law.

To set this degree of accountability and culpability, we must empower NGT further. NGT is a “quasi-judicial” body and has limited power. It has authority similar to law-enforcement agencies, but it is not like a normal court. The courts have the power to adjudicate all types of disputes, but NGT has the power of enforcing laws on administrative agencies. Since NGT was created to ease the burden on the normal courts, NGT’s judgements may be appealed to a court of law. And, in cases of crime and other offences, NGT can only issue recommendations for punishment, depending on the nature and gravity of the offence. However, such punishment can be challenged in a court of law, which is the final authority. In this context also, the NGT’s role appears to be limited. Therefore, in order to strengthen the deterrence system, it is important to vest more power in NGT.


We do not have a strong regulatory body to ensure proper enforcement of laws and regulations related industrial accidents. Some of the major improvements that are urgently needed in order to ensure a stronger deterrence for negligence are:

✿ Ensuring more autonomy to the state pollution control boards (SPCB) to work without any sort of influence and micromanagement.

✿ Increasing the manpower and funding to SPCBs, which would allow them to carry out comprehensive and regular inspection of all the industries as per the stated guidelines, especially the ones that are categorised as high risk ones.

✿ Improving monitoring both inside and outside the industry and designing a proper protocol for reporting. Relevance must also be given to monitoring and prompt reporting of sudden events that can lead to industrial accidents.

✿ Making stricter guidelines on the current self-monitoring and self-reporting framework by the industries and maintaining a better oversight for ensuring stricter scrutiny of the non-compliance.

✿ Mandating higher number of regular audit for the industries, especially the ones that are categorised as high risk ones.

✿ Redesigning the existing inspection protocol to improving the quality of the inspection, with ample scope to allow for coordinate with other relevant government agencies for better rand more holistic regulatory oversight.


The industries have a major role to play - similar to the legal and the regulatory systems - in the entire process that ensures safety. Industries have to overhaul its working system urgently, especially that is tasked with safety practices. And the senior management that is spearheading the operations of the industry/plant must act as the internal body that provides the necessary deterrence to any industrial accidents in the future.

There is a need to ensure the safety at two ends—on-site and off-site. The on-site one involves all the safety of the in-house personnel and workers, and the off-site deals with ensuring the safety and well being of the habitants in the surrounding areas as well as the surrounding environment. In most cases, the off-site safety measures are much weaker compared to the on-site ones, which results in much of death and destruction, as in the case of the LG Polymer India Pvt. Ltd.

In order to avert rising number of industrial accident, a more thorough approach is required in terms of implementing the existing policies and practices properly. There are many guidelines and protocols for industrial safety that have been designed based on the outlines given in various acts and rules. These documents cover all the finer details related to safety, and are aimed at ensuring higher industrial safety standards with every revision of the document. These are mostly same for all the industries, and will only require minor customization while being applied to a particular industry. However, these are either left incomplete or are not implemented properly. Some important aspects that can go a long way in deterring the occurrence of industrial accident are:

Better regulatory oversight - One of the most basic and overlooked aspects in the current time is the proper regulatory oversight. The regulators, like SPCBs, are limited in number. Add to it their inability to mount comprehensive and stringent oversight due to budgetary constraints.

Incorporate a working and tested safety and wellness plan - The foundation for a safe work environment is an effective accident prevention and wellness programme. The programme needs to cover all levels of employee safety and health with the encouragement to report hazardous practices or behavior.

Conduct strict pre-placement physicals - Some accidents are caused by inexperience and the inability to physically perform the prescribed tasks. Screening applicants is a safeguard for placement with the appropriate positions matching their physical capabilities.

Ensuring thorough capacity building of the employees and management staff - Continually cultivate a safety standard among employees and management staff. Train employees about the importance of following safety measures as often as possible. Supplemental training in body mechanics can reduce strain injuries, and keep employees safe during lifting and moving.

Research safety vulnerabilities - Every business is unique and doesn’t necessarily have the same safety concerns. Extra attention therefore, must be given to the common accidents applicable in the case of the industry under consideration and then strategies must be developed to keep these setbacks from happening.

Ensuring worker safety through well provisioned personal and other protection equipment - Personal protection equipment is essential and should be enforced at hiring, meetings, and with spontaneous monitoring. Time must be allocated to teach employees how to properly use goggles, face protection, gloves, hard hats, safety shoes, and earplugs or earmuffs.

Ensuring adequate staffing levels - More often than not, overtime hours are implemented because of low staffing levels. Overworked employees may suffer from exhaustion and cut corners to meet or exceed output that may result in accidents. Therefore, multiple shifts or hiring skilled part-time or seasonal staff could help prevent accidents due to exhaustion.

Ensuring a strict code and oversight on not taking shortcuts - Accidents happen when employees skip steps to complete a job ahead of schedule. Make sure all instructions are clear and organized to prevent undue mishaps in the workplace.

Inspect and maintain all processes - A regular maintenance exercise by the experts and skilled workers must be undertaken for each part of the workplace, with special attention given to places that are high risk like hazardous chemical storage areas, areas where heavy machinery is operated, etc.

Monitor safety measures - After initial training, reinforce safety measures at every opportunity, i.e. staff meetings, supervision, and education. Rewarding employees who abide by setting high standards or staying injury free for a specified amount of time will be a great and positive approach to ensure that safety measures are followed.

Ensuring a workplace that is orderly - Poor housekeeping can cause serious health and safety hazards. The layout of the workplace should have adequate footpath markings, be free of debris, and stations for cleaning up spills.

Employing the use of Failure Mode Effects Analysis (FMEA) - FMEA is a structured approach to discovering potential failures that may exist within the design of a product or process. There are various modes by which a process can fail and are called Failure modes that result in undesirable effects. However, FMEA is designed to identify, prioritize and limit these failure modes. FMEA is not a substitute for good engineering. Rather, it enhances good engineering by applying the knowledge and experience of a Cross Functional Team (CFT) to review the design progress of a product or process by assessing its risk of failure. This must be undertaken on a regular basis to check the robustness of the systems as work within the factory/industry.

Having security measures and fail safes in place - In case of any sudden gas leak or spill, especially of hazardous chemicals (liquid/gas) or hazardous waste, the fail-safes and security measures would provide the immediate counter to those releases or spills, either by containing them through drainage or diversion to another container or area or they will react with them to take away the hazardous nature of the chemical/gas and make it more inert and less harmful to the human and the environment.

Installation of a proper alert system - This is one of the most essential components of the immediate response protocol and can really help prevent higher rates of fatalities and/or damage. These should be installed all around the factory premises, its periphery and in the nearby areas where there are inhabitants and/or other industries/ businesses.

Development of Safety Data Sheets (SDS) - SDSs are documents that enlist vital information on health, transportation, storage, fire, reactivity, environment or accidental release hazards of chemicals and how to handle them safely. These must be made available to employees, workers, firefighters, hospitals, police, local authorities and even the public.

Conducting a thorough HAZOP (HAZard and OPerability) study in regular intervals - The HAZOP study helps in the identification of problems related to hazards and operability in a process plant. It is a tool for the identification of hazards due to process parameter deviations. The concept involves investigating how the plant might deviate from what its design to execute. HAZOP is based on the principle that several experts with different backgrounds can interact and identify more problems when working together than when working separately and combining their results.

Since the onus is on the senior management, it is their foremost responsibility to ensure that all safety measures are implemented in their entirety, and they are operational all the time. They must hold the concerned duty personnel on site responsible for any negligence; this ensures a culture of adherence to safety protocol.

Furthermore, the senior management must also undertake independent review and audit of all the systems of the plant, especially with regards to its existing safety systems, and must strive to design and update its SoPs for safety standards and guidelines and mandate it for everyone to follow. These audit reports can be used for improving in-house but can be communicated to the regulatory agencies for better coordination and improved transparency.

See also: DTE coverage on Bhopal Gas Disaster

The toxic waste left behind by the Union Carbide its now defunct factory is under intense public scrutiny; Photo: Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)

Better to deter

For any regulation, deterrence is the operative word. India’s vast environmental laws can only be effective if we bring in elements of deterrence into our policy, programme and practices. It starts from the decision to grant a clearance to a project to how it unfolded on ground to the project’s day-to-day operation adhering to all safety measures. How can we achieve this? Here is a step-by-step analysis of lacunas in current regulations/approval procedures and what reform is needed to fix them:

Lacunas in the current consent conditions and authorisation:

An industry is first required to get the environmental clearance (EC) under which it may or may not need to procure the Forest Clearance, the Wildlife Clearance and the Coastal Regulation Zones (CRZ) clearance. All these clearances are dependent on the location of the industry.

After securing the EC, the industry applies for the Consent to Establish (CTE) and Consent to Operate (CTO), both of which are given by the SPCB of the state concerned. In case the industry deals with hazardous chemicals and/or hazardous waste, then it needs two separate authorisation - each for the hazardous chemical and the hazardous waste. The state pollution board gives the authorisation for the storage and handling of the hazardous waste. However, the factory inspector is responsible for inspection if the authorisation has been given for on-site storage; and in case of off-site storage of the hazardous chemical, SPCB does the inspection.

a. Lacunas in the current consent conditions: In the chemical and petrochemical industry, often we find improper and inadequate detailing in the consent and authorisation orders. For instance, in most cases such orders miss the entire SoPs of the industrial process. These SoPs help in getting information about the processes, the chemicals being used and level of toxicity, precautions to be taken and steps to be taken in case of emergency spill or release. This is widely reported in industries dealing with hazardous chemicals and waste. Therefore, the detailing out of information and the inclusion of SoP can help in strengthening compliance and reducing the risk of accidents. Take the case of LG Polymer India Pvt. Ltd. Sources say that the SoP for styrene helped in the identifying the manner in which the leak might have happened. It also helped in the fault-finding in the entire detection and alert system of the styrene gas.

b. Improper inspection and inspection report and show cause notice not in public domain: MoEF&CC gives the authorisation for the hazardous chemical storage, but inspection is done by factory inspector if the hazardous chemical is stored within the premises; and by SPCB in case of isolated storage i.e. outside the industry.

However, in both the cases, inspections are not done properly and are more of “having a look” rather than being a proper verification as per inspection checklist. This overtime perpetuates negligence by the safety personnel leading to accidents. The lack of proper inspection also reflects on the capacity of the regulator / inspection officer.

2. Lack of transparency from the regulators: Usually, SPCB officers are competent and technically sound, given their vast field experience due to regular industrial visits for inspection. They are well aware of the industries that they are inspecting and are able to point out if there are some loopholes in the pollution control or safety mechanism of the industry they are inspecting. However, they do not put their inspection reports in the public domain, which might convey some relevant information like issuance of a show-cause notice to industry asking them to improve their system to avoid accidents. Therefore, SPCBs need to bring more transparency in their working and be ready to put necessary documents in the public domain. This holds true for the factory inspector, who, under the Factory Act, also has an important role to play. The report of the factory inspector also needs to be put in the public domain

3. Strengthening the site appraisal committee: In the aftermath of the Bhopal gas tragedy, the amended Factory Act directed the state governments to form a 13-member site appraisal committee consisting members from SPCB and CPCB to verify the compliance of safety norms by the new proposed industries. However, the state governments have formed no such committee and the SPCB officials are not even aware of such provision.

In the wake of Vizag like accidents, it is prudent for the state governments to strictly follow the amendments to the Factory Act and form site appraisal committees at the earliest. These committees, in continuation to monitor the new industries, should also look into the old industries dealing with any form of hazardous substances. A robust plan should be prepared to relocate such industries away from the human settlements in a phased manner.

4. Fast track court for industrial accidents: With the ‘Make in India’ initiative in full acceleration mode, it is important to ensure that there are adequate provisions to take care of the impacts of the intended growth. Post-1984, all stringent laws being adopted still remain to be enforced in letter and spirit. There have been many accidents where the affected persons were not given compensation and no liability was fixed on the erring companies, highlighting the system’s major shortcoming.

Under the ‘Make in India’, the government wants to give fast-track clearances to the industries without looking at their impact on the environment. So just like giving fast-track clearances, the government should also look into setting up fast-track courts to deal with claims arising out of industrial accidents that can also take up old court cases that have been pending for many years.

5. Creation of buffer zone: While granting permission to an industry for manufacturing of hazardous or other chemicals, the government should ensure an adequate buffer zone is earmarked around such industries wherein no activity including residential, commercial or even small scale shops should be allowed. These buffer zones will prevent the human population from injuries or loss of life, in case of any accident. This provision should be strictly implemented and enforced to avoid any fatalities.

6. Sensitising local stakeholder: Having a robust disaster management plan (DMP) is a pre-requisite for every industry. However, the availability of DMP does not suffice the purpose. What is needed most is to communicate the same with the local stakeholders. In case of the Bhopal gas tragedy, we experienced how such miscommunication can lead to higher human casualties. The plant did have the DMP but it never informed the residents around the plant on the measures to be taken in case of any accident. However, looking at the current accident at Vizag, it seems that no lesson has been learnt from the past accidents.In order to prevent such accidents in future, it is essential to create awareness among the stakeholders including the nearby hospitals, fire stations, local people etc. regarding the disasters which have a high likelihood to occur and the dos and don'ts in case of any accidents.

7. Implementation of the on-site and off-site emergency plan: The Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules 1989 mandates the units identified as MAH (major accident hazard) to prepare an on-site emergency plan and the chief inspector of factories to prepare off-site emergency plans in consultation with the district authorities. The Chemical Accidents (Emergency Planning, Preparedness and Response) Rules, 1996, in order to deal with chemical industrial accidents, has additionally mandated the formation of crisis groups at the local, district and central levels. These groups are required to conduct mock drills at different levels to assess the awareness and preparedness against any accident.

In 2007, however, a report of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) reported that very few such drills were being conducted at district level and the people were not aware of any actions need to be taken in case of emergency. This revelation is alarming and requires the attention of both industries and district authorities.

However, the recent industrial accidents have highlighted the gaps in the system and the necessity for strict enforcement of the rules. Having the off-site plans and sharing and practicing it with the people through mock drills can prove beneficial in saving human lives in case of any emergency.

8. Power and jurisdiction of the state pollution control boards: The regulators are only able to give show cause notices and report matters to the court. However, they have no administrative power, which would allow them to levy fines on the industry for non-compliance of regulations. This aspect really limits the working of SPCBs and also impacts the overall inspection process. It can be rectified when SPCBs will have both criminal and civil powers to prosecute industries.

9. Grant of authorisation without proper assessment: SPCBs grant authorisation to industries based on information provided by the industries only through their application for authorisation. However, this is against the stated protocol as per the rules, which stipulate the granting of authorisation only after a thorough assessment of the industry’s production process and check the raw material needs and the products and byproducts expected using a detailed mass balance analysis. Therefore, the processes of granting authorization must be undertaken more diligently.

To sum it up, it is clear that effective deterrence is needed to avert industrial accidents. To begin with, a deterrence that can be used is by closing or shutting down the non-compliant industry in case of an accident until the court has given its judgment. This can be exercised until the authorities concerned come up with other similar deterrence mechanisms for such industries.

See also: DTE coverage on Bhopal Gas Disaster


Illustration: Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)

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✿   Gas leak in Vizag, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)
✿   Vizag gas leak: Styrene levels 2,500 times more on May 8: CSE Analysis, Down To Earth, May 2020
✿   Will the NGT penalty on LG Polymers act as a deterrent?, Down To Earth, May 2020
✿   Vizag gas leak: puts spotlight on lack of safety precautions, Down To Earth, May 2020