A fact finding team of social activists, trade union representatives, environmental activists and academia, constituted to investigate the gruesome deaths of 10 migrant workers after drowning in chemically poisonous sewage water accident in Ranipet, has put the responsibility of the accident on the greediness of the tannery owners and the corrupt nexus between the bureaucracy and the owners. On Jan 31, 2015, the leather sewage treatment tank in SIDCO industrial complex of Ranipet exploded and the untreated poisonous effluent fell on ten workers sleeping in the nearby camp and drowned the workers. Nine of the workers were from West Mehdinipur district of West Bengal and the watchman was from Tamil Nadu. In the investigation, the team has concluded two main violations that caused the accident – storage of liquid effluent in a tank meant for solid waste and construction of sleeping camps of the workers near the sewage tank.
According to the report released by the team, the effluent from leather processing is a sticky poisonous liquid containing chromic acid. The law mandates that this effluent is treated and converted to solid waste and stored in a tank and discharged to landfills. Ranipet with its thousands of leather processing plants, has 8 common treatment plants jointly managed by the industry and 226 individual plants. The sewage treatment plant where the accident occurred was one such common plant, SIDCO Finished Leather Effluent Treatment Company Limited, managed by 89 leather processing units surrounding the plant. The company charges a fee for processing the effluent from these units. The technological input and conceptualization is provided by Chennai Environmental Management Company of Tannes – CEMCOT, a 200 crore rupees venture managed by primarily the owners of industries and funded partly(35%) by private companies and by the state(15% through direct subsidy and 50% funding through the effluent treatment scheme). The sewage treatment plant in question was allocated a budget of Rs 38 crore and was contracted to another private company, Hyrdoair Tectonics PCD Ltd.
The use of public private partnership for treatment of effluents, technological inputs and contractual labour and the management of these treatment plants by leather processing units has setup conditions where profit is put in front of people and environment and corruption. Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board which is supposed to monitor these have colluded with these private companies and allowed violations of these units. TNPCB has agreed that the construction of the second sewage storage tank was illegal and there were no permissions sought. In addition, these tanks were constructed for storing solid waste and not liquid waste. The fact finding team has estimated that the storage of the liquid may have gone beyond the permissible limit of 800 tons.
The team has also condemned the response of the government after the accident. While the Tamil Nadu and West Bengal State Governments have announced compensation for the survivors of the victims, these are yet to reach the surviving widow of the Tamil Nadu Worker Sampath, with whom they fact finding team met. The District Collector’s response that the State is trying to identify the rest of the survivors before disbursement of the compensation falls flat on the face of the survivor’s needs. While the state has suspended the work in the 89 units, no attention has been paid to the 15000 workers who were working in these units. The exposed effluents were also being transported in unsafe manner to Gummidipoondi treatment unit.
The fact finding team has questioned the indifferent attitude of the state officials towards the plight of the migrant workers who are working in such units. According to the Labour Department Officials, some of the workers who died were registered in January and others, only the day before the accident happened, but the local activists say that these workers have been working for a while in the units. There has been no move to register these workers under Interstate Migrant Workers Act and no inspection by the Labour Department to investigate if there are unregistered workers employed in these units or if they are provided adequate housing and basic amenities. The team has also questioned the idea of survey of migrant workers as muted by the state in the aftermath of the Mouliwakkam construction site incident and this incident, instead of registering them as the law mandates. The state had announced implementation of primary health centers and creche where more than 1000 workers are employed, which is still to be implemented.
The conditions of migrant workers who are employed in various industries in Tamil Nadu have already been highlighted by various agencies. In spite of enactment of Inter-state Migrant Workers Act, there has been no registration of migrant workers by Labour Department, instead, the Police Department has been handed this registration. These workers work in exploitative bonded labour situation with no assurances of minimum wage, decent working conditions and decent living conditions. There has been no protection of labour laws in case of accidents or deaths. In spite of high profile incidents such as Mouliwakkam and Ranipet, the exploitation of migrant workers continued unabated.
In this context, the fact finding team has recommended the following demands for the state.
1. A judiciary probe must be initiated to investigate the violations of laws for profit, prevention of such incidents and protection of migrant workers’ rights.
2. The culpability of TNPCB officials in the operation of the second tank needs to be treated as a criminal act and all officials including TNPCB president should be prosecuted.
3. A CBCID investigation should be conducted against all the private companies and individuals who were complicit in this accident.
4. An investigation should be launched against the lacuna in investigations which allowed the workers to be housed near the sewage plant and the respective labour department offcials should be prosecuted.
5. The state should take immediate steps to provide compensation for the survivors of Sampath and provide a government employment to the widow. The state should also take care of the education of the three children.
6. The effluent treatment plant administration has promised a compensation of Rs 7.5 lakh rupees. The National Green Tribunal has ordered Rs 2.5 lakh compensation to be provided by the plant administrators. The administration should fulfil the previous compensations as estimated by them.
7. The state should not include private partnership in the conceptualization and operation of leather sewage plant and should directly operate these units.
8. The migrant workers employed in Tamil Naduy should be registered by Labour Department and identification cards should be given to them. The state should ensure minimum wages and decent working conditions for the workers. The state should abolish contract labour systems prevalent in these industries.
9. The state should ensure that the 15000 workers who have lost employment in the 80 units are adequately protected and compensated until the units are opened with out any violations.
Members of Fact Finding Team:
A Marx, President of National Confederation of Human Rights Organization
Srinivasan, Environment Activist, Chennai
Retd. Prof. Thirumavalavan, Chennai
Adv. Natarajan, High Court, Chennai
Ramani, Democratic Labour Movement, Chennai
Faiz Ahmad, District Secretary of Popular Friend of India, Vellore
Tamizh Nazar, Ilanthamizhagam, Chennai
Adv. Mohammad Mazood, Ranipet,
Manikandan, Democratic Labour Movement, Chennai