Twenty six years old Deepan, father of a fifteen days old baby girl and Ramesh Shankar, a young man of about twenty five years died inside an underground cement tank. The available evidence indicates that they inhaled deadly chemical fumes and asphyxiated to death. In the last few minutes of their lives, the two men must have struggled to come out of the tank through the small opening overhead measuring about 0.45 m in diameter. But the air inside the tank would have become so lethal by a chemical concoction of Toluene and Silcone that it had depleted all oxygen in the air inside the tank, making it difficult for the men to breathe and they would have collapsed over each other. When they were discovered in this condition and their limp bodies pulled out of the tank, Ramesh still had a few breaths left, his young adult body was fighting to survive. But before any medical help could arrive, he was dead like his co-worker Deepan.
On 21st of June 2016, around 11.30 am, Deepan, alongwith Ramesh, his co-worker who had recently been employed, started their work of rubber lining inside an underground tank that was supposed to store compressed air. The underground tank was part of a wind energy project run by Anna University’s Institute for Energy Studies funded by Central Ministry of Renewable Energy. The process of lining the walls with rubber involved use of a combination of chemicals: Toulene and Silicone. Toluene, a highly volatile chemical solvent that gets rapidly absorbed through skin or inhalation is known to severely harm the central nervous system. As per international agencies such as Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety and US National Institute of Occupation Safety and Health, in confined spaces Toulene can pose serious health risks to humans. However, the Institute’s Director who is in-charge of the project, confessed that he had no knowledge about the chemicals or the risks it posed to human health. His main concern was, as he told members of a Concerned Citizen’s Fact-finding Team formed to investigate the deaths of the workers, the construction of a leak proof underground structure that could hold the compressed air, which was critical for his experiment.
The Institute had contracted a building construction company M/s Chenjucrafts to undertake the masonry work for the project. However, the company lacked specific expertise in rubber lining of tanks and therefore the work sub-contracted to another company, M/s Kavimeena Rubber Products. This company purportedly claimed expertise in doing such work having undertaken similar projects at public sector enterprises such as Neyvelli Mines and Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research.
Deepan and Ramesh were employees of M/s Kavimeena Rubber Products and were sent to Anna University on that fateful day to rubber line the underground tank. They were to be supervised by another employee of the company, who did not show up that day at the work site. In fact, even the Institute’s Director was also not in town and it was left to a young project assistant of the Institute to take the workers to the site of work. After showing the workers where the materials were kept for the work, the project assistant returned to his office and till late in the afternoon he had no contact with the workers. Around 3.30 PM when he tried to reach the workers on their cell phones to find out the status of the work and his calls went unanswered. He then returned to the worksite to find the two workers inside the underground tank collapsed over each other. He found an overpowering chemical smell inside and around the tank and got two inter-state migrant workers, who were working at a construction site inside the University campus, to go inside the tank, without any protection to pull out the collapsed workers. While Deepan was already dead, according to the project assistant, Ramesh was still breathing when he was brought out. But he too soon died before the University medical officer reached the spot. By the time Police arrived at the site and the bodies taken to the hospital, over three hours had lapsed. In these intervening hours, Deepan and Ramesh’s family remained unaware of the deaths of their sons.
On 5th of July 2016, when members of the fact-finding team met Ramesh’s father Aadimuthu and Deepan’s father Pappi at the State Labour Commissioner’s office, they said that no one had informed them about the death of their sons. It was through their own efforts when their sons didn’t reach home after work and they couldn’t reach them on their cell phones, they found out through some other employees of the company that their sons had died. Intriguingly, cell phones of both the workers went missing immediately after the incident and they still remain untraced.
Official Apathy and law
In a country like India words like ‘Occupational Safety and Health’ or ‘Decent or Safe workplace’ doesn’t have much meaning. While International Labour Organisation reports, perhaps a conservative estimate, that every 15 second a worker dies in the world due to work-related accident or disease, and every 15 seconds, 153 workers suffer work-related accident, India reports only 222 work-related fatalities per year, even lesser than the Czech Republic which reports 231 but has 1% of India’s working population. With a large section of working people engaged in informal employment and unregulated work sites in India, most of the laws are not applicable and in most cases of workplace injury or fatalities, they go unreported.
In this particular instance of deaths of Deepan and Ramesh, the Director of the Institute, a senior scientist, himself was unaware of the chemicals that were being used or its risks. There also didn’t seem to be any safety protocols or policy in place applicable to projects such as these. The company M/s Kavimeena, which employed the workers, not only did not provide any safety gear, they also left the workers unsupervised while handling such dangerous substances. This illustrates the callous and casual attitude adopted towards safety at workplace not just by private companies but even a publicly funded research institute.
As far as the Directorate of Industrial Safety and Health is concerned, the agency has washed its hands off the case stating that the worksite was too small and didn’t fall within the purview of the Factories Act nor the Building and other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996. By saying this, the Directorate abdicated itself not only from this particular case, but most worksites or diverse kinds of work being performed routinely by a very large section of the working population. Ironically, the only legislation that the government agencies claim to apply in this case is the Workmen’s Compensation Act (renamed as Employee Compensation Act) that only addresses the issue of financial compensation to the workers. Applying the Compensation Act, the Labour Commissioner’s office has calculated an abysmally low compensation amount of Rs 8.66 lakhs for each worker’s death. So far there has been two hearings in the labour commissioners office where Anna University has contested its liability over the accident as the Principal Employer. No culpability for criminal negligence leading to deaths of workers has been charged against either Anna University or M/s Kavimeena for the tragic deaths of two young workers. For Deepan and Ramesh’s parents justice for their dead sons seems like a distant dream as they keep appearing for hearings in the labour commissioners office, waiting to receive compensation amount.