Kozhikode, KERALA — Plagued by industrial mishaps—the latest of which took place on Monday night at Visakha Solvents Ltd, located inside Visakhapatnam’s swanky Ramky Pharmacity—the Andhra Pradesh government has decided to conduct “random audits” of its red category industrial units.
Mekapati Gautham Reddy, Andhra Pradesh’s minister for industries, commerce and information technology, told HuffPost India that around 87 medium and large hazardous industrial units “could also be shifted out of Visakhapatnam’s core city to the less populated outskirts”.
However, despite the hurried response from the industries department, trade unionists in the state have asked for a revamp of the industrial policy which currently prevents inspectors of factory and labour—the ground-level officers in charge of safety audits—from conducting “thorough surprise inspections” of industrial establishments.
On Monday night, a “valve malfunction” at Visakha Solvents which according to the Department of Industries is a subsidiary of Ramky Group, led to an explosion, killing one person and injuring three others. The mishap has landed the ruling Jaganmohan Reddy government in a political quandary as the party’s Rajya Sabha MP, Alla Ayodhya Rami Reddy, owns the Ramky group of companies. The group is also the developer of the Pharmacity where the accident occurred. Around 50 pharma units currently function here.
The Pharmacity in Parvada, Visakhapatnam, runs on a Public Private Partnership between the Ramky Group and Andhra Pradesh Industrial Infrastructure Corporation (APIIC).
Of the four people who were caught in the blast at Visakha Solvents, three including one person who died were chemists who were on duty at the time. The fourth was a security guard.
Before this incident, two other industrial mishaps had cost lives in Visakhapatnam soon after the Covid-19 lockdown lifted in mid-April this year. On May 7, styrene monomer leaked from LG Polymers plant in the port city, killing 12 people. Close on the heels of this mishap, on June 30, a Benzimidazole leak which took place at Sainor life sciences killed two people.
An enquiry committee constituted by the Andhra Pradesh government to probe into the LG plant leak had submitted a report a week ago, stating that the leak took place because of “poor tank design, poor safety awareness and inadequate risk management”, among other critical industrial flaws. On July 7, Visakhapatnam police arrested the CEO of the plant along with 11 other officers.
Ramky Group to be probed
Speaking to HuffPost India, Goutham Reddy said, “APIIC will do a performance assessment of AP industries officials who are in charge of safety audits. On July 16, we will call all managements of factories for a meeting to probe into reasons for these mishaps.”
The government will also probe whether the lockdown, which curbed industrial activities, led to the accidents even as the state is interested in knowing whether similar incidents had gone unreported during the pre-lockdown phase.
“Random audit will take place across the board (among industries),” the minister said, adding that his department will collaborate with the Pollution Control Board and Factories Department, which conduct periodic audits of industrial units. “Every time an inspection takes place, the factories inspector and the pollution control board note down their observations (which are shared with the companies). We would like to check whether the factories have followed up on the inspector’s recommendations, rather than conducting inspection of thousands of units randomly,” Minister Reddy said.
Though Visakha Solvents, which is currently under scrutiny for negligence, is a subsidiary of the Ramky group of companies that belongs to MP Ayodhya Rami Reddy, Gautham Reddy said that the YSRCP government will conduct an active probe into the incident. “We will not drop anyone from the probe. The subsidiary company’s culpability will be probed,” he told HuffPost India.
MP Rami Reddy and three others were nominated to the Rajya Sabha only in March this year. He had contested the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 on a YSRCP ticket but lost from Narasaraopet.
Meanwhile, trade unions and employees welfare associations of Visakhapatnam, which have been at the forefront of protests against loss of lives in industrial mishaps, accused the state government of “not valuing human life” and prioritising industrial development.
‘Ease of doing business’ at fault
Ch Narsing Rao, a trade union leader for four decades and currently president of Visakhapatnam Steel Plant Employees Union and Fertilisers Union, said, “Inspector of factories are not allowed to conduct random surprise inspections since the past two decades because successive state governments relaxed safety audit norms to accommodate the industry’s demand for ‘ease of doing business’. Now employees and workers of various companies are losing their lives due to this industrial policy.”
While N. Chandrababu Naidu, former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, was the first to relax criteria for security and safety audits in 2002, the successive Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy-led Congress government which came to power in 2004 followed an identical industrial policy, Rao said.
Further, Naidu who became the first chief minister of the residual Andhra Pradesh state after formation of Telangana in 2014, also oversaw the issuance of a government order (GO. MS. No. 37) which reduced the frequency of safety audits that the Department of Labour conducts. As per the GO under the title ‘Ease of doing business’ issued in May 2016, the Telugu Desam Party government decided that, “an establishment inspected in a year will not be inspected in the next two years”. The GO, which ushered in an “online inspection system”, also stipulates fewer checks for establishments based on their staff count and nature of activity. Industries considered low risk and those which were categorised as start-ups were exempted from frequent audits.
“We need stricter inspections to stop such mishaps from happening,” said Narsinga Rao.
However, industries minister Gautham Reddy said that the government does not plan to restart surprise inspections of industrial units.