Unchahar explosion: Disheartening that names of many missing workers are not on official list


A fact-finding team of three people consisting Awadhesh Kumar of Srijan Lokhit Samiti, Rajesh Kumar and Monalisa Barman from the Delhi Support Group visited the Unchahar NTPC site, situated in Raebareli, Uttar Pradesh, on November 6, to inquire into the massive explosion on November 1, 2017 at the boiler of unit VI killing at least 46 people, including NTPC officials. Excerpts from the report it released recently:

During interactions with the local media reporters and the contractual labourers, it emerged that many people are missing from the list of deceased and injured. They told this team that many families have been coming from different states after they could not find the names of their son or relatives on the register or data entry, even though they were working at NTPC, Unchahar. They alleged that the NTPC is hiding the actual number of casualties by manipulating the documents related to the contractual workers working there.

During the discussion with this team, many informal labours mentioned that the number of deaths is much higher than what is mentioned by the authorities. They said that many people just perished in the high-temperature steam and high pressure, which came out of the boiler. According to Lalmani Verma, an engineer posted at NTPC Unchahar, at the time of the explosion, the temperature of the steam was 140 degree, and pressure in the boiler was 765 kg per Mm Square. “The heat is enough to melt a person. Around 40 labourers working very close to the boiler bore the brunt of the blast,” he said.

Due to the explosion, many labourers are still missing. Many workers who died or got injured were the only breadwinners of their families. This incident has brought them on the streets. Those who could identify the body of their relatives will get some compensation but what about the families, which are still searching the bodies? The most disheartening fact is that the names of many missing workers are not on the official list. Many survivors allege that the NTPC Unchahar management removed these names from the company’s records to lower the company’s liability.

The Navsatta on November 5, 2017, reported, “A JCB contractor whose JCB was operational inside the NTPC plant mentioned that the number of deaths and injuries were under-reported by the authority.” This not only exposes the seriousness of NTPC’s response to the tragedy but also indicates towards their routine practices. In this tragedy, the contractors who had supplied labourers from different states to work at this plant are missing from the public discourse. Neither media nor the authorities are talking about them.

Another woman named Sharda Devi (19), whose brother got injured in the explosion, told India Samvad on November 4, 2017, that seven people from her village were working at the plant’s unit six and sustained injuries. She added that out of seven, two died, and three are still missing. On November 5, 2017, Hindustan Samvad reported that Satish, a resident of Rohatas, Bihar, who was working at the Unchahar plant since last two years, is also missing. After hearing about the accident in Unchahar NTPC, his father, Hiralal, rushed there and searched for his son. It is important to note that neither Satish’s name appears on the list of the deceased or injured, nor his mobile is reachable after the accident.

Mantu Barua, 40, one of the survivors of the explosion, said that he saw many labourers getting burnt alive. Barua, who hails from Odisha, has packed his bags to leave for good. “It rained fire there. Many of my friends got burnt alive, and I could do nothing. The officers here and the contractors are lying as this unit had at least twice as many people. My life is precious to me. I am going back to my family),” he told Firstpost. However, the NTPC has refuted that any of the workers are missing. Ruchi Ratna, NTPC’s Public Relations Officer, as reported by the Firstpost, claimed that not a single person is missing and that even the deceased have been identified. In addition, “the PRO also denied that 100 workers were present in the unit at the time of the accident.” She said that only 87 workers were there on the site when the explosion took place and clarified that out of them, 32 succumbed to injuries while 48 are undergoing treatment at different hospitals. She added that the remaining seven have been discharged.

If we have to believe what the officials are saying then where are the workers the families are searching for? During the discussion, the local media persons said that most of the labourers had suffered the burns of 50%-70%, and the doctors told them that even if they recover from injury, they would not be able to do anything — worst in most cases, they might not live more than three to four months. The Print reported, “A boiler in a unit needs less than half-a-dozen workers to operate it. However, there were 311 workers in the sixth unit at the time of the explosion on November 1. Labour contractors in Unchahar told that most of them were deployed by contractors for civil works such as painting, isolation of boilers, and other construction work.”

An officer, who was present at the plant when the mishap occurred, requesting anonymity, recounted to the Firstpost at the NTPC North zone office in Lucknow, “I know more than 70 people have been killed in this tragedy. I was one of the persons to visit the unit with the NDRF team and know that many labourers were reduced to ashes in this accident.”

Due to the collapse of the boiler, the burning coal spread on the unit and fell upon the people working around, even upon those who were wearing the helmet and gloves, and turned them to ash. Nobody could understand what had just happened. Looking at the bodies hanging on the pipes shocked everyone. While taking down the bodies from the pipes, the bodies were breaking into pieces.

Hurry in Commissioning the Unit

This tragedy begs to ask questions on the conduct of Ministry of Power, Central Electricity Authority (CEA), and NTPC’s management for commissioning this unit in a hurry. In its press release on April 1, 2017, NTPC emphatically declared that NTPC, the largest power utility of India, joined the top league of electricity generators globally by crossing 50 GW capacity mark. It further mentioned that another milestone towards 24X7 power for all was achieved by commissioning a 500 MW unit at Unchahar in Uttar Pradesh, which has increased NTPC’s total installed capacity to 50498 MW.

Every new thermal power unit has to get the certificate for commercial operation. For this, every part of the unit is inspected and proposed for the declaration of commercial operation (COD) of the unit and send it to the Central Electricity Authority (CEA), which synchronises the unit before approving for the starting of the plant. If there are issues in commercial operation, the COD is rejected. Many NTPC insiders and power experts are asking questions on the commissioning process of this unit.

The Print on November 10 quoted Mr V K Singh, a coal handling plant manager at NTPC’s Kanti Thermal Power Station, Bihar, and President of the Association of Power Executives (APEX), Kanti, who questioned the commissioning. “The ash handling system and the dry ash evacuation system were not complete, and it must be investigated how the COD was given for an incomplete plant,” Singh demanded. The unit six at Unchahar was supposed to be commissioned in four years, but it was commissioned two years before its schedule. Undergoing construction while generating power led to this horrific incident, which also raises questions on the role of the Union and State governments, and the NTPC senior management, which pressurised the Unchahar Power Station management to commission this unit before the scheduled time to achieve the target.

During the discussion on November 6, 2017, with Mr Ramesh Shukla, a reporter of Dainik Jagran at Unchahar, and Mr Madhav, a reporter of Patrika at Rae Bareli, said that this newly built unit was on trial run generating 200 MW between April to September 2017. Mr Shailendra Dubey, Chairman, All India Power Engineers Federation (AIPEF), spoke to the National Herald on November 31, 2017. “The admission that around 150-200 people were working in the boiler section at the time of the accident is a clear indication that work in the plant was incomplete. In a running plant, only 5-6 people work at a time. Why were so many people working there?” he asked.

Similarly, the reporter from Dainik Jagran also mentioned that the construction work was on in the unit. Therefore, at time of the blast, around 311 contractual workers along with a fewpermanent workers, were engaged in and around the boiler. Since the units are more advanced nowadays, it does not require more than 6-7 people to operate.

“There were nearly 300 workers in the boilers’ vicinity which is quite unusual for regular operations. Workers in large numbers were there as the work was on to create the boiler safety systems,” a senior engineer told the India Today on the condition of anonymity.

A group of contractual workers also mentioned that this particular unit had also tripped many times earlier. Not only this, even on the fateful day, the unit tripped and was restarted by the NTPC. During the discussion with the local media reporters, the team was told that NTPC officers were aware of the accumulation of ash in the dry ash system. Not only this, even a few hours before the blast in the boiler, the unit operator was informed about it. Inside the boiler, the accumulation of clinker, the stony residue from burnt coal, was 20 feet high, which covered almost 60% of the boiler. It is against the standard operating procedures to clean the boiler in running mode.

However, NTPC duty officers ignored it and started to remove the clinker without switching off the boiler. While breaking the clinker, the coal supply got disrupted leading to the formation of high pressure in the boiler, which made it vibrate. Within few minutes the boiler exploded thus spreading the burning coal and ash in the entire unit killing and injuring many.

A reporter from Dainik Jagran also mentioned that new unit should be stopped after running for 1,000 hours to take stock of the maintenance of the entire unit. However, this rule was not followed, and this unit continued to run at full 500 MW. It is noteworthy that NTPC’s formation day was on November 7. Was there any pressure from the plant management to run this plant at full capacity ignoring safety measures, despite many shortcomings, because of the foundation day?

Violations of Labour Laws

During a discussion with a group of contractual workers of NTPC Unchahar on November 6, 2017, they said that the unskilled and informal workers have to perform the duties of a skilled and permanent worker. Additionally, the contractual workers blamed, “before bringing us to NTPC, the contractor had agreed to pay us Rs 365 per day. However, in reality, after getting the salary transferred to our account, we are forced to give half of the salary to the contractor. This leaves us with very little money to survive for the entire month.”

They further told that those raising this issue are not allowed to work the next day. The workers alleged that even NTPC authorities are involved and that they can’t complain them about this. They lamented that the permanent workers enjoy all the facilities given by the NTPC, even though they engage in similar work in the same unit. When the team approached contractual labourers working at the plant, they were afraid and unwilling to talk to us.

It emerged during the interaction with local media reporters that most of the labourers are migrants from Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and that contractors hired them. Further, they mentioned that contract workers who are not given any expert training, are made to do every work.. They also do not get any safety kit to work on the units. They told the team that the contract workers, who were on duty at the unit six on the fateful day were neither wearing any safety gears nor had any protective equipment which the NTPC is supposed to provide for cleaning boiler.

The workers further told us that after this incident the management is forcing them to wear shoes and helmet, which are given by the contractor, who in turn will deduct the costs from the salaries of the workers. The workers lamented, “things came out in public domain this time as this was the biggest incident. Otherwise, if only 3-4 contractual employees die, the authorities just bury the bodies somewhere in the ash, remove the data from the register and destroy the passes.”

Similarly, according to a News18 report, “Another major issue is poor literacy and training levels of the contract labourers. In most cases, they possess inadequate knowledge of modern power plants, which involves multiple levels of protection interlocks. The Standard Operational Procedure (SOP) is rarely followed. When they needed it most, the fire hydrant line and the detection system failed to respond. Also, on several occasions, these SOPs are not updated when the process or the plant goes through minor modifications.”

A recent editorial in EPW also bemoans on the callous disregard for worker safety of the contract labourers. The editorial said, “We must also note that the majority of the workers affected were migrant contract workers, brought to the unit by contractors, to whom jobs had been subcontracted. This is a ploy used by many large industrial units. It helps employers in minimising their liabilities to a smaller number of permanent workers, who are covered under labour laws, while much of the work — often the more hazardous tasks — are farmed out to contractors who employ casual workers, often on daily wages. These workers have no health insurance to cover accidents or exposure to hazards. This murky underbelly of the formal sector in India stands exposed when such accidents take place.”

Relenting to the pressures from many quarters, there are consistent efforts by the government to dilute the labour laws. “There are proposals to dilute laws governing contract labour that will facilitate the use of casual labour for the more hazardous jobs, as in Unchahar project. Under the existing laws, the NTPC can be held liable for all workers — permanent and contract — following the landmark Asiad case, People’s Union for Democratic Rights vs Union of India and Others, 1982, in which the Supreme Court held that the government is responsible for contract workers as the principal employer. We must also emphasise that government’s largesse in the form of compensation to injured workers, or to the families of the deceased, cannot replace the responsibility of the NTPC to all the workers.”

Though workers unions protested against the Unachahar accident, it did not get covered in the media prominently. According to a report in Dainik Jagran on November 5, 2017, Thermal Power House Construction Workers Sangh, INTUC, and CITU came together and demanded judicial inquiry of the accident, Rs 50 lakh and job for the family member of the deceased, Rs 20 lakh each and a permanent job at the NTPC as compensation for the injured.

Click HERE for the full report


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