Unchahar tragedy: Loss of lives and grave injuries to workers a dark blot in NTPC’s track record

ntpcThe Centre for Financial Accountability’s (CFA’s) report, “The Dark Side of NTPC: A Critical Look at the Social and Environmental Footprints of NTPC”, seeks to point towards how, one of the four avaratnas of India, a Fortune 500 company, National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), which claims to have played, for over four decades, a pivotal role in India’s quest for development, has caused a plethora of negative impacts to people, environment and sustainability over the years.

One of the five case studies in Chapter 4 selected to highlight how NTPC has gone against the interests of people to pursue its own relentless expansion in the name of growth and profits seeks to illustrate how NTPC has been casual when it comes to workers’ safety, especially the contract workers. The case study id on the Unchahar tragedy, where hundreds of workers lost their lives in a boiler blast accident inside the plant in November 2017, due to rushed commissioning of sixth unit of Unchahar Power Plant. The accident exposed the poor worker safety norms followed by the NTPC management and raises questions on the safety standards in other NTPC power plants too.

Reproduced below are excerpts from the section Unchahar Tragedy – A Case of Treating Human Lives Cheaply:

Unchahar is a small town and Nagar Panchayat located in Unchahar town in Raebareli district of Uttar Pradesh. Unchahar came in news in November 2017 when a major blast happened inside NTPC owned Feroze Gandhi Unchahar Thermal Power Plant power plant located here. The power plant has an installed capacity of 1,550 MW. The power plant was commissioned in 1988, which was earlier owned by Uttar Pradesh State Electricity Board (UPSEB). In 1992, UPSEB transferred Unchahar Thermal Power Station to NTPC against payment overdue and was renamed to Feroze Gandhi Unchahar Thermal Power Plant by NTPC.

The blast of a boiler inside the power plant on November 01, 2017 led to the death of several workers and injured hundreds of them. The accident was one of the worst industrial disasters in eight years in India (after 2009 fire in Indian Oil’s Jaipur depot). NTPC issued an official statement on November 01, 2017, which stated: “In NTPC Unchahar, Unit No. 6 at around 1530 hrs on 01.11.2017 there was sudden abnormal sound at 20 mt. elevation and there was opening in corner no.2 from which hot flue gases and steam escaped affecting the people working around the area. Around 80 people were rushed to NTPC hospital, most of them were discharged after giving firstaid. In the mishap 8 people succumbed to the injuries. About 10 persons with serious injuries have been referred to nearby hospitals and to Lucknow to provide immediate treatment. An enquiry has been set up by NTPC Management to investigate the reasons for the accident. All possible measures are being taken to provide immediate relief to the families of affected people in close coordination with the district administration.”

However, only after a couple of days, NTPC Chairman and Managing Director Gurdeep Singh told the media that 32 people had succumbed to injuries and 48 were undergoing treatment. It was also informed that NTPC had formed an enquiry panel headed by NTPC Executive Director S.K. Roy, along with two general managers, which would submit its report in a month. An eyewitness account by an officer mentioned that at least 70 people had been killed in the tragedy.

By November 10, news agency IANS mentioned that the death toll in the accident had reached 43, while another news article in the investigative magazine ‘Tehelka’ published on November 16 mentioned that the death toll had reached 46, along with leaving more than 100 people injured. A fact-finding team from Delhi Solidarity Group (DSG) had visited Unchahar after the accident and in its report one of the victim’s sisters had given a testimony that there were more than three hundred workers working in the plant at the time of the accident and at least 150 people must have died inside.

In August 2013, the UPA government had announced that a sixth unit of 500 MW capacity would be added to the Unchahar power plant and the construction of the power plant stared in December 2014. Earlier, the deadline to commission the unit was December 2016 with a time period of 40 months. However, NTPC tried to make up for the delay in construction by targeting to complete the work by March 2017 in a span of 26 months. For construction of this unit, NTPC had collaborated with Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL).

The sixth unit of the plant was announced by the UPA government in August 2013, and construction started 16 months later in December 2014. NTPC was constructing this unit in collaboration with Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL). On March 31, 2017 the unit was synchronised, that is, the power it generated was connected to supply grid for transmission and on September 30, 2017 the unit began commercial generation of power.

While NTPC officials denied that there was any rush in commissioning the plant, NTPC insiders and power sector experts with knowledge of Unchahar plant have raised serious questions about the process of commissioning the plant. It was pointed out by Shailendra Dubey, Lucknow-based chairman of All India Power Engineers Federation that the plant was incomplete when it was synchronised on March 31, 2017 as a new unit of power plant starts commercial production after a gap of two months, but in the case of the Unchahar power plant there was a gap of six months.

Moreover, ‘The Print’ reported that only half a dozen workers were needed to operate a boiler in a new unit, but there were 311 workers in the sixth unit at the time of the explosion. The labour contractors had informed ‘The Print’ that most of the workers had been deployed for civil work such as painting, isolation of boilers and other construction work. A four-member inquiry committee was instituted by the Uttar Pradesh labour department to identify the cause of the blast, which submitted its final report to the Uttar Pradesh labour commissioner in January 2018. The panel was headed by director (boiler section, labour department) R.K. Purvey, and comprised Anil Kumar Gupta, additional vice-president (technical), Reliance Rosa Power Supply Company Ltd, Manu Arora, general manager (boiler and auxiliary), Hindalco Industries Ltd (power division), Renu Sagar, Sonebhadra, and Jagmohan, deputy director, boiler section.

The committee had found the operating staff guilty of gross negligence leading to the accident. One of the committee members while disclosing to ‘Hindustan Times’ said, “The formation and accumulation of clinker in the boiler duct due to non-cleaning had increased the pressure to a evel where the duct got choked and burst due to high pressure. It resulted in fly ash – heated up to 400-500 degrees Celsius – coming out with enormous force and engulfing whoever was at close range.” Additionally, he said, “Shutting down the unit could have prevented the accident, but the operating staff ignored even the most basic principles of mechanical science”.

However, the operating staff rebutted the accusation saying that the senior management had ordered against the shutdown, which was also validated from the report where it was mentioned that the management had asked the operating staff to run the 500 MW unit at a lower load of 200 MW instead of shutting it down. At the time, when this finding had come out, findings of at least three more parallel inquiries, including one ordered by the Central Government, were awaited. However, it should also be noted as pointed out in ‘The Times of India’ that NTPC engineers had detected a fault in the ash evacuation system an hour before the blast and were working to fix it while the unit was kept working, which shows a serious lapse on the part of NTPC management.

The accident at the Unchahar power plant raises serious questions about the safety standards followed by NTPC and how the lives of the labourers/contract workers are valued by the management. It was shocking to know that NTPC had removed the names of many workers from the company records to lower the company’s liability as many of the families of the workers claimed that they were missing after the accident as it was pointed out in the DSG’s fact finding report. Similarly, it was pointed out in another news report that factory workers went missing after the accident, but NTPC denied that they had been missing.

The accident has also pointed out lack of regular inspection of the boilers, which could have prevented the accident, as the boilers are designed to give warning if pressure builds up inside them. In fact, the boilers in India are regulated by the Indian Boilers Act, 1923 which mandates uniform standards in the quality and upkeep of these units. Under the provisions of the Indian Boilers Act, 1923, it is a statutory requirement for the owner of every boiler to obtain a certificate authorising the use of boiler and every boiler needs to be inspected at least once a year by the boiler directorate for the purpose of annual renewal of the certificate. Unfortunately, the renewal of certificate for unit six was due in December 2017.

There was also a lapse in providing protective gear to the workers while working in a hazardous environment. The loss of lives and the grave injuries to the workers would remain a dark blot in the track record of NTPC in the years to come; it also raises several concerns on the safety of workers located in other plants of NTPC across the country and what steps NTPC would take to ensure that another such accident does not happen in the future.

Download full report HERE


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