On Monday, three workers died in the latest factory disaster in Punjab. This time, the place was a paper mill in Malerkotla town of Sangrur district. And here, too, safety standards were not being followed, so much so that the machine that exploded was the prime example of violations. This is only the latest example of how norms are flouted with impunity by industries in Punjab.
The number of such deaths, says government data, is now 19 for this year. Total in the past four years is 108 with four months remaining in 2016, but the number may be much higher as 80% of the cases go unreported, say union leaders.
Due to few technical staff, and alleged corruption, the labour department has failed to do much. Even the Punjab Industrial Safety Council is confined to documents at worst, holding training workshops at best.
‘Clout and investment’
“Every industrialist has political backing,” says an official who did not want to be named. “Everyone knows that every second industry in Ludhiana and Mandi Gobindgarh doesn’t have safety equipment, but we are asked to keep our ears and eyes shut.”
The official adds, “The state government, in a bid to bring in investment, is keeping labour safety lowest among its priorities. In most cases, industrial-safety check means a hollow visit or a pro forma from the industrialist.” Another official adds that a major tragedy can take place any day in Punjab as “most big industries are owned by powerful persons, and department employees do not dare to act against them”.
In the name of conviction
After every major death that comes to the knowledge of the labour department, officials conduct an inquiry and a civil suit is filed. But most industrialists get away with fines below Rs 1 lakh, admit officials. “Industrial Safety Act has a provision of two years of jail, but the cases are weak,” says a department official.
Tarsem Jodhan, senior leader of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), says the government officials have “only one job, of collecting their ‘monthly’ from the owners”. He claims that 80% of the cases of industrial mishaps in Punjab remain unreported.
“In Ludhiana, the state’s biggest industrial city, the deputy director of factories has only three technical employees. Ludhiana lone has 7,000 of the 19,000 factories in Punjab. How can the department ensure safety measures with such a shortage of staff,” he adds.
But Sodhi Mal, additional director of factories, says the accident rate in Punjab is less than one per thousand workers as against the national figure of nine. “We are taking all possible measures to ensure responsibility among industrial managements and workers towards safety measures,” he adds. “Every assistant commissioner of the labour department at district level conducts surprise checks. Most incidents in the recent past took place due to technical causes.”
Strangely, in the past three years no major incident took place because of blasts in boilers or chemical units, which are otherwise considered particularly dangerous. Yet, the number of deaths has not decreased. This only underlines how even the relatively safer industries are not flouting standards and virtually becoming death factories.
When no one killed 23 workers in Jalandhar
Jalandhar: In April 2012, Punjab witnessed its worst industrial disasters in recent memory, when 23 labourers died as a blanket-making factory building of Shital Fibres collapsed.
Not only does it remain an example of poor safety standards but also of travesty of justice — no one was convicted by the lower court in its this February, and the government has not filed an appeal against the acquittal of all five accused, including the owner, business magnate Shital Vij.
The case saw all witnesses, including the kin of the deceased, turn hostile. But the police’s probe remained suspect too.
The case was registered under sections 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) and 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC); later sections of the Prevention of Corruption Act were also slapped on Vij for allegedly bribing officials to get the building approved for the factory.
However, a few days after the investigation, a three-member special investigation team (SIT) headed by then additional deputy commissioner of police (ADCP), headquarters, Navjot Mahal concluded that Vij had no role in the collapse.
Two members of the SIT — which had earlier recommended framing of charges — instead said a machine digging land along the factory to lay pipelines was the reason behind the collapse.
But the SIT could not bring on record as to who hired the machine for digging a trench at the back of the building — Vij or the sewerage department.
Both the SIT chief and other member, ACP Balkar Singh, gave divergent and inconclusive statements. No official of the sewerage board was questioned.
Such was the laxity of the prosecution that no lab report of the debris sample — to check quality of material used in the seven-year-old building — was put on the case record.
Behind it was the clout of Vij, who continues to rise and remains among the who’s who of Jalandhar. He leveraged his lead role as head of the city’s religious and social organisations, the industrialist, 70, and buttressed it with his then-new media venture of a daily newspaper. Officials of different departments responsible for industrial safety audit wouldn’t dare enter his factory premises, much less check the safety standards.
Vij contested the assembly elections in 2007 as an independent. The mishap was seen to have dented his image, but has now only become a case-study in how influential industrialists flout safety norms while authorities choose to look the other way.