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Korba Chimney accident: Unanswered questions
By Krishnendu Mukherjee

Amassing wealth through exploitation of natural resources is the new mantra of industry and every one is in a hurry. However, the environmental and human costs of such hasty development are irreparable.


Crowd gathered at the Korba Chimeny accident site
(courtesy: Sandesh)

"My son is just two. How am I going to feed and educate him? How am I going to even survive?" asks Sangeet Kuar, wife of Manoj Kumar who died in the Korba chimney accident last year. Wife of another victim of the same accident holds her four-month old baby and simply stares. The sadness and the fear of uncertainty loom large on her face too. Most of the deceased in the accident have left behind them young children, new brides, elderly dependent parents and questions that have yet not been answered.

The accident happened last year on 23rd September when the chimney being built as part of a captive power station in Chattisgarh, collapsed killing at least 40 workers. The planned 275m high chimney was being built for Bharat Aluminium Company Limited (BALCO), a company with major ownership stake of Sterlite Industries (India) Limited, which is itself owned by the British mining and metals company Vedanta Resources Plc. registered with the London Stock Exchange.

The 1200 MW captive power plant is part of BALCO's expansion at its Korba refinery. However BALCO had contracted the building of the power station to a Chinese firm Shandong Electric Power Construction Corp (SEPCO), who in turn had sub-contracted the project to Gannon Dunkerley and Co Ltd (GDCL) registered in Mumbai. What is unclear is the exact relationship between BALCO, SEPCO and GDCL. Who was responsible for the overall planning, building and supervision of the project?

The chimney project was planned to be completed by June 2009 at a cost of Rs. 60 crores.

If there were at least 100 workers working on the chimney at that time, but only 51 workers are accounted for, where have the other workers gone?

According to District Collector Ashok Agarwal, 300 labourers were working on the chimney at the time it collapsed. Police reports put the figure closer to 150, but a document from GDCL records only 51 names on that shift. So the question remains -- if there were at least 100 workers working on the chimney at that time, but only 51 workers are accounted for, where have the other workers gone? No missing workers have been recorded, but a little investigation reveals that these were labourers from poverty-stricken villages in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkand, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, taken to Korba by agents working for GDCL. The nature of their situations may be the reason why there has been no public outcry of those who remain unaccounted.

Chimney's debris being removed
(courtesy: Sandesh)

Sterlite Industries Limited issued a statement after the accident stating "A probable reason for the incident appears to be the excessive rains and lightning at Korba. The exact cause for this will however be ascertained only after a detailed investigation is concluded".

BALCO's General Manager at the site, B.K. Srivastava also stated after the incident, "A chimney of 275 metres was being constructed, 100 metres were already completed. There was heavy rain and lightning when the incident occurred". But while BALCO was claiming that the chimney fell down due to "natural reasons", both the police and the experts said after the accident that they had never heard of a chimney collapsing because of lightning. In their view the chimney could only have collapsed due to technical reasons, in particular, the use of sub-standard metal rods in its construction. Moreover, it was also found that BALCO had not complied with many of the required statutory clearances.

"The company did not take permission from the Korba Municipal Corporation (KMC) for the second chimney and we had served it notices for violating the norms," stated Korba Mayor Lakhanlal Dewangan shortly after the accident. Interestingly, the Corporation had issued BALCO with a stop-work notice only a week before the chimney collapse.

"The company did not take permission from the Korba Municipal Corporation (KMC) for the second chimney and we had served notices for violating the norms"

According to a fact-finding mission of local activists shortly after the accident, relief work continued until noon on the 28th September 2009. At that time, on the request of BALCO officials, the rescue work was halted as the ground level had been reached. However, eye-witness accounts indicate that the chimney sank into the soil, split apart and collapsed. The chimney had in fact reached 255.5 metres in height, and the majority of workers were sheltering in the store-rooms at the foot of the chimney. These people would have been sucked into the ground with the sinking of the chimney and would be below the ground-level. There are also reports that immediately after the collapse bulldozers were used to cover up the ground.

BALCO announced Rs. 5 lakhs for the family of each deceased shortly after the accident. At around Rs 150 for a 12 hour day for each labourer, this amounts to less than 15 years of lost wages for each family. This was obviously without taking into account the fact that most of the deceased were in the age-group 20-30.

Families of the victims from tribal villages in Jharkhand have not been delivered a death certificate or a post-mortem report.

When the families of these victims in Bihar and Jharkand were visited in December 2009, they all had the similar sad story to tell. The bodies of the deceased, brought back by fellow workers, were accompanied with Rs. 50,000 and a receipt to be signed. No company officials, no apology or condolence, just a receipt! In some cases, the body was sent to the wrong village and relatives had to search for it. In Bihar, the families had subsequently received Rs. 4.5 lakhs through the local block development officer but the families of the victims from the tribal villages in Jharkhand claim that they were not even this lucky. Ask them if they have been delivered a death certificate or a post-mortem report, and the families look blankly, clueless.

The families from Bihar have alleged that they were taken to Korba by the GDCL sub-contractor in December 2009. In some cases the sub-contractor charged them for doing so. They were kept in a hotel at the company's cost and told to sign some papers. They were told that those were applications under employer's insurance and workers' compensation, but the papers were not read out to them, nor were they allowed to read them themselves. They do not know what the papers contain. When they asked for the death certificates and post-mortem reports of the victims, they were told to come back to Korba on the 5th January 2010.

Vedanta Resources Plc made $219.4 million profit for the year ending 31st March 2009. This was a fall from the previous year's profit of $879 million, but is still good considering the losses most companies were making during the global recession. Part of the reason for their financial success could be the non-payment of the costs that should be associated with mining and metal production. Mining companies do not pay the real cost of the ore they extract, for water, for their damage to the environment, or as in the case of Korba, the actual costs of loss of human life.

The State's investigations into the Korba accident will continue. Three BALCO officials have been charged with "culpable homicide" and remain in custody pending trial. An inquiry commission headed by Sandeep Bakshi, a district and sessions judge, had its third sitting recently and will re-convene on 3rd April, 2010. Local Rights and Justice Campaigns have been set up in Bihar and Jharkand with the support of local activists. And while the arguments continue and inquiry convened and re-convened, there is one question that looms large over the families of the victims -- where do we fit in this fast-developing aspiring and ambitious new India?

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Krishnendu Mukherjee  |  t.mukherjee@doughtystreet.co.uk

Krishnendu Mukherjee is a barrister and advocate at Doughty Street Chambers, London. He is currently in India working on environmental, human rights and corporate issues.

Write to the Author  |  Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note

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