On 21st June 2016, several english and tamil media reported the death of two young workers in the Anna University campus. Deepan and Ramesh Shankar employed by Kavimeena Rubber Products, a small company engaged in manufacture and installation of rubber mouldings and other products were sent to the university campus to install rubber lining in an air compression tank and were later found dead. Such accidents have become all too common in Chennai and elsewhere with the employers or the State agencies neither learning from these tragedies nor finding mechanisms to address this issue. In view of this, a group of concerned citizens came together to initiate a fact finding team to enquire into the cause of the accident and the victim’s plight in the aftermath.
During the course of three days, the team, comprising academics, labour activists, students and architect met with all parties concerned (barring the owners of Kavimeena Rubber Products, who refused to talk to the team) in order to ascertain events surrounding the accident and more importantly, the role of the state and its various agencies or departments in the aftermath of the accident and their failure to prevent them. The team concluded that the tragic death of the two young workers was preventable and was caused due to the negligence of the employers – Anna University in its capacity as the principal employer and Kavimeena Rubber Products in its capacity as the direct employer.
In this case, Anna University’s Centre of Energy Studies, as part of a project granted by the Ministry of Renewable Energy, has been experimenting with generation of electricity using air compression technology. The department sought a contractor to rubber coat the tank constructed on campus in order to seal it. Since the original contractor did not deal with such installations, the professor in charge of the project identified Kavimeena Rubber Products, Chennai to which the work was sub-contracted. A small company, registered with India Rubber Board,KRP has a small manufacturing and fabrication unit near Ambattur. Of the two deceased workers, Deepan was more experienced having worked for above 7 years while Ramesh Shankar was only 3 months old in the company. It is worth noting that neither the KRP supervisor (Dinesh Kumar), nor the project in charge in Anna University, Mr.Velraj, was present during the day when the work was to be carried out. The two workers were met by a young research assistant, who handed the keys and left them to carry out the work.
During the course of the enquiry, the team met with government officials including the Deputy Commissioner of Labour, in charge of workmen’s compensation who informed that toluene, a highly volatile and toxic chemical was used by the workers. The FIR was registered under Section 304A of IPC and the employers who were initially absconding were arrested and later released on bail. When the team visited and inspected the site of the accident, the bucket used for mixing the rubber solute and solvent (toluene) and the brush used for the coating were found, and so was the exhaust fan, modified to be used over the single manhole available. The exact sequence of events is unclear as no one was in contact with the workers from 12 noon till 4pm, when the research assistant attempted to call them on the mobile phone. It was only when he was unable to reach them that he went to the spot to find both workers lying unconscious inside the tank. They were lifted out by a couple of migrant workers and by the time the doctor on campus arrived, both were declared dead.
The Inspector of Kotturpuram Police Station informed the team that even when he reached the spot, the pungent smell of the chemical lingered. The Directorate of Industrial Safety and Health (DISH), formerly known as the Factories Inspectorate is the department responsible for enforcing safety at the workplace and usually takes investigates accidents. DISH has concluded that they have no locus standi to investigate the accident as they claim that the site of the accident was neither a registered work site under factories act, nor was employer/contractor employing over 10 workers or was the project above the value of Rs 10 lakhs as required under BOCW Act. While this remains an issue for deliberation and interpretation, it has left the police and the Labour Department to take action.
The Labour Department’s officer in charge of investigation and enforcement of Employees Compensation Act, Deputy Commissioner of Labour, initiated suo motto hearing and summoned the employers and the victims’ families for enquiry. His scope of inquiry is restricted to determining the quantum of compensation and the liability of both the employers. The team was informed by the victims’ families that this would be around Rs.8.66 lakhs which is grossly inadequate given that both were young, able workers who had almost 35 years of working life left.
This accident is yet another harsh reminder which brings to light the complete lack of safety norms in workplaces. In the absence of a comprehensive and universal Occupational Safety and Health legislation, accidents like this fall through the cracks even though there are multiple laws, as each have their own exemptions. With almost 92% of India’s working population in the informal sector, this is a dangerous situation as such accidents will continue to occur, unchecked. Despite this, the Government of India’s move to further ease the enforcement norms of various labour laws including the Factories Act 1948 is a perilous move as thousands of workers will be left excluded from the very laws which were meant to protect them. The Employees Compensation Act is also in need of study as the quantum of compensation is grossly inadequate and in cases like these when families who have lost their earning members, they are pushed into a state of further poverty and deprivation.
Apart from recommending enactment of universally applicable workplace safety and health legislations, the team also holds the employers accountable for failing to provide basic safety gear and adequate supervision while handling toxic chemicals like toluene. While compensation is an essential part of rendering justice, the team feels that enhanced punitive action and holding the state agencies (Department of Industrial Safety and Health) and the employers (Anna University and Kavimeena Rubber Products) is vital and will serve as a deterrent. It is hoped that this report will shed light on the glaring loopholes in existing laws and the dangers of further reform, both of which will lead to lack of protection for a large section of the country’s workforce. There is a dearth of medical expertise in dealing with chemicals which needs to be addressed. It is hoped that the state government will set up OSH centres, attached to government hospitals which can work in tandem with the National Poison Information Centre, at AIIMS Delhi.
Finally, we also recommend that families of Deepan and Ramesh Shankar receive fair compensation through the legal process and immediate relief from the State Government at the earliest and that the findings and recommendations in this report will be a small step in the path to ensure the right to a safe and secure workplaces for all workers.
Contact Information of Team members
Dr.Madhumita Dutta (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Meghna Sukumar (email@example.com, 9884333578)
Shreela Manohar (firstname.lastname@example.org, 9444689572)
G.Selva (email@example.com, 9444182960)
K. Sudhir (firstname.lastname@example.org, 9381172279)
V.Srinivasan (email@example.com, 9840081114)
Read the full report.