Thursday, June 24, 2010

5 DEATHS PER HOUR

We are recreating a Bhopal gas tragedy every year...

No doubt Bhopal gas tragedy has been the biggest industrial disaster in the recorded history! No doubt the Government of India should take the onus of giving the easy route to Warren Anderson, and bargaining a very low price on behalf of millions affected, by the tragedy! Without even an iota of doubt, the United States Administration should be forthcoming in terms of extraditing Warren Anderson to India! And no doubt in the fact that the court took a quarter of a century to deliver a mockery of justice to the promoters of Union Carbide India Limited! But then, do we know that we have a similar tragedy happening almost every year in our country?

Going by the only available estimates of International Labour Organisation (ILO), more than 45,000 workers lose their lives at their workplace each year in India. This boils down to 124 deaths per day, and 5 an hour!! That’s not all, our country employs more than 3 million workers in different manufacturing units, who are estimated to be exposed to silica dust directly and more than 8 million workers who indirectly inhale this deadly dust. And for the uninitiated, silica dust is the prime reason for deaths among construction workers in India as it causes silicosis and may lead to Tuberculosis (TB) or lung cancer in the long run! A decade and half old survey by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) estimated that more than 3 million people were found to be suffering from this disease while a recent report by the Ahmedabad- based National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), put this number to a staggering 10 million! Another report by the ILO reveals that deaths due occupation hazards are increasing by a whopping 15 per cent and most of these accidents occur due to substandard safety measures and reluctance shown by the promoters!!

Yet, we do not hear a single voice against it. It is not that we do not have the legal framework in place to safeguard the workers’ interest, but then lack of awareness, robs them the opportunity for any kind of redressal! In spite of Indian law (under the Factories Act) asking companies to report injuries to a worker on duty within 48 to 72 hours, most of the time its goes unreported, leave aside the question of owner providing the victim with any kind of compensations — it is not that all promoters are alike, but such benevolence is a rarity! Not just this. In fact, the basic support infrastructure is so inadequate that it just cannot arrest such a huge problem. Regulatory bodies, including the inspectorates, are at large ill-equipped and understaffed as they the body employs less than 1,500 safety officers, factory inspectors and less than 50 medical inspectors. I don’t need to say this that this pittance of a workforce is inadequate to check and inspect millions of manufacturing plants that are dotted across the nation. Studies show that in companies hardly make payments for medical benefits of their injured workers. So much so that companies owe around Rs 800 crore to Employees' State Insurance Corporation India (ESIC) in payments and around 20,000 payment cases are pending with ESIC.

Contrast this with the way the United States Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA), an agency under the department of labour, carries out an investigation and imposes severe penalties on the employer. Thanks to OSHA’s initiatives in the US that fatal occupational injuries saw a fall from 5,657 cases in 2007 to 5,071 in 2008. Similarly, in the European Union, member states have enforcing authorities who ensures that occupational safety are maintained. They also make sure that personal protective equipment are at place. In Canada, workers are covered by provincial or federal labour codes or by health and safety legislation. Talking about Asia, in Malaysia, the Department of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) is responsible for the safety, health and welfare of workers in both the public and private sector.

The number of deaths at manufacturing units across the length and breath of the nation is much more than deaths caused by any other diseases or threat in India. With more than one crore workers’ life at stake, I do not need to tell what needs to bedone. There are enough examples worldwide with respect to the kind of safeguards and social securities that are enjoyed by the workers. And here we are all set to recreate a Bhopal gas tragedy every year! It is high time that along with Index of Industrial Production, we should also constitute an Index of Industrial deaths!!

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