Believe it or not. Some accidents are more important than other accidents. And some lives are more important than other lives. Chances are that conscientious readers will disagree with these statements. I am speaking of the Pirangut fire accident. Let me explain.
On June 7 this year, or just a fortnight ago, not too far in the history as you will appreciate, a fire accident in ‘SVS Aqua Technologies’, a chemical factory at Urawade village, near Pirangut, killed seventeen workers. Fifteen of them were women.
Marathi news channels covered it for a day and forgot about the incident. That was quite unlike the riots in Maruti factory where one manager was killed in the fire. It was also unlike the Pricol incident where a manager was killed by the mob fury. These incidents are etched in the memory of people and journalists still refer to them in their stories. The SVS Aqua Technologies accident is already forgotten.
Maruti and Pricol incidents are stories of violence, both by the managements and the employees. Violence sells! Why doesn’t SVS Aqua Technologies fire accident shock the conscience of people? Seventeen persons died instantly and yet the incident does not shock us? Why? Let us park this question in our mind for the time being.
Ajit Abhyankar who leads trade unions, called up and asked if I would like to join a small group of experts who were going to investigate the SVS Aqua Technologies fire accident. I agreed. We met in Pirangut. For those who are not aware where Pirangut is, it is a small town about 22 Kms away, or a fifty minutes’ drive from Pune.
I joined Dr Nitish Nawsagaray, Professor at ILS Law College, Adv Vishal Jadhav, a well-known advocate practicing Labour Law, Pralhad Malvadkar, Safety expert, and Ms. Roma Makati, Social Activist in the investigation committee. Later Vasant Pawar, a well know labour leader also joined us.
We went to the accident site. Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) has established an industrial park at Pirangut. A few well-known companies have set up factories. We met a few villagers and some employees of SVS Aqua Technologies. Here are the excerpts. For obvious reasons I am not disclosing the identity. Not even the gender. With unscrupulous employer at work, I cannot risk of exposing them.
“We did not know what raw material was used. It was tagged with code names. The work was strenuous and we often complained to the supervisor about safety, but nobody ever paid attention. There was no safety training. Women workers were paid Rs 7000 pm as wages. (Note: It is less than the prescribed Minimum Wage). Wages were credited to our bank account but no pay slips were given. I can’t say which company paid me my wages. We were not covered under PF or ESIS. There was a major fire accident in October 2017 but fortunately no employee was injured. We were sometimes asked to work extra hours but we were paid single overtime.”
We learn from authentic sources that the factory was registered only in December 2020 although it was in operation for a long time reportedly since 2012. A run of eight years without getting caught! SVS Aqua Technologies at Pirangut employed between 51 to 100 persons. Yet the owners did not register it.
What happens if you do not register the Factory under The Factories Act? You are liable to be imprisoned for two years and fined Rs One Lakh. That’s the law. Working without registration is not an uncommon act. Have you ever heard anybody being jailed?
More interesting is that SVS Aqua Technologies managed to obtain ISO 9001 certification. How does an employer get it without registering factory? Compliance with the regulations, I believe is the basic requirement.
What makes an employer so audacious that he merrily flouts the law of the land? Everybody said, ‘Eventually he will go scot-free’ whenever I mentioned that the owner of SVS Aqua Technologies was presently put behind bars. Such is the confidence of people in the laws and their implementation.
And I am not criticizing BJP Government. Or the Congress Government. Both of them have ‘richly’ contributed to create lawlessness in the country. Disregard for law is not a malaise for which masses are to be entirely held responsible. It begins with the rulers. They have spread the culture of ‘everything can be negotiated.’
How? How do they do it? One of the ways is not taking a wholistic view. It leaves loopholes. Under the name of ‘Ease of Doing Business’ the Government has done away with ‘Inspector Raj.’ Inspections of factories had become harassments. Any factory HR manager will tell you that some of the suggestions or remarks written by the Factories Inspectors were unnecessary if not outright ridiculous. And factory HR managers, in the safety of private discussions, will also tell you how they faced ‘Anil Deshmukh Syndrome.’ The remedy? Abolish inspections. Throw the baby out with the bath water!
No Inspector ever visited SVS Aqua Technologies. How then will anyone know if the laws were getting implemented. That makes the weakest section of the Society, namely workers, contract workers in particular, highly vulnerable. Now, under the ‘Ease of Doing Business’ guidance, inspections take place only when authorized by the Bosses in Mantralaya or in Delhi. That too selectively. With prior notice, so that the employer has time to cover up or set house in order to the extent possible. Chalo, even that is not too bad. But the Government overlooked two factors.
First, the Government was introducing a presumptive stance, albeit half cooked, towards statutory compliance. Employers were supposed to be law abiding corporate citizens. Governments ought to presume good behaviour on their part, and not think of them as ‘guilty unless proved otherwise’! Such presumption is the order of the day.
Japanese brought it in the quality assurance aspect. They called it self-certification. It worked because if certification is false, the supplier loses both – business with the customer, and credibility in general. And on top of that he pays a huge contractual penalty. That is a big punishment. Nobody takes such a risk.
While abolishing inspection and presuming compliance with laws of the land, the Government has failed to increase penalty to the deterrent level. Employers rarely get jailed, if at all. And payment of Rupees One Lakh as a fine is affordable even to a ‘paan-wala’ today; it simply does not have any deterrence. Imagine – your negligence kills seventeen ladies and you pay a fine of Rs One Lakh. Is that any justice?
You may argue that the owner has been booked for ‘culpable homicide not amounting to murder.’ Remember that the accused who killed Jessica point blank was acquitted in the first trial. Recently Tarun Tejpal, the Tehelka boss, was also acquitted in the rape case. Both were prima facie ‘open and shut cases’ to a lay person.
Second factor which the Government has overlooked is this terrible culture of ‘everything is negotiable.’ It is prevalent everywhere from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Gujarat to Arunachal Pradesh. But some Indian States are more skilled than others in this negotiation game. There is however, a debate where the ‘bastion’ of skilled negotiators is; some people believe that it is in Delhi while some believe it is in Gujarat, and others believe there are these two bastions, and both exist.
Seventeen lives were lost in a major fatal accident because of greed and criminal behaviour of the owner. What is the prognosis, I asked a friend. He used Gabbar’s lines with some change to reply – “Yeh bhi bach jayega, Ha Ha! Some lives are less important than others.” Ease of Doing Business is making unscrupulous employers like Nikunj Shah so Atmanirbhar! Is that by accident or design?
This video tells the story with additional details
Vivek S Patwardhan
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” **** “Aroehan: Creating Dream Villages in Mokhada by 2025: “No Malnutrition Deaths, No Child ‘Out of School’, Reduction in migration by 50%.”