A major fire on the night of March 27, which gutted the 13-month-old Indus MAGIC Lab inside the CSIR-National Chemical Laboratory (NCL), has left behind a trail of unanswered questions. After hosting an event during the weekend, CSIR-NCL was officially closed on March 27, hours before the fire. At the time of the incident, nobody was working in any of the labs, due to which there was no casualties or loss of life.
According to sources, the NCL internal committee comprising senior scientists, safety officers and experts from other labs in Pune — which was appointed to look into the matter soon after the incident — could not come up with any conclusions about the cause of the fire. But the high-level CSIR committee, which looked into the fire incident, examined CCTV footage and found that two persons had left the laboratory premises a few minutes before the fire started at 8 pm.
On April 13, the committee had visited NCL, inspected the site, and questioned lab operators and other officials. However, over three months after the event, it is yet to submit a final report.
According to highly-placed sources, some disturbing findings had emerged during the investigation by the CSIR committee. This includes “compromise on the quality of material used during renovation, inappropriate use of highly inflammable material and a complete absence of even basic safety devices, which are mandatory in such laboratories”.
A pertinent question is whether the existing internal safety committee, involved in the day-to-day monitoring of the laboratory, was doing its job of ensuring the safety of the MAGIC lab. “No safety audit of the laboratories has been carried out for several years… NCL witnesses an incident of fire, or sometimes even two incidents, every week,” said a highly-placed source.
Some senior officials indicated that several labs continued to be extremely unsafe to work in, putting the lives of a large number of students and scientists at stake.Significantly, scientists and students at both NCL and the adjacent Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research (IISER), who witnessed the fire, told The Indian Express that most of the building was gutted within the first 50 minutes of the incident, and they heard the sound of several explosions as the blaze continued.
A second fire had broken out the same day, in the ground floor of the Pilot Plant III building, about two hours after the first incident. The CSIR committee has also noted the presence of two blow torches that seemed to have been left unattended inside the MAGIC lab on the day of the fire, said sources.
Less than two months after the incident, NCL authorities issued tenders worth Rs 7.91 crore on May 11, for undertaking repair works of the laboratory. A detailed media query by The Indian Express — seeking details about the CSIR committee’s visit and findings — sent to the NCL Director Ashwini Kumar Nangia, received no response.
History of the Indus MAGIC lab
In 2012, Vivek Ranade, then deputy director of the institute, had proposed setting up the Indus MAGIC lab in the Pilot Plant III building in the NCL. Information from certain vital documents, accessed by The Indian Express, has revealed that permission was granted for Aluminium Composite Panel or ACP cladding, glazing and polycarbonate techniques as part of the renovation of Pilot Plant III building, though MAGIC lab was only supposed to be involved in the synthesis of chemicals, including volatile and hazardous ones.
Days after the fire, when The Indian Express tried to contact Ranade over the phone, he was unavailable. NCL staff said he was no longer associated with the laboratory and was currently abroad.
Some sources said that the chemical engineers or scientists supervising MAGIC Lab were earlier employed with an industrial unit headed by a senior NCL scientist. After the unit shut down, these engineers were reinstated at NCL and entrusted with bigger responsibilities that included heading the project and managing the activities of MAGIC lab, while their core competency was in engineering rather than research. The CSIR committee, during its investigation, found that safety norms were ignored while running MAGIC lab, said sources. They added that some scientists had complained about having zero access to that lab, even for official purposes.
Another set of documents, accessed by The Indian Express, showed that some scientists operating MAGIC lab had demanded a larger area inside it to be “illegally renovated and covered with ACP cladding”. As the MAGIC lab inside the Pilot Plant III was never “completely ready” for operations, with renovation work going on for over four years, the presence of several boxes and plywood worth Rs 5 lakh inside the lab could have also added ‘fuel’ to the fire that day, said sources.