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Friday, February 26, 2021

Chemical blast at Narol: NGT-appointed committee finds lapses by AMC, Collector’s office

The panel found the owner of the land and the godown occupier “responsible for their acts and omissions” and stressed that the “office of the (Ahmedabad) Collectorate and the AMC (Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation) are also negligent in discharging their duties”.

Written by Sohini Ghosh | Ahmedabad |
Updated: February 3, 2021 2:32:09 am
The blast killed 13 people, including a minor. (File)

Nearly three months after a chemical blast at Narol killed 13 people, including a minor, an National Green Tribunal (NGT) appointed committee, headed by Delhi High Court retired chief justice B C Patel, has found that the factory was operating on a land marked for agricultural use. The panel found the owner of the land and the godown occupier “responsible for their acts and omissions” and stressed the “office of the (Ahmedabad) Collectorate and the AMC (Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation) are also negligent in discharging their duties”.

In the nearly 600-page report, the panel had highlighted a systemic failure across several departments at several levels, including disaster management plans and industrial safety regulations, in complete disregard of existing provisions under several Acts.

On November 11 last year, an NGT bench had directed that a six-member committee be set up to inquire into the November 4, 2020, chemical factory blast. The committee, which submitted its report to the NGT on January 28, found while AMC continued to collect tax, the land remained marked as an agricultural land and its usage was not changed to commercial or industrial use. The AMC, the panel noted, had not visited the area where units dealing in hazardous chemicals were operating unregulated.

The unit, it said, was originally leased out for storage as a godown but was instead used for dealing in chemicals. “Reading the lease agreement, it is clear that the godown was leased only for the purpose of storage of goods and not for carrying out any work,” the committee noted.

“…It was the duty of the staff of the AMC not to allow anyone to operate any workplace or workshop without requisite permission granted by the commissioner under Section 313 of the GPMC Act… The law mandates (a unit) to have permission from the AMC commissioner to run a workshop or workplace with the use of energy… Thus, to some extent the staff of the AMC is also responsible,” the committee said.

The Ahmedabad Collector’s office was found to be at fault, especially the Talati in the jurisdiction, the committee stated. “Despite erecting a number of godowns and collecting rents from the tenants, the landowner has continued to show the land as agricultural land in the revenue record. This is not merely an illegality but is a fraud with the statute and, therefore, it must be taken very seriously. Even, the office of the Collector was absolutely careless, negligent and, therefore, responsible in allowing the erection of a godown and use of the same contrary to the provisions of law. How is it possible that for a number of years the farmer has not approached the revenue officer, namely the Talati, for payment of revenue and copies of revenue records? Is it possible to believe that the Talati would not know about the construction carried out?… It appears that the office of the Collector issued notice on 11.11.2020 for illegal construction made in 2000-2001 only after the blast (04.11.2020) to show that the office of the Collector has taken action and also to avoid responsibility,” the report stated.

The committee recommended the Collector must exercise the power granted under the Revenue Code to remove the occupier of the land “and dispose of the land at market price so that victims are not deprived of their entitlement and the state exchequer may not suffer”.

The committee also noted lapse by District Industrial Safety and Health (DISH), wherein the authority could have initiated action for non-compliance of rules but instead tried to absolve itself of its duties in a report submitted by it to the committee, on the ground that small units do not come under its jurisdiction.

The committee noted, “If the interpretation as suggested by the authority is accepted, it would mean that only the occupier engaged in the industrial activity, in which a hazardous chemical is used, which satisfies any of the criteria laid down… only then action can be taken against an occupier for breach of rules. It seems that the authority has lost the sight of small-scale manufacturers who are using less quantity (of hazardous chemicals).”

The report stated the State Crisis Group “will have to review all district off-site emergency plans in the state with a view to examine its adequacy in accordance with the Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals (MSIHC), Rules and report to the Central Crisis Group once in 3 months”.

It also observed the disaster plan had largely remained “in the book”. “The authorities were aware they are required to enforce regulations and particularly building and safety codes and land use plans. The present case clearly indicates that had the disaster management acted according to what is stated, the accident could have been avoided,” the report stated.

While the NGT had ordered for an interim compensation of Rs 15 lakh to the next of kin of the deceased, the committee, based on the precedent set by existing judgments on compensation, evaluated compensation ranging from Rs 24.53 lakh to Rs 8.86 lakh, with a total of Rs 1.85 crore calculated as compensation to be paid for the 13 deceased persons. The committee also noted only Rs 4 lakh had been paid to each of the deceased till date. “The Collector is required to take much more initiative in the matter of disbursement of the amount”, as the injured have not received any compensation yet, it said. The injured are expected to get Rs 5 lakh each in compensation.

The panel recommended an interdepartmental (GST with DISH/GPCB) link should be developed to identify the manufacturer, distributor, or dealer of hazardous chemicals.

MSIHC rules empowered authority must visit all industrial installations engaged in industrial activity in which a hazardous chemical at least once in a year and submit a report to the state, the committee said. It suggested no permission should be granted to store hazardous chemicals by the licensing authority if a specific building use permit for handling and storage of hazardous chemicals is not there.

So far, three persons were arrested in the case, including Hetal Sutaria, owner of Sahil Enterprise, Nanubhai Ghelabhai Bharvad, who rented his godowns to Kanika Fashion, and Pradeep Bharvad, whose sons were the owners of the premises.

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