Ground Report: Porus Labs was a ticking time bomb for Akkireddygudem village

“When there was a blast in one factory unit, the fire was so high that it would have spread to the next unit within minutes. If such a thing had happened, an area of around 5 km surrounding the factory could have been destroyed,” said Radha, a family member of one of the deceased.

By Sri Lakshmi Muttevi  Published on  18 April 2022 12:21 PM GMT
Ground Report: Porus Labs was a ticking time bomb for Akkireddygudem village

Eluru: Victims of the Porus Laboratories fire in Akkireddygudem here, suffering 85% burns, battle for their lives as their families wait outside the hospital with the hope of their survival. "It was a horrible night on 13 April. We heard a loud sound and people in our village started shouting saying there was a blast in the factory. When we realised that my brother was working there on the night shift, my family and I ran to the factory. But by the time we reached, we could only find blood and ashes," said Subba Rao, the elder brother of Kiran Kumar who died in the Porus labs tragedy.

He added, "He was actually not allowed to work that night as he had skipped the previous shift. But he made several requests and went to work just to die." The 30-year-old Kiran Kumar, called Nani by his family, is married and has two children. The children do not know where their father is and they play outside, waiting for him. Kiran, who studied till class X, had been working in the factory for six years.

When NewsMeter visited the village in Akkireddygudem, the scenes were tragic. Everyone talked about the incident and worried about the injured families as they waited for someone to come and solve their problems. With about 5,000 families living in the village, around 30 locals work in the factory, while a majority of them are from Bihar. Hyderabad-based Porus Laboratories is an 18-year-old firm that manufactures pharmaceutical intermediates and specialty chemicals. It has five production blocks, out of which block A and E are not working for the last 18 months. Earlier, it used to be a sugar factory.

A narrow escape for many

The families affected by the blast alleged that there is no proper safety and security measures in the factory. Earlier, such incidents had been reported but nothing as major as the one that occurred a few days ago. According to the villagers, it was a narrow escape for many families who could have died that night. "When there was a blast in one factory unit, the fire was so high that it would have spread to the next unit within minutes. If such a thing had happened, an area of around 5 km surrounding the factory could have been destroyed. Fortunately, Shubhani, one of the injured who is battling for life in the hospital, bravely stopped the main switch, which stopped the fire from spreading," said Radha, a family member of one of the deceased.

Crops damaged

For the villagers of Akkireddygudem, the situation was different 18 years ago when there was a sugar factory there. After Porus Labs took over the factory, it started manufacturing pharmaceutical intermediates and specialty chemicals. The farmers lost most of their crops as the chemicals released from the factory are destroying their plants.

"We did not know what was happening with our fields. In two acres of banana fields, there is always a loss of crop during every harvest. While the production should be 50 tonnes, we are getting 30 tonnes. There is black powder on the leaves of the plants that affects the crop. Instead of separating the effluents, the factory releases chemicals through a reverse boring system. If we fail to use bore for one day, we get the chemical waste in the fields," said Naga Raju, a villager

Health issues

The villagers told NewsMeter that the factory releases poisonous gases into the air at around 3 a.m when everyone is sleeping. In the morning they wake up to see black powder on their bikes and cars. "At 30 years old, we are getting knee joint pains, skin infections, gastric problems, and kidney problems. Whom should we complain to? There are also cancer patients in our village. Our children have stunted growth. There is no proper doctor in our village. If we get health issues, we have to go to the RMP practitioner. The average lifespan of the villager has dropped to 60 years," said Kalapala Pandu, a villager.

Contaminated water

The contaminated water in the village has resulted in the death of animals, including buffaloes and goats. Villagers said hazardous waste is released into the waters. "We get black water on our taps. We have to leave the taps open for half an hour before using the water. The youth in the village say the water has high levels of PH and chemicals. After several requests, the Porus Labs built an RO plant for drinking water," said a villager.

Job for survival

When asked why some of the youth in the village are not looking for better jobs, it was found that many of them did not want to leave their village and wanted to do farming along with the job in the factory. "The job in the factory is hard but many villagers do not want to leave the village and go away. They are paid around Rs. 15,000-20,000 in the factory and they also take up farming. If we knew such a situation would arise one day, we wouldn't let our children work. It's not the ex-gratia from the government that would make us live in peace," said former village sarpanch Gopala Rao.

HRF demands shutting down Porus Labs

The Human Rights Forum (HRF) has said the government should start criminal proceedings against Porus Laboratories and the officials of the regulatory authority for failing to protect the lives of workers and the interests of people living in the neighbourhood. HRF asked the state government to close down the factory permanently. A two-member fact-finding team comprising Gutta Rohith and N.N Srinivasa Rao visited the village and interacted with the people. They requested the government and the company to make immediate arrangements to send migrant workers from Bihar home as per their request.

"There was no control and monitoring system in place to monitor the temperature and pressure round the clock. There were no alternate power systems in place on hand. There was neither automatic detection nor blockage systems in place. This is nothing but criminal negligence on the part of the management. The attitude of the plant management in evacuating the injured was deplorable. The workers were left to fend for themselves," said the HRF team. Mr. Rohith said the plight of migrant workers from Bihar requires special mention. A total of 60 people were employed through a labour contractor. Most of them are Dalit. "Some of them have been working for a decade and still earning meagre money. With four of their colleagues dead and seven others nursing injuries, the remaining workers are unable to come to terms with the situation. With no money left, they want to head back home. But neither the company nor the government has made any arrangements yet," he said.

Failed safety norms

The Porus Labs plant has been handling toxic waste unscientifically, resulting in deaths and loss of crops and livestock. Nothing has been done to change the situation, neither by the company nor by the regulatory authorities. The plant has tripled its production since 2019. Environmental clearance and consent to operate were granted to that effect. The Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board and the department of factories must regularly monitor the working conditions and safety of the plant, the HRF team said.

"It appears that neither of them has done anything in that direction. Both these regulatory authorities have as much blame on their hands as the management. It baffles us that such a highly toxic plant is being allowed to operate amid densely populated villages," said Mr. Rohith.

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