The boiler explosion at NTPC’s Unchahar power plant in Rae Bareli underscores the importance of inspections and protocols for hazardous industrial operations. It has cost at least 32 lives and caused severe injuries to scores of personnel. High pressure boilers are hazardous pieces of equipment, which are strictly regulated with special laws. In fact, the basic objective of the Indian Boilers Act, 1923 is to ensure the safety of life and protection of property by mandating uniform standards in the quality and upkeep of these units. That the Uttar Pradesh government failed miserably in meeting this objective is evident from the accident at the public sector facility. Quite clearly, the accident was entirely preventable because boilers are designed to provide warnings as soon as dangerous pressure builds up and trigger automatic safety devices at a critical point. They should undergo periodic inspections to ensure that all these features are working and intact. At the Unchahar plant, the blocking of an outlet for waste gases by ash, unusual in a fairly new boiler, calls for an inquiry into the quality of the equipment and the fuel used. Ideally, these aspects should be investigated by an external agency and not the NTPC.
Industrial regulation has, unfortunately, come to be viewed as a barrier to ease of doing business in India. This is a result of inefficiency and corruption and the typical response of governments has been to relax crucial safety checks. Self-certification and third-party certification of facilities has received support from policymakers even in the case of boilers. Soon after assuming office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi likened maintenance of boilers to that of a privately owned car, where owners should be trusted to do their best because they understand the need for safety in its operation. But the two are not comparable. The Unchahar accident shows it is in everyone’s interest to have a transparent regulatory mechanism for hazardous industrial activity. The safety and welfare of workers and the public at large cannot be compromised. A rigorous approach to accident reporting must become part of the process if the weak spots in regulation are to be addressed. National Crime Records Bureau data provide insights into casualties caused by industrial boiler and gas cylinder explosions — there were 61 deaths in 2015 — and the rise in the number of accidents over the previous year points to the need for strict enforcement of safety protocols. The loss suffered by families of workers due to an accident that could have been averted cannot be compensated just financially. It must be the Centre’s endeavour to see that measures taken to make it easy to do business do not translate into lack of regulation, and putting lives at risk. Administrative reform can eliminate the corruption of inspector raj and achieve transparent regulation, while keeping the workplace safe.