13 dead, 3000 sickened in toxic gas leak in India – We need African-Dalit workers power!

Thirteen people died and thousands sickened in the wake of a poisonous gas leak on May 7 in the town of Visakhapatnam (also known as Vizag) on the east coast of India.

Dense toxic fumes of styrene gas engulfed the area surrounding the LG Polymers South Korean chemical plant at around 2:30 in the morning.

Suffocation and breathing difficulties prompted the affected population to try to escape the geographical area of impact.

Those who had cars and bigger automotives were able to leave the area to safety, but those who didn’t tried to leave by foot or bicycle.

Many of the 3,000 people escaping collapsed en route, with 13 deaths and at least 300 hospitalized from the deadly fumes.

The State was not adequately prepared for this disaster in spite of prior warnings. Medical attention was only provided to those who were able to exit the disaster zone.

It was only after approximately 5:30 am that disaster relief in the form of ambulances and police set foot in the most affected area.

The COVID-19 lockdown further complicated movement of people due to the movement restrictions in place.

In a way, having ventilators acquired in anticipation of COVID-19 patients was helpful in reducing the fatalities.

The capitalist nexus

In a matter of days, the State government went on to assure that it was safe to return to the affected areas and announced a compensation of one crore Rupees (about $131,000 U.S. dollars) each to the families of the deceased.

Details later emerged that the Chief Minister of the province, Y. S. Jaganmohan Reddy, has a conflict of interest, as one of his extended family members having financial ties with the South Korean corporation.

The law states that the company should compensate the family of the deceased with Rs. five crores (about $659,000 U.S. dollars).

Instead of paying reparations for those killed, the company and the State government officials blamed individual workers. They did not go through a thorough investigation, which would have uncovered the financial corruption combined with the disabling of safety precautions to cut costs.

The State also made sure that no new coverage of the disaster was to be seen. All national and regional news coverage and websites stopped airing any updates.

Although the area was declared to be safe to return to immediately, two freight train operators who stationed a train in the area for a few hours three days after the disaster had to be hospitalized with respiratory complications.

Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) volunteers who were serving the affected community with relief and health monitoring after the disaster also collapsed the next week.

The surrounding community has since been demanding the plant be closed down permanently.

The State government has announced it will facilitate the transplant of the factory further outside the city.

That would not solve the problem; it would be a band-aid while protecting the corporation from paying due reparations.

The affected population should be provided with lifetime health monitoring, health care and financial compensation by LG Polymers.

The top management of the corporation should be brought to justice and the perpetrators from the State dealt with accordingly.

A throwback to Bhopal gas leak in India

The tragedy in Vizag was not the first and will not be the last in India.

I was not alive when the Bhopal gas genocide took place in 1984, a gas leak which claimed 8,000 people within three days and upwards of 25,000 people to this day.

The Bhopal genocide was perpetrated by the criminal Union Carbide (now Dow Chemical) in a way to transfer the risks of the Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) production and storage to India while making profits.

The plant was located next to a large working class population and the victims from the disaster are mostly Muslims and Dalits, who are oppressed populations in the caste system.

The effects are generational and the affected area has never been cleaned up.

The fugitive Dow Chemical corporation escaped local laws in India with direct protection from the U.S. government.

I am a survivor of the 1997 Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd (HPCL) oil refinery blasts that killed 22 people in Visakhapatnam,  my hometown.

The current tragedy brought back memories of the HPCL blasts. My family, like many others, had to flee on foot to safety.

Some of my personal friends lost their parents in the blasts. This has haunted the city dwellers ever since. Visakhapatnam is a highly industrialized city with a large migrant population coming to work there in order to survive.

Workers rights and safety need to be the basis of all decision making for the safety of the entire populace.

Only under the leadership of the African and Dalit working class will this system be overturned, paving the way to a safe and prosperous world with no oppression! 

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