On November 1st, 2017 India witnessed one of the largest boiler accidents in recent times. An NTPC plant originally supported by Asian Development Bank met with an accident in their newly built unit. As per reports, about 42 people died in the accident but workers believed there would be more. About 350 workers were working in the area and many of them contract workers and it is suspected that more than 150 people would have lost their lives buried under the coal ashes.
Many believe that the safety norms were bypassed which resulted in the major tragedy. A preliminary report by Delhi Solidarity Forum identified the violation of safety norms and tearing hurry shown in commissioning the plant as responsible for the tragedy.
Is this a one-off incident or are there any systemic issues behind them. India has been trying its best to improve the business climate for the last three years. World Bank along with International Finance Corporation which is the private arm of World Bank Group produces the Doing Business Report which ranks the nations based on ease of doing business.
It measures the regulations that have an impact on the business and calls for reforms to make the business easier to start, operate and exit, with no, or least costs on the operator. The International Financial Institutions like IMF and World Bank have been demanding simplification of labour market regulations and improving the business climate. The government of India has been toeing this line of International Business and Institutions.
The Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion has identified about 400 plus reforms some of them have an adverse impact on industrial safety and labour protection. The government as part of the reforms is dismantling the inspection system, which overlooked regulations to a self-certification system or third-party certification. A revamping of the laws related to labour and consolidation of all the existing laws into four labour codes are in the offing, one of which was introduced in the Parliament recently.
The Labour Ministry has notified a compliance regime based on self certification for startups where they will be exempted from inspection from 9 labour laws in the first year and from second year onwards they are expected to give self-certification up to 3 years and there will be no external inspection until a credible and verifiable complaint of violation is filed. These measures give absolute authority to bypass labour laws and rights in the name of avoiding harassment. In liberalising labour inspection systems India has violated the ILO Labour Inspection Convention (081), which it has ratified. The convention states that the establishment should be inspected as often as possible and at any time even without prior intimation.
Liberal inspection systems and self-certification is an invitation to more disasters. The country has seen the worst of industrial disasters leaving hundreds dead in Bhopal and continuing mainly due to side-tracking of safety measures for more and more profit. The recent disaster at Unchahar should again be an eye opener to all of us that business left to its own will not be able to deliver on its social obligations. It needs a great deal of transparency and, check and balances to deliver the social good. Ease of doing business need not be ease of diluting labour safety.