Issue Date: May 16, 2011
Gujarat Readies For Disaster
Gujarat, one of India’s most economically robust states, is improving its disaster preparedness. A state agency, the Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority, or GSDMA, is drawing up plans to prevent industrial accidents and improve response to natural and industrial catastrophes.
The state created the agency after a 7.7 magnitude earthquake struck northwest India in January 2001. About 20,000 people died. The quake destroyed 250,000 houses and 40,000 schools, hospitals, and other public buildings. Subsequently, the government judged that the damage was greater than it should have been and that the authorities’ response was inadequate.
The potential for both natural and industrial disasters is high in Gujarat, according to R. Bannerji, the chief executive officer of GSDMA. Historical records show that about every five years a natural calamity, such as an earthquake or severe drought, ravages the state. On the industrial front, catastrophes have been few, but the risk is clearly present. Gujarat is one of India’s most industrialized states, Bannerji notes.
The chemical industry is particularly well developed in Gujarat, but when GSDMA was created, emergency response procedures for industrial disasters had not been reviewed for many years, Bannerji says. “There are thousands of Bhopals waiting to happen in India, and Gujarat is particularly vulnerable,” he says, referring to the 1984 insecticide plant accident that killed thousands of people in the state of Madhya Pradesh.
Bannerji is particularly aware of the risks because GSDMA has collected comprehensive data on the materials stored and produced at all chemical plants in Gujarat. “We know what they make, we know what they store, and we know how a particular accident will affect people,” he says. Opening a thick vulnerability guidebook produced by GSDMA, Bannerji highlights maps showing the location of potentially hazardous industrial facilities and the residential population in the vicinity.
In July, Gujarat will open a response center, manned around the clock and capable of responding to all sorts of calamities. GSDMA, which now employs 66 people, recently completed construction of the control room near its headquarters in Ahmadabad, the capital of Gujarat.
Yet, in terms of effectiveness of response, more work needs to be done, Bannerji says. After an accident at a chemical plant, rescue work could turn out to be ineffective because hospitals in Gujarat don’t have enough beds to treat burn patients and don’t store the antidotes to treat toxic chemical inhalations, he says. Also, industry has not done enough to prepare for disaster or to prevent it, Bannerji maintains.
“There’s nothing like having a small hospital ready at the industrial site,” he says. “We’d like industry to cooperate, but it’s always difficult to make it pay.” Gujarat, he points out, has a responsibility to protect its population from industrial accidents because government subsidies such as free land are one reason so many chemical plants are in the state. Having received these benefits, industry has a moral responsibility to give something back, Bannerji adds.
Chemical company executives contacted by C&EN have mixed views of GSDMA. At Dishman Group, a producer of pharmaceutical ingredients with plants in Ahmadabad, V. C. Vishnoi, a vice president for safety, health, and environment, is effusive in his praise. “They have infrastructure, technical manpower, and access to ambulances and other rescue vehicles,” he says. “Gujarat has the best emergency response facilities in India.”
But at Archean Group, a producer of industrial chemicals and fertilizers, Executive Director C. G. Sethuram is critical: “I don’t think they know that a peroxide fire should be left to burn itself out or how to recognize hazardous storage practices.” GSDMA, he claims, has not hired anyone with the right technical knowledge.
Bannerji responds that GSDMA has not needed expertise from the chemical industry because it is available from other government departments. For instance, GSDMA has access to an accident response database from the Gujarat Directorate of Industrial Safety. “We know how to handle a peroxide fire,” he says. He himself is new to disaster response, having returned to India two years ago from Washington, D.C., where he was a senior Indian delegate at the International Monetary Fund.
In-house expertise will be needed, though, when the 24-hour emergency response center opens in July. Earlier this year, GSDMA placed ads in specialized publications seeking international consultants to advise Gujarat on how to prevent chemical disasters and improve response when they happen. The consultants will look at chemical storage practices and what antidotes hospitals should store.
A bigger problem than lack of expertise, Bannerji says, is the state’s bureaucracy, which is not used to looking at problems in the comprehensive manner that GSDMA favors. “Everyone works in silos,” he laments. He recalls that during reconstruction work after the 2001 earthquake, GSDMA’s contribution was effective because the agency consulted home owners on how their houses should be rebuilt.
Yet, ultimately, Bannerji is fatalistic about what all the planning efforts will achieve. “There is something we just saw in Japan,” he says. “You just cannot plan for everything.”
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