The gas tanker lorry explosion on Chala Bypass Road in Kannur on August 27 has now claimed 19 lives, even as several others with severe burns are battling for their lives in hospitals.
The ex gratia relief announced by the Chief Minister to the dependents of the deceased and the injured victims is hardly sufficient to compensate for the actual loss and sufferings or the damage to or destruction of property and that it has not demonstrated a right-based approach to compensatory relief in such situations. The incident speaks of the necessity to evolve and develop a safety culture to avert such disasters in future. Disasters are either natural or man-made. There is the Disaster Management Act, 2005, enacted by Parliament mainly to cope up with situations arising from natural calamities.
The Act is aimed at preventing and mitigating the effects of disasters and for undertaking a holistic, coordinated and prompt response to any disaster situation. The Act also provides for constitution of a National Disaster Response Force and Disaster Response Mitigation Funds. The special feature of the legislation is that a high-level body designated as National Disaster Management Authority has been constituted under the Act, besides state and district-level authorities which concentrate mainly on natural calamities and matters connected therewith such as capacity building, disaster preparedness and safety, risk reduction and deal with disasters arising from man-made causes only to a limited extent.
It is a fact that punishments prescribed under our laws for offences caused by negligent or irresponsible handling of hazardous or combustible substances lack the element of deterrence.
Whenever an accident occurs resulting in loss of human lives, it is merely seen as a case of causing death by rash and negligent act and the case gets charged under Section 304 A of the Penal Code and the maximum punishment stipulated is only two years. It does not make out any difference even if the rash and negligent act is of such magnitude and degree that it results in mass deaths. It is high time that the punishment under Section 304A is appropriately enhanced at least to cover rash and negligent acts resulting in mass deaths. Such a measure would undoubtedly instil safety consciousness in persons who are authorised to handle hazardous or combustible substances.
Man-made disasters often result in high casualties and untold sufferings to the people. However, there is lack of adequate legal mechanism to provide relief to the victims of such tragedies. Law is not geared up to provide speedy and adequate relief to the victims and their families.
There is the feeling that preventive aspect is being neglected and regulatory mechanisms to ensure preventive measures are utterly lacking and the law is too lenient towards those violating the safety regulations or otherwise contributing to the root cause of such disasters.
It is common experience that many laws in our country are observed more in their breach. In the aftermath of a grave mishap, there will be knee-jerk public and official reactions, there will be talk of appointing judicial commissions for inquiry and improving the system and there will be checks and raids.
True, on account of the human element involved in triggering the manmade disasters, the victims or their kith and kin can have recourse to civil and public law remedies and those responsible for culpable negligence can also be held liable for criminal action under the provisions of Indian Penal Code or other special laws.
Specific remedies for claiming relief or compensation is also available to the victims in certain statutes. Further, under the law of torts, compensation can be claimed from a civil court for the damage/injury caused on account of tortious acts or negligence. Relief can also be sought against the public functionaries by taking resort to constitutional remedies under Article 32 and 226 of the Constitution of India.
The Chala disaster speaks of utter indifference on the part of the authorised operator in handling toxic gases which are hazardous and flammable substances under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 and the Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989.
It further speaks of inadequate fire control equipment in the transporting vehicle and emergency evacuation plans. The storage of combustible materials without even enclosing them with fire proof walls/partition aggravated the problem. The escape of poisonous gases has terrible impact on the health and safety of those living in the vicinity. In the context of a welfare state, it is necessary to establish a just relation between the rights of the individuals and the social responsibilities of the state.
This means that the victims and the dependents should be enabled and empowered to get the due relief in the form of compensation and other financial assistance at the earliest and without hassles.
(The views expressed in the article are the author’s own)