Kolkata: Two accidents in the past two months at Haldia Petrochemicals Ltd (HPL)—one killed three contract workers and the other forced an indefinite closure of the plant—may have been caused because the West Bengal government-controlled firm didn’t fill key positions in departments such as the one responsible for maintaining the factory, according to an HPL executive.
There are at least 65-70 vacancies at the factory, which the company has been unable to fill because of resistance from contract workers owing allegiance to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (Citu), according to this executive who did not want to be identified because he isn’t authorized to speak to the media.
“Citu has been pressuring HPL to recruit from among contract workers (for these positions) though they do not have the necessary skills. HPL can’t hire plant-level operatives until it resolves the dispute with the contract workers’ union,” this person added.
A second HPL official, a director, admitted that most vacancies are in “critical functions”. “But it might not be correct to blame the accidents on lack of trained people… HPL has launched an inquiry and only at the end of it we’ll know what led to the accidents. Let’s not forget HPL had an impeccable track record in terms of safety until now,” added this person who too did not want to be identified.
In an interview with Mint in June, West Bengal’s commerce and industries minister Nirupam Sen had admitted that he was concerned about the intensifying labour unrest at HPL and the stand-off between Citu—the labour arm of the state’s ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist)—and the HPL management.
Once the state’s showcase industrial project, HPL was jointly founded in 1994 by the West Bengal government, the Tata group and The Chatterjee Group (TCG). The plant was commissioned in 2000 at a cost of Rs5,864 crore. Currently, the state government owns a 43.27% stake and has management control of HPL thanks to the support of Indian Oil Corp. Ltd and the Tata group, which own 9.62% and 2.88%, respectively.
HPL has around 640 permanent employees and nearly 2,000 contract workers at its plant in Haldia in East Midnapore district, 125km from Kolkata. It has a naphtha-cracking capacity of 525,000 tonnes a year and produces polyethylene, polypropylene, even petrol.
Most contract workers are from families from whom land was forcibly acquired by the government for the plant at least 13 years ago.
On 24 May, three contract workers were killed while cleaning a vessel at the plant. The company denied gas leakage and blamed the incident on accidental release of nitrogen gas inside the vessel by the contract workers.
Forty days later, on 2 July, an explosion took place in one of the boilers of HPL’s naphtha cracker. This led to a fire, which caused substantial damage and forced indefinite closure of the plant. The explosion took place soon after a 14-day maintenance shutdown.
Apart from “plant-level operatives”, HPL has also lost several senior executives and engineers because of the “uncertainty caused by the ongoing agitation” at the plant, according to the HPL official cited in the first instance.
“For several months, the company didn’t have a head of finance… Many people in key positions should have retired long ago, but the management chose to extend their terms because recruiting senior people wouldn’t have been easy in view of the unrest at the plant,” he added.
The director admitted that while some senior people had left the company, it couldn’t be termed an exodus.
“Attrition of executives at HPL is very much within industry norms and such attrition is normal in any business. HPL, as a matter of strategy, extends employment of deserving and capable executives as needed in the interest of the company,” said a spokesperson for the company.
Amid labour unrest and ongoing court cases between the state government and TCG over management control of the company, HPL has delayed by almost three years the proposed expansion of its production capacity by 30%. TCG has been crying foul over the delay. It alleges that the cost of increasing HPL’s production facility has risen substantially from the initially budgeted Rs675 crore.