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Vedanta under scrutiny after accident in India

Sep 30, 2009

The safety policies of mining giant Vedanta Resources have come under scrutiny after chimney collapse at one of its sites in India that reportedly killed more than 100 workers on September 23. A union spokesperson has described it as one of the worst accidents in the country’s construction history.

Raipur: Rescuers on September 24 were searching desperately for survivors in rubble left by the collapse of a giant chimney in central India, with a top union official saying more than 100 workers were feared dead.


Labourers had completed 100 meters (330 feet) of the planned 275-metre chimney when the entire structure came crashing down in bad weather last Wednesday.

Officials said 20 bodies had been recovered and dozens more were believed to be buried under a vast pile of brick and stone at the site in Korba, 200 kilometres (124 miles) from Raipur, the state capital of Chhattisgarh.

"I expect the number of dead will cross 100," said Vinod Kumar Sharma, general secretary of the workers' union at aluminium group Balco, a subsidiary of London-listed Vedanta, which was building the chimney for a power plant.

Sharma said his estimate was based on testimony from union members near the scene of the accident, who said workers were sheltering from heavy rain in and around the structure when it collapsed at about 3:45 pm (1015 GMT).

"Only nine people who are in hospital are alive. The others are dead," he said. "It is a major tragedy. It is very sad for the poor families."

Police and government officials said they were having difficulties establishing exactly how many people were buried because the company has been unable to say how many contractors were working on the site.

Sharma said an average shift would have seen 55-70 people working directly on the chimney, with dozens more on the ground.

"The chance of finding survivors is getting very bleak," police officer Ratanlal Dangi said by phone from the site.

"We are facing great difficulty in removing the concrete. Once the debris is removed, we will be able to rescue people or find bodies."

Deadly construction site accidents are relatively common in India, where health and safety rules are routinely flouted, but a builders' labour group said this incident was bad, even by Indian standards.

"It is one of the worst accidents in India's recent construction history," Rajeev Sharma, South Asia head of Building and Wood Workers' International, told AFP.

K.C. Gupta, director general of the National Safety Council of India, said the disaster was the latest in a string of fatal accidents in the construction sector.

They include the collapse of a partially built bridge on the flagship Delhi Metro project that killed five in July and an accident during the construction of a flyover in the southern city of Hyderabad.

No accurate up-to-date figures exist for the number of occupational accidents and deaths in India, but the UN's International Labour Organisation has estimated that 50,000 people die here each year from work-related causes.

A spokesman for BALCO, short for Bharat Aluminium Co., said 150 rescuers had been pressed into action and 10 heavy earth-moving machines were also helping to clear debris at the site in Korba.

"A probable reason for the incident appears to be the excessive rains and lightning," said a statement from Vedanta Resources, which owns 51% of BALCO.

The Indian government holds the remaining 49%.

"The exact cause for this will however be ascertained only after a detailed investigation is concluded," added Vedanta, shares in which are listed on the London Stock Exchange.

BALCO has been expanding its aluminium operations in the mineral-rich state, which is in the grip of a Maoist insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives since the late 1960s.

Police Wednesday said there was no indication of terrorist involvement in the chimney collapse.

[The story was originally published in AFP]

Bad track record

The group has already been blacklisted by some investors over ethical and environmental concerns.

An investigation into the accident is expected. Rajeev Sharma, the south Asian head of the Building and Woodworkers' International union, said that the accident was bad, even by India's poor safety standards: "It is one of the worst accidents in India's recent construction history," he said.

Vedanta, which claims to benefit from "relatively low cost of operations and large and inexpensive labour and talent pools", expressed regret but declined to comment further.

The accident follows several embarrassing incidents for Vedanta.

In 2007, the Norwegian state pension fund sold its shares, saying that being an investor would present an "unacceptable risk of contributing to severe environmental damage and serious or systematic violations of human rights".

Survival International, which promotes the rights of tribal peoples, also alleges a bauxite mine intended for the Niyamgiri mountain in India's Orissa state will destroy local forests, while the mountain itself is considered sacred by local tribes.

Vedanta says it is committed to the best international standards.

Source : Google News
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