As many as 10 people, who were arrested for protesting the operations of a plant from where poisonous gas leaked in India, were released on bail on Monday, May 12. The protesters, five of whom are members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), were agitating against the operation of the LG Polymers plant in the city of Visakhapatnam. A gas leak from the plant on May 7 killed 12 residents of the surrounding areas and over 800 people were hospitalized.
The protest took place on May 9. The protesters were demanding the permanent closure of this plant and its relocation from residential areas.
The plant, owned by LG Polymers India Pvt Ltd – a subsidiary of the South Korean chemicals giant LG Chem, has been operating for decades without proper environmental clearance.
In an affidavit seeking environmental clearance from the State Level Environment Assessment Impact Authority (SEIAA) on May 10, 2019, the company’s director of operations had admitted that “prior environment clearance was not taken for the said manufacturing activity as per the provisions of Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006.”
He had further confirmed that “As on this date, our industry does not have a valid Environmental Clearance substantiating the produced quantity, issued by the competent authority, for continuing operations.”
According to a statement by Human Rights Forum (HRF), only a month before this affidavit was submitted, “the South Korean government (had) revealed that the company had fudged air pollution data to convey that it was compliant with air emission norms while in reality it had emitted the carcinogenic vinyl chloride chemical more than 15 times in excess of standards.”
Nevertheless, authorities did not take any measures to shut down the plant, which eventually led to the industrial accident. Many hamlets around the plant had to be vacated. It is reported that water bodies in five surrounding villages have been contaminated.
Angered by this disregard and negligence shown by the authorities, around 50 residents from the RR Venkatapuram village, many of whose family members were victims of the tragedy, gathered at the plant’s gate on the morning of May 9 for a sit-in protest, carrying the bodies of three victims.
The furious protesters demanded that the plant be shut down permanently, and its top management arrested. According to the police, during the protest, one woman climbed over the gate of the factory and opened it from inside, whereupon about 20 people entered the premises. Five of them were immediately arrested.
More arrests followed as police widened the scope of the investigation. Among those arrested was Ganga Rao, Secretary of CPI(M)’s Visakhapatnam City Committee. He was picked up by the police from the party’s office on the evening of May 10.
The police, while presenting those arrested before the metropolitan magistrate, had sought judicial custody for 15 days in order “to complete investigation and lay charge sheet in this case”.
The sub-inspector of the Gopalapatnam police station said in his submission to the judge that if “the accused are released on bail, they may gather” for more protests again. However, the judge refused to grant custody.
Speaking to Peoples Dispatch after his release on bail, Ganga Rao said, “The police want to punish our local party leaders for daring to organize against the company.” The party workers have been booked under various charges including criminal trespass and rioting, Rao claimed.
They have also been charged under sections of the Disaster Management Act 2005 and the Epidemic Disease Act 1987 for violating lockdown rules which prohibit public gatherings.
Newsclick reported that 48 other villagers suspected to have participated in the protests have also been booked under various charges.