Did Narendra Modi’s ‘pressure’ cause the death of 32 NTPC workers?

The scene after the blast at NTPC’s Unchahar power plant.

Clamour for an independent inquiry into the accident at NTPC Limited’s Unchahar plant grows with information that the PMO pressured the company to cut corners on safety standards

The sixth unit of the NTPC at Unchahar in Sonia Gandhi’s constituency of Rae Bareli was the first 500 MW unit to have been approved and commissioned by the Modi Government. And sources in NTPC now confirm that the corporation was under pressure to complete the project in record time so that the Prime Minister could take credit for it.

While there is no official confirmation, sources in NTPC confirmed that they had been told that the Prime Minister wanted to inaugurate the unit on November 9. The first date suggested by NTPC was November 7 but the PMO wanted it changed to November 9, presumably because of his preoccupations with elections in Gujarat.

This was why NTPC engineers compromised on safety standards that has already caused the death of 32 people following a blast in the ash pipe on November 1.

While NTPC officials remain tight-lipped and maintain that the inquiry being conducted by the senior most director of NTPC’s Board will identify the reasons for the accident, there is growing clamour for an independent inquiry. Workers, unions and engineers, on condition of anonymity, told NH the following :

  • They were told that the trial run of the sixth unit, completed by BHEL in a record time of one and a half years, would stop on October 31 and would resume commercial production on November 9 after the formal inauguration.
  • There is no explanation why the unit was still running on November 1.
  • While the unit was ostensibly on a trial run, it is alleged to have started commercial production ahead of schedule.
  • It is suspected that the commercial production was started in order to claim certain subsidies from the Centre.
  • Contrary to the claim of NTPC, the unit was not operating on the automated mode, which would have called for the presence of only three or four workers in the area.
  • The fact that there were over 200 workers (300 according to other estimates), mostly on contract, working at the time of the accident, engineers say, prove that the operation was being done manually.
  • Had there been no haste, the priority of the NTPC would have been to fix the automated system first.
  • Holding the trial run along with commercial production , engineers say, is not generally done.
  • The workers are believed to have drawn the attention of the management towards the malfunction of the ash-pipe and formation of clinkers but the warning was ignored.
  • It is also alleged that the Boiler Inspector, reporting to the state government, had given a certificate without physically inspecting the boiler at Unchahar.

The allegation is that the Prime Minister’s penchant for ‘records’ and for claiming achievements never attained before put undue pressure on the NTPC to complete the project and make the unit functional ahead of time.

The allegations have gained strength following the unusual manner in which the PMO bypassed the normal procedure of appointment in the case of the NTPC Chairman-cum-Managing Director Gurdeep Singh last year.

The PMO bypassed the Public Enterprises Selection Board ( PSEB), which normally selects PSU heads, and formed a special search committee to appoint a new CMD of NTPC.

The committee chose Gurdeep Singh , who was Managing Director of Gujarat State Electricity Corporation.

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