Hamidullah Khan (41) is one of the five brothers who fell victim to the massive explosion that happened at the 500-Mw newly commissioned unit at NTPC’s Unchahar plant. Of the five, three have died and two are critically injured. Hamidullah has left four kids and no earning member.
His family, along with a politician from Chhattisgarh, was in argument with NTPC executives and UP government officials over the ambulance that will ferry the three bodies.
There are also murmurs of overwork, extra shift hours, lack of manpower, etc. Some even blame the Centre for pushing the public sector undertaking to achieve targets like adding a 500-Mw unit at Unchahar.
With outrage on the part of workers building up on Wednesday, some labour directorate officials from Rae Bareli were trying to pacify labourers by apprising them of the compensation that will come from the Centre, the UP government, and NTPC.
Till 2 pm on Friday, the death count had reached 32 and the number of the injured was 80.
The NTPC township looks eerily calm. The residential quarters are buzzing with usual action.
It was the guest house where politicians and the families of victims were pouring in, exhibiting nervous energy and having tense arguments.
In a 20-foot 'control room’, the casualties were being counted and updated every minute.
At NTPC level, three of its heads of departments — those of operations, ash handling, and border maintenance — were injured. The head of operations, Sanjiv Sharma, succumbed to injuries later in the evening.
Union Power Minister RK Singh announced ex-gratia compensation of Rs 20 lakh to the families of the deceased, Rs 10 lakh for the seriously injured, and Rs 2 lakh to the injured during his visit to the accident site on Thursday.
“We have initiated a probe into the matter and it will be completed in 30 days. We will ensure that the prevention mechanisms are finalised and implemented as soon as possible,” Singh said during his visit.
UP Power Minister Shrikant Sharma accompanied him to Unchahar and then to Lucknow, where some of the injured are being treated.
Later during the day, Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi also visited the injured at the Rae Bareli district hospital.
Rae Bareli is the Lok Sabha constituency of the Congress president and his mother, Sonia Gandhi.
Rahul Gandhi, in his statement, demanded better compensation and a government job for the kin of those killed. He also asked for a probe and punishment for the guilty.
A compensation announcement also came from the Prime Minister's Office, which announced an award of Rs 2 lakh to the family of the deceased and Rs 50,000 to the injured. A similar amount had been announced by the state government also.
“We are running around for an ambulance now, soon we might have to run around for the money also. We have come from Chhattisgarh and the contractor who employed all of them is not reachable and here in NTPC, nothing is being given in writing,” said Sheikh Sohrab, who came all the way from Hamidullah's village in Chhattisgarh.
NTPC has close to 250 contractors supplying workers to the Unchahar unit, said an executive, and agreed that none had come up with a list of their employees to claim any compensation.
The other workers who were appointed to work in the blasted 500 MW unit but were not in the afternoon shift, during which the accident took place on Wednesday, said they were working overtime for the past six months in every shift.
Apart from the local people, most of the workers have come from coal-rich Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand because the contractors employ people who can handle coal. Most of these contractors can't be traced from the numbers shared by the workers.
NTPC Chairman and Managing Director Gurdeep Singh, who was stationed there, was unavailable for comment. Other senior officials were also tight-lipped. No photos or visit to the accident site was allowed by NTPC. The reason given was not the tense atmosphere but the secrecy to be maintained till the inquiry is over.
Boiler cleaning is automated at most power-generation units. In this case, clinkers or lumps are formed after the burning of coal, which was being cleared manually. These clinkers, executives said, choked the bottom ash outlet, leading to increased pressure in the boiler and the melting of the water valves surrounding the boiler.
Hot flue gases and high-temperature steam came through this vent. This got mixed with the ash, which was at a temperature of 200 degrees Celsius, leading to the high-intensity blast.
“An enquiry has been set up by the NTPC Management to investigate the reasons for the accident. All possible measures are being taken to provide immediate relief to the families of affected people in close coordination with the district administration,” said a public statement by NTPC on Thursday.
The maharatna PSU is finding it difficult to cope with the pressure. Officials of the office of district magistrate said they had been waiting for 12 hours and no one was ready to sign the list of the deceased to make it official. NTPC executives said most of the bodies were beyond recognition.
Some executives requesting anonymity called the incident horrific. “When we reached, all we saw were bodies and body parts. There were bodies on overhead wires. In my whole career I have never heard of such an accident, but I saw this and it's a nightmare that will stay with me,” said an executive.
Some are shocked, while many are angry. Besides workers, even executives are working for 16 hours a day, which is not a norm in an organisation like NTPC.
“There is lack of technical staff in Unchahar currently. Against four, there's just one person in the unit’s control room. Senior engineers are retiring and no hiring in technical roles is happening,” he said. A head of the department like Sharma, who died, is not supposed to be at boiler site.
Senior officials said there was pressure from the government to meet the target of making NTPC a 50,000-MW capacity company, and hence the unit came up.
“The unit was facing trouble but it was commissioned and orders came from the Centre to fix the problems while functional,” said an executive. He further added that one unit was closed earlier due to a shortage of coal and water.
“Why the new unit was needed despite coal shortage we can't understand. Also, the Sarda stream, from which water is sourced, was mostly dry this year,” said another executive.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has served notice to the Uttar Pradesh government on the matter, said an official.
NTPC, however, issued a statement on Thursday, saying all other four units would continue to function. The smoke from the chimneys and the accident site could not be differentiated from the distance from where the entry was restricted. Coal shortage, overwork, and the strict target timeline might have caused this incident.
To the family of Hamidullah, none of this matters. From the land of coal to be buried under a pile of hot ash and steam, most of the labourers had no clue as to what targets they risked their lives for.
The enquiry committee is investigating the matter, said some executives, but whether it will take cognizance of the human resource issue is to be seen.