Unchahar, Rae Bareli: "There is a pall of gloom in Unchahar today. The whole town must have been grieving yesterday," said Deep Chandra, a 25-year-old who works at the NTPC plant in Unchahar.
Chandra had a day off on Wednesday, when a blast at the Rae Bareli power plant killed 26 people and injured more than a hundred.
Many are those he calls friends.
A resident of nearby Umra village, Chandra said many families would still not be aware that their loved ones had perished as most labourers from this unit were from Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
Chandra was milling around gate number 4 with a few other NTPC workers when they noticed ash-like material rising up. Chandra said they rushed to help, but were halted at the gate. Chandra used his pass to gain entry and began frantically searching for his uncle, who worked at the same unit.
"Everyone was covered in ash," Chandra remembers. "They were lying on the ground, their clothes in tatters. I couldn't recognise them. I helped shift the injured to ambulances till 7 pm, but my uncle was nowhere to be found. Later, I got a call from a hospital. They told me my uncle had been admitted with burns on his face."
A community grieves
Ramesh (name changed to protect identity), a junior engineer who works at the NTPC plant, said nothing was cooked at his home last night. "We all sat in silence," he said. Ramesh echoed Chandra's sentiments, saying that the NTPC township and adjoining villages whose workers are employed at the plant were grieving.
“The fields where the children play in the afternoon remained empty. Most people stayed indoors and kept their doors shut," he said. He added that most of the women were in tears.
Ramesh works night shifts at boiler 5, only 500 metres away from boiler 6, where the accident occurred. He said his relatives pleaded with him to skip work after the accident, but he chose to show up. He's been working there for 30 years. He still has faith in the system.
He said that some people who live in the township are battling for their lives. Ramesh said three assistant general manager-level officers of the NTPC were undergoing treatment in Lucknow.
Surendra Sharma, a junior rank officer deployed in the unit 5, said he was fortunate to have his day off on Wednesday. He was having tea in nearby Umra village when he heard the blast. He said initially, he didn't realise the magnitude of the incident.
"There was ash all around the accident site," he said. "I saw workers lying prone. Their clothes were torn and covered in hot ash. I was unable to make sense of what was happening until the ambulances began to arrive and rescue operations began," he added.
Sharma said he initially thought that at least 50 people had been killed and hundreds more would have been buried under the ash, which could be as hot as 250°C.
"Everyone in the township and nearby villages is traumatised," he said.
Allegations of negligence
RD Singh, Rae Bareli general secretary of Bharatiya Majdoor Sangh (BMS), blamed management for the accident. He said the unit was started in a hurry to impress the higher-ups.
He said that instead of getting the work done by staff trained by permanent employees, unskilled labourers had been hired. He said this was an accident waiting to happen and added that the blast was heard up to 500 metres away. He said many bodies might still be buried under the ash and that the death toll might rise.
The BMS leader, who has worked for some time at the NTPC, also alleged that the unit management was playing with the lives of labourers and had not provided them with proper safety equipment such as fire retardant clothes, gloves and other accessories.
He said providing a helmet, an apron and a pair of safety shoes simply isn't enough.
He said the government should take stern action and the compensation to the kin of dead should be increased to Rs 20 lakh.
Saurabh Sharma is a Lucknow-based freelance reporter. He is a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.
Updated Date: Nov 03, 2017 16:50 PM