In view of the violation of the norms for the health and safety of workers in thermal plants, the Supreme Court directs the High Courts to examine whether adequate health delivery systems are in place. By SAGNIK DUTTA
THE Supreme Court judgment in Occupational Health and Safety Association vs Union of India, delivered by Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan on January 31, has brought to the fore the serious health hazards faced by workers in coal-based thermal power plants across the country. A protracted legal struggle that began in 2005 has only culminated in the apex court giving directions to the High Courts to examine whether there are adequate and effective health delivery systems in place and to evaluate the occupational health status of workers in thermal power plants.
While upholding the right to health and the right to live in a clean, hygienic and safe environment as rights flowing from Article 21 (the right to life) of the Constitution, the judgment said that it would not be practicable for the apex court to examine whether coal-based thermal power plants across the country were complying with safety standards and the rules and regulations relating to the health of employees in such plants. The High Courts in 18 States, including Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, have been asked to examine these issues with the assistance of the State governments after calling for necessary reports from the thermal power plants in their respective States.
The judgment comes against the backdrop of continuing violations of health and safety norms for workers in thermal power plants and the absence of any mechanism to ensure compensation for victims of occupational health disorders. At present, blatant violations of the Supreme Court’s interim order in 2008 directing thermal power stations to ensure the safety of workers continue to take place.
A committee of experts was appointed as per the orders of the court by the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), Ahmedabad, to monitor the health and safety of workers and make recommendations. The committee, which submitted its report in 2011, failed to capture the ground reality of workers suffering from occupational diseases and monitor in any substantial sense the medical facilities and compensation available to such workers. While the NIOH report did not record any specific instances of occupational health disorders in 109 thermal power plants across the country, other independent surveys as well as information from government sources themselves mention several such cases.