An inferno that India will never forget
The pipelines that carry voluminous quantities of gas 24X7 for hundreds and thousands of kilometers appear so innocuous until a small technical glitch or a minor human failure causes a massive disaster. The people in the vicinity of the pipeline bear the brunt of the fire that erupts in a fraction of a second.
The GAIL pipeline carries highly inflammable gas from a location in the Krishna Godavari basin to the power generation plant at Kodanpalli belonging to Lanco. At about 5.50am on June 27, it caught fire accidentally at a spot in the East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh. Apparently, the gas was leaking for some time and the villagers had come to know this. Sadly, they did not leave the place. When a tea vendor lighted his stove, the gas rich air instantly caught fire. The inferno incarcerated everything that came its way. Human beings, property, trees up to a distance of half a kilometer from the pipeline on either side were devoured by the violent flame that rose high into the sky. It was an accident whose fatal aftermath is extremely heart-rending. To see innocent poor villagers paying such a heavy price for no fault of theirs is very painful indeed.
In a similar fire in August, 2013, in a HPCL refinery in Vishakhapatnam, 28 people were charred to death.
The fire accident that happened is the first in the history of GAIL that owns and maintains some 8000 kilometers of pipeline. The network will reach 14,000 kilometers in the near future. The risk, therefore, always lurks near gas pipelines. GAIL will need to ascertain how the gas leak happened and went undetected for hours. Safety and maintenance procedures have to be redrawn to prevent similar accidents happening again.
India’s natural gas industry is growing at a fast pace. Natural gas has become the preferred fuel because of its low carbon foot print, lower prices and large availability. Naturally, its share in the diversified energy mix is growing. The problem that is inherent in this convenient fuel is the risk of its transportation. . India has possessed and maintained oil pipelines for a long time in recent history. Pipeline systems for gas are relatively new for India. This underscores the need for a tight erection and maintenance protocol for gas pipeline networks.
The government should now accord high priority to set up a statutory safety regulator for the oil and gas sector. Safety considerations must never be sidelined to achieve quicker growth of pipe networks. A robust and credible safety ombudsman can preempt objections of politicians to pipelines passing through their areas.
The Tamil Nadu government has stalled a key section of GAIL’s ambitious Kochi-Bangalore-Mangalore pipeline project alleging that a section of the pipeline passing through the state will some 5500 farmers to peril. The Tamil Nadu government wants the pipe line to skirt villages and run along highways. Whatever may be the justification for such a demand, the nation has to diligently draw lessons from the June 27 GAIL accident.