CONCEPT OF SAFETY IN INDIA – A PERSPECTIVE
Safety, as per Oxford Dictionary, is defined as a noun meaning “the condition of being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk, or injury” and is considered to be denoting anything that is designed to prevent injury or damage. Wikipedia defines Safety as the state of being “safe”, the condition of being protected from harm or other non-desirable outcomes.
Safety, although a relative term, is best defined as the control of recognised or identified hazards in order to achieve an acceptable level of risk. Although Safety is very distinct from Security, the word Safety is often loosely used and is often taken to be the same as Security, especially in India. The makers of the Indian Constitution, at the time of its being framed, had the vision to include Safety as a constitutional provision, even though it was limited to occupational health & safety specifically applicable to industries. The conditions that prevailed when the Constitution was framed were much different from those that prevail today – the risks were much lesser and the hazards were limited – a fact which probably prompted the makers of the constitution to limit the provisions to industries only. However, the fact remains that Safety was considered important enough to find a mention in this valuable document that forms the basis for the legal framework of the Country.
The Indian economy is growing at a fast rate, probably one of the fastest economies in the world. The industrial & construction sectors have hugely contributed towards this growth and are likely to remain as the accelerators of economy. While India’s workforce is spread over a variety of sectors and not only limited to these two sectors, the Safety related laws are limited to four industries only – Construction, Factories, Mines and Ports – thus leaving out a majority of citizens from the ambit of the legal framework of Safety. Inspite of the existence of legislations on occupational health and safety for many years and a National Policy being framed in 2009, large sections of our Country’s workforce and the entire remain at home population continues to be exposed to Health & Safety risks due to lack of compliance. The National Policy does talk of improving India’s image in terms of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 155 of 1981 on Occupational Safety and Health Convention and Convention No. 187 of 2006 on Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 but the implementation of the National Policy leaves much to be desired.
The International Labour Organization (ILO), in a 2005 report on the occasion of 17th World Congress on Safety and Health at Work, quoted the example of India’s 222 reported fatal accidents at work against the estimated 40,000 fatalities to highlight the fact that “only a fraction of the real toll of work-related death and disease is covered in a number of developing countries”.
Technological advancements, coupled with rapid urbanization and unplanned growth of cities have led to Safety Management emerging as the new challenge, and this, in fact, is the negative realm of development. A moot question – Should Safety be limited to the workforce only or should all citizens of a country be entitled to a Safe living. Why is it that the legal framework talks of occupational safety and not of overall safety? The very recent incidents of two innocent lives being lost in two different schools within a space of just four days are a case in point. These figures may just become a part of statistics, albeit while underlining the need for organizations to pay attention to the very vital safety aspects while focusing on the core competency, but were these two children not entitled to Safety in their respective schools. The two schools where these unfortunate incidents occurred are at two opposite ends of the spectrum – one being a Government school and the other being a famous public school managed by a famous society – clearly bring out the priority of school authorities in addressing the safety concerns within their school premises.
Major Safety Legislations in India and the Government Framework on Safety
The Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Cess Act, 1996 permits State Governments and Union Territories to impose a 1% cess on construction projects costing more than Rs 10 Lakh to fund state welfare schemes providing financial assistance to workers and their families in case of accidents. The responsibility of formulation of the National policy and legislation on Factories & Docks rests with the Government of India, through the Ministry of Labour, the Directorate General, Factory Advice Services and Labour Institutes (DG FASLI) being the nodal agency within the Labour Ministry. The responsibility of implementation & enforcement of the Docks Act remains with the DG FASLI while the Labour Departments of various States and Union Territories, through their respective factory inspectorates, are responsible for implementation & enforcement of the Factories Act. The responsibility for Mine Safety rests with the Govt of India while that of enforcing the Plantation Act rests with the State Governments.
As far as Fire Safety is concerned, the Ministry of Home Affairs, through the Directorate General Fire Services, Civil Defence & Home Guards, is responsible for formulating policies on Fire Prevention, Protection, Legislation, Administration, Training, Equipments through the Standing Fire Advisory Council (SFAC), creating mass awareness on Fire Safety, providing financial assistance to the State Fire Services through General Insurance Corporation, Finance Commission, Planning Commission etc and making Standards & Codes on Fire Safety through Bureau of Indian Standards. Legally speaking, Fire is a State subject and has been included as a Municipal Function in the XII th Schedule of Constitution of India in terms of the Article 243-W.
The Ground Reality
Safety, in today’s scenario, encompasses not only the workplace and that too being limited to the four industrial sectors, but covers the entire spectrum starting from Safety within the home to Safety while being on the road, Safety at the workplace irrespective of the nature of work, Safety of patients in hospitals, Safety of children in schools and various other aspects of day-to-day life. The average Indian mindset today does not consider Safety as an essential element which needs to be incorporated in the daily activities and this mindset manifests at various levels of social, commercial and professional hierarchy. The lackadaisical attitude towards safety manifests itself across the board from common citizens to private sector to Government officials. They Say – Seeing is believing – and the most recent incident of a massive fire destroying the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) is the best example. Claims & counterclaims apart, the fact remains that a treasure trove was lost due to apathy and overall safety not being looked into. Probably the lack of basic Safety culture coupled with the ignorance of Safety requirements from a holistic & integrated perspective led the various causes to manifesting themselves into a massive fire. A timely Safety Audit by professionals would have saved the situation but is there any law that makes periodic Safety Audit compulsory or is there any law that lays down the consequences one would have to face in case of apathy to Safety. The NMNH incident also highlights the legal lacuna in India’s Safety framework – stringent Safety related laws bringing out the need for timely compliances and deterrent punishments in case of violations. Post accidents & mishaps, commissions of enquiries get into post-mortem mode, huge sums of money are doled out as relief or compensation and things are forgotten till another mishap. Is there a way out or we leave it to fate? The ground reality today is that Safety is a very low priority area – preparedness is almost absent and enforcement is very weak. Industries, Schools, Govt offices, Public Places and Business Establishments are not ready to invest in Safety related advise. The dismally low or practically non-existent safety awareness levels of common citizen further adds to the problem created by absence of legislations on Safety.
It may be some solace that the Country has some Safety related legislations covering some parts of its workforce but what happens to the bulk of the workforce in sectors other than the four sectors mentioned above or a person working in a business establishment or a person working in a Govt/ private office or a lady who suffers gas cylinder blast injuries in the house kitchen. It is surprising that in a Country that is exposed to risks related to Electrical Safety, Fire Safety, Road Safety, Transportation Safety, Home Safety, School Safety Work Place Safety and a host of other such risks, there is no single agency or Govt body that acts as a nodal point. Although the workforce in the sectors covered by Safety Legislations is somewhat protected, the Safety of other citizens like persons working in agriculture sector, business establishments, Govt/private offices, small time manufacturing industries, health care sector or in the education sector do not have any legal cover, whatsoever, as there is neither any legislation nor is any department directly responsible for implementation & enforcement of Safety Measures. While the Ministry of Labour is responsible for Industrial Safety, the Ministry of Home Affairs is responsible for Fire Safety, Safety related to natural disasters and other ministries like railways, civil aviation etc are responsible for safety within their domains. There is always a turf war in many cases – School Safety for example. Which is the nodal agency for School Safety, an aspect that encompasses the safety of a child from the moment the child leaves home till his or her return back – Is it the Ministry of Home Affairs or is it the Ministry of HRD or is it someone else? Why is it that there is no law mandating the Safety Audit in a school? A law on these aspects is an absolute necessity and would go a long way in preventing loss of precious human lives. Even where legislations exist, say, the Factories Act, the enforcement & implementation is a cause of major concern as and more often than not cover ups are the norm.
The Challenges of Safety
The Safety Sector in India is today faced with major challenges ranging from absence of adequate legislations to problems of implementation & enforcement and from lack of education & awareness to disregard for professionalism. The big challenges faced by the sector at macro level are discussed in the succeeding paragraphs.
First – Acute Shortage of Manpower. Even in areas where Safety legislations exist, one of the major challenges faced today is the non-availability of qualified, trained & experienced manpower for implementation of the existing laws. This problem is more acute in the Govt sector as enforcement is the responsibility of Govt authorities. The outflow of existing staff due to superannuation, coupled with the ban on recruitments in Govt sector have added to the woes. Moreover, the lower level functionaries tend to work in a copybook style with no up gradation of knowledge and this, in effect, results in a lip service only. The shortage of enforcement & regulatory manpower results in inspection & enforcement remaining small-scale and piecemeal, leading to work-related injury and health problems on one hand and not being emergency ready on the other hand. Proper enforcement of existing Safety laws & legislations is a must for economic growth & development of any Country and it would be pitiable if India lags on the economic front for want of such manpower or woeful shortage of Govt staff. There is an urgent need to review the inspection system and strengthen it by effective use of technology and move from manual systems of inspection to digital systems of reporting with highly deterrent fines for non-compliance.
Second – Non Standardised Vocational Level Safety Education. It is absolutely beyond comprehension that Safety education in the Country has not been standardized even after 68 years of independence. While higher education opportunities in these fields are now available in many States, the standards greatly vary and are not comparable in absence of any benchmarks set by a Central agency. The vocational education in this field is severely lacking and remains primarily un-organised, non-standardised and unregulated. No private institution in the Country offers accredited vocational level professional development of personnel in these sectors. A search on the internet reveals a plethora of training institutes offering training, diploma & post graduate courses in Safety Management and awarding certificates of having successfully completed the courses but the moot question is that which agency has certified these training shops many of which have fancy names starting with the words Indian or National. The gullibility and lack of awareness amongst general public is only adding to the coffers of such shops, with some of them functioning from dingy cubicles and most of them without any facility for practical training or availability of qualified, skilled & experienced faculty. One shudders to think of the direction that we are headed if we continue entrusting Safety in the hands of such supervisors and managers churned out from these shops.
Third – Absence of Legislations. The need for the Safety Professionals to get organized and work towards stirring the think-tank of Safety Sector into action mode for getting the existing legislations suitably modified to plug the existing loopholes and new legislations promulgated to ensure full occupational safety of the citizens needs no overemphasis. The need of the hour is for everyone to rise above political, class, caste and status considerations and push the system into framing & enactment of the relevant laws. The legal fraternity needs to give a suitable push to take up these issues as a matter of priority and help the Country move on the Path to Safety. Ensuring legal cover and Safety protection for sectors not covered under existing legislations needs to be taken up on priority.
Fourth – Attitude towards Safety. Most of the people, including many in the top echelons of managements, generally consider any investment on Safety as avoidable & wasteful. Those in the Govt domains take refuge of the absence of any legislations, the lack of ownership or responsibility and the fear of questioning by audit authorities for not investing in Safety preparedness while those in the private sector cite the supposedly high cost factors of implementing safety measures as a deterrent. The general attitude towards Safety today is like that of an Ostrich – bury your head in sand and you feel safe because you cannot see the imminent danger. Investments in creating Safety Awareness amongst the community and initiating them into Safety Preparedness will go a long way towards creating a mindset and attitude towards Safety as a basic human responsibility. Including Safety Awareness & Safety Preparedness initiatives as a distinct CSR activity in Schedule VII of the Companies Act, 2013 (18 of 2013) could go a long way in promoting Safety and creating a positive attitude towards Safety.
The economic health of any country is directly linked to its occupational safety. The savings & benefits that accrue due to the implementation of stricter Safety measures far outweigh the costs of implementing Safety measures. An increased safety performance leads to increased employee & public confidence, reduced accidents & injuries, reduced litigation costs and improved productivity, all of which translate into increased profits, thereby adding to the economic well being of the Country. India needs to be aggressive in moving ahead in the Safety Sector and vigorously push for the framing of Safety related laws. While many companies are taking the lead towards implementing Safety measures at the workplace, the need to widen the ambit of Safety measures to include both working and remain at home population needs to be driven home. The concept of Safety needs to be given a much wider horizon and the lead needs to be taken by the Central Govt. The private sector and the Not for Profit organizations can play a very vital role in creating Safety Awareneness leading to a Prepared Community as far as Emergency Preparedness is concerned. The need of the hour is to move out of the shadows of conferences & seminars and big ticket events and move into the realm of reality – the movement needs to be enforced at the ground level and needs to be strategically planned & implemented in a continual manner for fruitful results. The need of the hour is to move from an unprofessional approach to professionalism. Let us strive to move ahead on the “Path to Safety” and build Safety Consciousness in every citizen of the Country.
Safety Saves……………………………………..…Prepare to be Safe, Prepare to be Alive
- ILO Press release dated 18th September 2005
- National Policy on OSH, Ministry of Labour & Employment, Govt of India