Editorial | Sunday Observer


Horana: challenge of industrial safety

‘Made in Sri Lanka’ is a tag that must assure us of safe consumption along with our pride as a productive nation, of affordable prices and ultimately, a strong economy. It also must assure us that what we consume has not been produced at the cost of people’s lives. Last Thursday’s tragedy in Horana sharply raises that question of industrial safety in the country.

Five people died last Thursday and many others are yet recovering from the effects of toxic waste after a horrific industrial accident at a rubber factory in Horana. Immediate credit goes to the fire and rescue services and other first responders for their bravery and efficiency in saving lives and managing this minor disaster. And, we cherish the memory of those brave villagers who died while spontaneously heeding the rescue appeals of the first accident victim.

The Central Environmental Authority (CEA) has rightly moved fast to suspend the factory’s operations with immediate effect. The CEA presumably will investigate the accident and identify not just those responsible but also the lapses in industrial safety provisions and technical rehabilitation requirements.

The Police is also investigating to ascertain whether any violations of the law have occurred, especially, in terms of criminal negligence.

The Sri Lanka of today is a far cry from that sleepy, agricultural nation that set foot on its post colonial journey in the mid 20th century. Today, the country is rapidly shifting from an agriculture-based economy to a services and manufacturing-based one. An increasing majority of the population is familiar with industrial and commercial environments and the contingencies that arise from this modern lifestyle.

Laws pertaining to production safety standards as well as environmental impact standards have long been in place – since the 1980s. The CEA is a veteran of many a test of such industrial safety and ecological challenges. The events at Rathupaswela, some years ago, are not merely a tragic memory but are still the subject of not only criminal investigation but also of scientific study for remedies to dangerous environmental impact.

The Horana factory accident is now another powerful spur for such scientific analysis into the possible human safety issues in the production process as well as in the wider ecological impact.

This country has a long way to go towards fully fledged economic prosperity and the path towards it is inevitably paved with further rapid industrialization. And growth must be fuelled by speedy investment and incentivized entrepreneurship in all economic sectors.

Human safety and the well-being of the natural environment are inevitably rendered vulnerable to such unleashed powerful economic energies. This has been the lesson of economic development, whether capitalist or socialist, across the world, especially, since the advent of industrialization.

It is incumbent on the CEA to ensure that all such rubber processing units are better equipped to ensure the safety of the workers. At the same time, the factory’s internal waste management must not be improved in a manner that neglects the external effluent impact on the natural environment and the larger human community.

Let Horana be a moment in which broader aspects of industrial safety and ecological cleanliness begin to be addressed by all relevant authorities and the related scientific community. Sri Lanka is one of the world’s most experienced countries in natural rubber-based manufacturing in all stages from cultivation to finished consumer products. Rathupaswela is also a rubber-related incident. There are many agencies relevant to this sector alone that could address the issues creatively.

Such industrial tragedies, then, must be a spur for greater attention to overall issues of industrial safety and environmental degradation in numerous sectors of manufacturing. The trick, however, is to evolve suitable standards and compulsory procedures and installations, without discouraging business investment.

Are our universities and think-tanks focusing on these issues? What are the opportunities for both scientific innovation and business investment in industrial safety and entrepreneurship? Furthermore, at the level of secondary schooling, perhaps there is a need to introduce curricula to instil greater awareness of the culture and lifestyle of industrial society and the skills needed to manage potential risks while building livelihoods. It is only such modern nurturing that will equip citizens to render aid to accident victims without also falling victims themselves.

As a relatively ‘educated’ society it is incumbent not only on the government, business and the scientific community but, also, on the citizenry to equip the nation and its beautiful island home, to travel this economic development path suitably without suffering the kind of human and ecological toll that we now experience.