The fire burned in swirls and whorls. It grew brighter in the
damp, pre-dawn darkness, climbing up trees and splitting them apart, torching
the birds, reaching into homes and devouring people and things. The culprit was
an 18-inch Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) pipeline, which exploded
around 5.50 a.m. on Friday, June 27, 2014, spewing natural gas and killing 22
people (four more later in hospitals) and injuring 40 at Nagaram village in
East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh. It had drizzled that morning.
The fire was put out by afternoon, but in many ways and in many places it is still alive: in homes, on skins, inside hearts, in shredded nerves, in the air beneath the earth. Bonam Peddi Raju admits, in fact, embraces its existence. He bears it on his charred skin, on a face that was once handsome, on his arms, on his front and back.
Peddi Raju pines for the time when he looked forward to the day, cooking, serving and packing food for people in his residence-cum-hotel. He would (and still does) cook food—and if ordered, biriyani, curries—in the hearth fed by chaff, and process 300 orders a day for people working in fish and aquaculture ponds. A comfortable life for his wife and two daughters, and his parents was the result of his labours. He opened himself up to people, making instant friends, helping them, participating in the larger life outside. He also had four cars that were used for a travel service, and would take his family on an outing, all packed into one of those cars, “the one I liked to take them out on that day”.
He was asleep in that pre-dawn hour on June 27, 2014, when a loud sound snapped him out of slumber. He ran out to check if something had crashed into the cars parked in front of his house. Inside the compound, in the foyer that separates the dining hall of the hotel and his house, he saw a blaze moving in from all sides, fireballs tracking in. They licked at his front, but he was too numb to know it. Beside his compound, there was Vasu Hotel where gas cylinders exploded. Six people were burnt alive there. Tongues of flame swirled in and licked at his back again. He was too dazed to know it.
The fire expanded, its overarching top way too red in colour, thick, black smoke filling the sky. His brother called out to him, to protect the gas cylinders, and move them someplace else. Peddi Raju and his brother tried lifting them, but the skin on his hand peeled off and it went limp in agony.
He then walked a short distance barefoot to the Anjaneya temple, tattered remnants of skin on the front and back, hair burned to its nodules. Trees popped and groaned around him, leaves crackled and fizzed. Embers fell like confetti. Wires fell down, writhing and smoking. The fire outraced the birds in the big tree and they dropped down dead. There were enough of them to fill a tractor load when the carcasses were taken away. The noises the fire made mingled with the shrieks of people. Peddi Raju reached the temple, and he was taken to hospital.
he Konaseema area in East Godavari district is bucolic and sylvan, a place of paddy and coconut palms swaying in the wind coming off the tributaries of the Godavari. It’s the place of fish and prawn culture, of known plagues of politics and castes. On top of the land and underneath it, in the sea and coast lurk pipelines owned and operated by the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and GAIL.
ONGC started its explorations in the Krishna-Godavari basin in 1977 and dug its first well in 1978, near Narsapur in West Godavari district. Its operations cover shallow and deep waters, on land and off shore, searching for hydrocarbons, oil and gas.
A mini-refinery was set up in Tatipaka to gather the crude from the wells. The refinery processes crude into diesel, naptha, superior kerosene, and low sulphur high stock (LSHS), a residue of crude, used as fuel for power generation. The ONGC refinery sends natural gas to GAIL which then transports it to power-generation and fertiliser plants.
ONGC since the 1980s and GAIL since the 1990s have seen boom years. GAIL operates an 880-km network of pipelines in the KG basin, supplying 5.2 mmscmd (Million Metric Standard Cubic Metres Per Day) of gas.
But the laying of pipelines over these areas has not been a boon for people or their land. Pipelines face the known and protracted problem of ageing. They crack, rupture, rust and spill. Corrosion, an electrochemical reaction, doesn’t lend itself to human manoeuvring. The soils a pipeline inhabits, the air and the atmosphere, the humidity—all determine how a pipeline corrodes. Chemistry does its own thing. Natural gas pipelines are particularly prone to serious incidents.
The pipeline was designed on the basis of handling dry natural gas. However, it was being regularly used for transportation of wet gas without taking any additional precautionary measures.
The region has had its share of blowouts, in 1993, 1995,
2005 and 2014. A blowout near Pasarlapudi in 1995 took two months to bring
under control, and is considered the world’s second biggest blowout. ONGC
pipelines spring leaks every other week. Telugu newspapers and channels always
contain a steady stream of news about these leaks.
The stretch of pipeline that exploded in Nagaram village—hardly a few metres—runs beneath a small canal, which is essentially a drain. Villagers say the stretch was designed as a ‘U’ to get it beneath the canal and back up again. So, the pipeline travelled 5 to 6 feet beneath the surface of the earth, shaped as a U beneath the canal, came up again, which increased pressures enormously.
No one could say GAIL had not been warned about the dangers. Villagers constantly complained about leaking gas in that stretch, warnings that went unheeded. As early as 2010, experts found massive corrosion on the same lines and later recommended filling in with a chemical simply known as “corrosion inhibitor”. In earlier repairs, GAIL made do with clamping the pipeline or putting a “sleeve”, wrapping a corrosion-protection layer around the pipeline. This is not the kind of repair you do to a highly degraded segment. Villagers say that a few months before the explosion, GAIL put in a clamp at the affected portion and dumped a truckload of concrete on the chunk of pipeline passing beneath the canal.
According to a September 8, 2014, article in The Indian Express, the inquiry report received by the Home Ministry said GAIL didn’t fulfil its promise of installing a gas dehydration unit (GDU) at the start of the pipeline in Tatipaka. It committed to that promise while seeking approval for the project from the Chief Controller of Explosives (CCOE) in July 2001. GDU helps remove water and condensate from wet natural gas and prevents corrosion and leakage of inflammable condensate and gas into the air, according to the report.
“The pipeline was designed on the basis of handling dry natural gas. However, it was being regularly used for transportation of wet gas without taking any additional precautionary measures. Wet gas contains free water, carbon dioxide, sulphur, etc. which induced internal corrosion in the pipeline,” The Indian Express quoted the report.
The fire shot up more than 100 feet at and around the blast site, covering, according to villagers’ accounts, a half kilometre radius.
The report, according to the article, says, “inadequate
systems/approach of GAIL in undertaking repeated repair of these high pressure
lines by following temporary measures with the help of clamps/sleeves/pads was
a factor in the accident.” The article points out that GAIL resorted to
makeshift repairs by small contractors who would weld clamps, sleeves or pads
to cover the leaks.
GAIL’s PR department at the corporate headquarters in Delhi didn’t respond to a request on its pipeline repair policies.
agaram, which literally means city, is a big village situated in Mamidikuduru mandal, population 6,250, according to the 2011 Census. The village mostly exists on either side of the main road and beyond, between coconut groves and fields. Locals say it has a history as a capital city in the 15th-16th centuries, and was then ruled by Muslims. There was a mud fort. Tatipaka village almost segues into Nagaram.
Imagine a T. Its horizontal line is the main road, a busy one connecting many villages and towns. When you go in from the Tatipaka side, on the left you find the ONGC mini-refinery that processes oil and gas, and next to it, the gathering and dispatch terminal of GAIL.
On the right side of the main road, a small road—the vertical line of T—leads to homes in the groves and fields. When you step on to the small road, on your right is Khursheed Hussain’s unplastered house, and next to it, groves and fields. On the left is the small canal. About 200 metres in is the blast site, the U of the GAIL pipeline, underneath the canal. According to one estimate, about two metres of the pipeline ruptured. It punched a huge crater, throwing mud, rocks and stones, tar and burning coating of the pipeline on people and homes.
The fire shot up more than 100 feet at and around the blast site, covering, according to villagers’ accounts, a half kilometre radius. According to the petroleum and natural gas regulatory board, though, the ripped chunk of pipeline fell five metres away, and the fire spread to a 50-metre radius. ONGC and GAIL installations sit nearly 500 metres from the blast site, and three pipelines of different diameters pass through the explosion site, one, two feet apart. After the explosion, according to PTI reports, GAIL appointed Engineers India Limited to inspect the health of the pipeline network in the state, and instructed all the maintenance bases in the country to check pipelines more frequently.
According to a May 23 PTI report, GAIL had distributed ₹4.29 crore to affected people, besides bearing the cost of medical care of the injured. The report quotes an official as saying that more than ₹1 crore was being handed over to the district administration as compensation to be distributed for the loss of crop and personal property.
The government announced an ex-gratia payment of ₹25 lakh to the next of kin of each deceased person, with ₹20 lakh coming from GAIL, two lakhs from the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund, and three lakhs from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund. GAIL put in fixed deposits of ₹5 lakh for each of the disabled, according to the media reports. Later, GAIL replaced the aged, corroded pipelines with new ones.
The compensation was given to the kin of the dead and the injured in the month following the explosion, while it took six months to compensate for crop and person property damage.
anarasi Veera Shankara Rao and his brother’s buildings sit on the main road, next to Hussain’s house, some 200 metres from the blast site. Their two-acre field, with coconut palms interspersed with banana trees, is on the side of the small road, opposite the blast side. On that day, in the morning Shankara Rao got up around 5 a.m., brushed his teeth and stood near his backyard wall, expecting a worker from the field to fetch milk along that small road. He heard a loud sound, “Flames going up half the length of a huge, more than 100 ft palm tree, and then again, in a split second, the flame reaching more than the tree’s height.” He shook and felt the ground wobble, but soon got his wits together. He wondered what had happened to the man fetching milk. He then saw him fall down, crawling on the road. The man somehow made it to the main road and ran. The shock wave overturned the cot Shankara Rao’s mother was sleeping on, knocked down chairs, and smashed glasses. He then took his mother and children and ran to his brother’s house, dragged his brother’s wife and children out, and ran on the main road. Their coconut grove, where three pipelines pass underneath, was burnt.
Md. Khursheed Hussain was a packer at a curry centre. His brother had a thatched hut (he lives in another place) and Hussain constructed a house next to that. He had the idea of starting a small hotel, and bought all the vessels, including the showcase and put them in the hut. His son and daughter, both married, stay in Hyderabad.
On that day, he got up to take a leak. Power was off. He was sitting outside on the steps of his house. Power came back on, and he went inside to lie down again. Then the house shuddered; he thought it was an earthquake. In the next second, flames were lapping hard against the windows, doors, and were finding a way in. He ran out, stupefied, crashed into the compound wall belonging to Shankara Rao brother’s building, cutting his upper lip and knocking out a tooth. He barely scraped through. Luckily, his wife had taken their grandson to Hyderabad two days earlier and his father, who stayed for some days every month, was at his brother’s house.
Had they been there, “I don’t know what would have happened.” He and his brother were given a compensation of ₹5 lakh each. He says that helped. In the aftermath, his relatives in Hyderabad are so scared that they have stopped visiting him. His children visit him, though, and ask him to relocate to Hyderabad. He rejects their entreaties, saying, “one day ONGC and GAIL pipelines will take us”.
Suri Babu and Nagaveni, aged about 55 and 50 years, lived in a thatched hut, with a shop selling sodas and soft drinks beside the canal, facing the ONGC and GAIL installations. Suri Babu had a small business, selling bedsheets and towels on his bicycle to many villages, cycling sometimes more than sixty kilometres a day. His wife, Nagaveni, made things out of coconut fibre and sold them. While Suri Babu went out selling, his wife took care of the shop. They had three daughters, all married.
The fire gutted Murthy’s thatched-roof home with a home-theatre, heater, other appliances, and “all of my earnings.”
On that day, he got up and was opening the doors of the shop
while his wife was asleep. The fire, in an instant, engulfed the hut and shop,
along with his wife. He was in flames all over; he tried to get his wife out,
but was pushed out to the road. There, Shankara Rao held Suri Babu’s hands and
skin came off him. He again tried entering the conflagration, shouting, “My wife is there, my wife is there.” He
couldn’t. He was admitted to hospital and died a month later.
Vanarasi Narisimaha Murthy was ready to go out for some work, got by bike to the Anjaneya temple, and was about to set foot on the first step when the world exploded. He thought it was lightning. Before he could blink, the fire had spread in all directions. He rushed home on his bike, about two minutes away. The explosion hurled a lump of burning pipeline coating and its material on to his eight-year-old son Mohan Krishna’s head. It burned him from head to toe, except for the area covered by his shorts. His wife sustained burns on arms and back. It spared his elder son, except for minor injuries. He is in class 10.
The fire gutted Murthy’s thatched-roof home with a home-theatre, heater, other appliances, and “all of my earnings.” Next to his home is an unplastered unit belonging to his uncle, one of his father’s brothers. The flames burned his aunt and two cousins in their beds.
anarasi Venkata Ratnam went to the tea shop beside the main road at 5 in the morning, as he always did. He was so fond of tea that he would drink half a dozen cups a day, his son Rama Rao says. Ratnam was in the coconut business and would buy if anybody brought coconuts to sell at that hour and chat. Business kicks in early in these parts—vegetables, milk, and coconuts. That’s how the days rolled for him, buying and selling coconuts, caring for his children. Although he was wiry, he could lift a load of coconuts and carry them around, store them in mounds, and sell them later. Four others sat beside him on that morning and were chatting.
Before they knew it the fire was their midst. He along with the others ran. Then he heard, according to Rama Rao, children in Vasu Hotel next, screaming. They were burning. He ran back to save them. The fire caught him. All his clothes were burnt. It burned off his thick hair and moustache. He was in flames when he jumped into the small canal nearby. A neighbour gave him a towel, wrapped it around him, and took him to Razole hospital—seven kilometres away—on his bike. He was then shifted to Trust hospital in Kakinada.
When Rama Rao and his mother and sister saw him on the third day—his brother was with him, and relatives advised them to come later—he was unrecognisable. As they were going to another burn victim’s bed thinking he was their own, his father called out. Where none of the other victims talked, he was speaking despite the gauze bandages covering his whole body save only his face. He told them to return home and he promised he would be back in five days. On the fifth day he died around 2 a.m.
Rama Rao, 20, completed his plus two and ten went for Teacher Training course (TTC). He is now acquiring computer skills to get a job. His brother has completed graduation. Ratnam did his best to give them a good life. He was saving for his daughter’s marriage. For Rama Rao’s mother it was grief every moment. For the next two years, she would get up in the middle of the night and sob till morning. She is 40. After some time, they shifted to another village.
ecalling the memory of his walk to the Anjaneya temple and subsequent shifting to hospital, Peddi Raju tries to hold himself together. They first took him to the government hospital and then to KIMS in Amalapuram, which said it had no equipment to deal with his burns. He was then shifted to the Trust hospital in Kakinada, delirious.
While villagers admit GAIL gives funds, however stingily, it has not fulfilled the promises. The compensation for damage is not really commensurate with the cost.
In the Trust hospital, they took good care of him. When
nurses applied an ointment, his skin would bubble up like a termite mound and
it hurt like hell. For dressing on alternate days, he was seated in a chair,
hands hanging sideways, dustbins on either side. A slight peeling of the gauze
would send him into a frenzy of shrieks and screams. The nurses would run away,
unable to bear the sight. His brother, a carpenter, took the responsibility for
the dressing. He would wet the gauze with saline solution, and gently remove it
millimetre by millimetre. Blood kept streaming out. His wife and sister-in-law
nursed him. After three months—his front and back were scorched but below the
navel he wasn’t—doctors removed skin from his left thigh and grafted it on the
burnt parts. He went into a coma for 15 days. He came home after four-and-
a-half months in hospital and was bedridden for the next eight months.
His wife, who had undergone bypass surgery, had inhaled the gas. Her lungs were gone. Doctors said they were beyond repair, and she passed away in 2016.
or the dead, GAIL gave a compensation of ₹25 lakh each, and for the injured, ₹5 lakh. It valued the losses and damages in houses and for furniture, and gave compensation.
After the explosion, the villagers put up a tent and sat on hunger strike. When they were about to start a fast unto death, the district administration called them and brokered an agreement between the villagers and GAIL. Twelve demands were agreed upon—adopting the village; opening a skill development centre for the youth; building a multi-speciality hospital; auditorium; playground; and so on.
While villagers admit that GAIL gives funds, however stingily, it has not fulfilled the promises. The compensation it gave for damage is not really commensurate with the cost incurred. Local politics ensures that money, as Shankara Rao puts it, “like melting ice cubes, eventually nothing reaches the end.”
According to a January 29, 2018, report in The Hindu, GAIL started a skill development programme called “Kaushal” as a part of its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) for the youth in the village and surrounding villages. GAIL spent ₹1 crore to construct a building and install equipment to offer courses for industrial electrician, instrumentation technician, and pipe welding, the report says. Villagers say many other things are yet to come to fruition. As for others, GAIL gave Peddi Raju ₹5 lakh for his injuries and some money for damaged vehicles. However, he says, he spent ₹6.6 lakh on treatment. After he came home, nobody from GAIL cared what happened to him; for his wife, too, he spent ₹3.6 lakh.
Mohan Krishna’s father Murthy says GAIL paid ₹5 lakh for his son’s injury and damages, but that’s not enough. Villagers say they had to spend a lot, leaving aside their livelihood, for compensation.
here are many indirect effects of the explosion. It burnt the ground itself, leaving ash in the fields, in homes, in every conceivable place. Shankara Rao says it would cost ₹5- ₹6 lakh per acre to remove the ash-chemical-ridden dirt, transport a new load.
“There is no new soil now. It is so costly,” he says. Real estate construction and constant digging has made the cost of clean soil extremely high. He says that there were chemicals when the blast occurred that ruined the soil. Coconut trees are not growing as they used to. People with means are refilling their fields themselves, without any compensation from GAIL.
Apart from the issue of prices for crop produce and weather-related havoc, farmers in the area have to contend with land whose fertility has been affected by leaks and spills from pipelines.
Land offered financial security once. Now, Shankara Rao says, there is no guarantee. Nobody is coming forward to buy the land under which pipelines pass. GAIL says you cannot construct or grow anything 10 feet on either side of the pipeline.
For their two-acre field, Shankara Rao says, developers offered to pay ₹2 crore. The family refused. After the blast, nobody was ready even to quote a price. The first question that comes up while selling or buying land is whether or not the pipeline is underneath it. If it does pass underneath, the land is devalued, he says.
He also pitches for a yearly royalty from GAIL and ONGC for those farmers whose fields have pipelines. GAIL “paid farmers for two crops of that year when they put in pipelines.”
“Already, here and everywhere farmers struggle, with MSP and weather-related disasters. Here the additional thing is that a farmer cannot have control over his land. The price of land has come down because of pipelines. It helps if they give some royalty every year.”
It’s not the dead but the living that haunt GAIL now. “GAIL destroyed my life,” Shankara Rao says. “These people are careless. Because of their carelessness so many people lost their loved ones, people injured, lives upended. We lost our lives as we know it.”
He runs the same hotel, cooking food. Although he got his life back, he has soured on it. He no longer looks forward to the day. He says he works hard to provide for his family. He remarried in 2017. “I want a companion.”
“Six people—my two daughters, my parents, and my wife—depend on me.”
At 44, Peddi Raju has thick hair combed back, skin scuffed up and ragged. He is a combination of hopelessness (“they destroyed my life and I am like the living dead,”) and will to live and take care of his family.
“I didn’t go for physical therapy, which would have cost ₹40,000 and I lifted water, my (erstwhile) wife encouraged me to bring water, to do this and that, keep working, without wallowing in my own misery.”When the GAIL people came recently to offer further treatment and surgery and a job with salary of ₹12,000 a month, he rejected it. He says he spends ₹30,000 per month towards family expenses. “If I sit in hospital for months who will feed my family? The job offer they gave no way comes close to expenses for my family.”
he fire left some strange stories of luck, too. Vanarasi Venkata Prasad’s home is barely 50 metres from the blast site. He was a tractor driver and would do small contract works. The previous night, after work, he paid 20 people who were with him, and they went home. A JCB (backhoe) worker stayed and slept in the JCB itself, for fresh air. The fire killed him. Had the other 20 been there for work, they too would have perished.
There are two separate buildings, separated by a small wall, one for him and the other for his brother. While his family stayed there, the other building is rented out. A security SI was staying there. On that night he slept outside and the flames burned him but the SI survived.
Stranger luck followed Shankara Rao’s father, Kasi Visveswara Rao. They have two acres of coconut groves at the blast site and another three acres, 200-300 metres from there. Visveswara Rao got up early, as is his habit, and went along the road, down to the latter grove. It takes about three minutes to walk from the blast site to reach the grove. His younger son, Shankara Rao’s brother was already there.
The younger son asked his father why he had come when he was there. No sooner had he finished than there was a loud explosion. Both father and son stood dazed. The younger son cried out about what could have happened to his mother, brother, wife and children. He ran through to their house. Visveswara Rao too hurried, panting, to check on his family. It looks as if time—the great gobbler,—and its companion, fire spared them.
Grief persists. It’s the few grams less that you put in the daily measure of rice you cook for your family. It is the shirt that hangs unused on the hanger, the blanket that remains unslept in.
Visveswara Rao says the coconut palms are not flowering and
the pods are not growing properly. He says the pipelines and their spills and
leaks have damaged ground water. This place also suffers from water turning
saline due to sea ingress. He also says the rains have vanished. There was a
time, he says, when skies were gray with cloud until the end of October, and it
would rain copiously. “It’s one or two hours rain now, and it’s gone,” he says.
“We moved past that fire, leaks and spills,” he continues, standing on the small road in between the blast site and his coconut grove.
here is a constant flare in the ONGC complex. Once a month or so, the flare grows bigger, consuming the gas, bright as day in the middle of night. People flood ONGC with calls, and get replies that they have informed the police or revenue department of the bigger flare.
Now, each sound, each flame, each odd smell is parsed for impending doom. Vehicles speed on the main road. You stop by and look at the place where Suri Babu and Nagaveni lived, where Nagaveni was burnt in her sleep, from where he cried for his wife. A shed constructed by GAIL stands there. You stand by the place where Vasu Hotel used to be, where the fire took Vasu and his wife, his two children, his mother, and the relative who arrived from Hyderabad just minutes before the blast. He arrived just to die. Next to it, where the tea shop used to be, grass has grown. The place is sterilised by death. Bottles of liquor and shards of glass litter the place. Plastic bags flap in the breeze. Warning signs indicating the pipline dot the fields in the area.
Grief persists. It’s the few grams less that you put in the daily measure of rice you cook for your family. It is the shirt that hangs unused on the hanger, the blanket that remains unslept in.