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Puthuvypeen: The IOC Project That Could Turn a Kerala Village Into a Deathtrap

With multiple environmental violations and a grave potential risk to a densely populated island village – will the Kerala government allow Indian Oil to build an LPG terminal in Kochi’s Puthuvypeen?

Indian Oil’s Puthuvypeen LPG Import Terminal, which can store up to 15,400 metric tons of gas, is scheduled to be built next to two petrochemicals facilities that already operate in the area. Credit: Reuters

Kochi: The state of Kerala is unusually mindful of the hazards posed by pigs. According to the state Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) rules, pig farms fall under the ‘Red’ category, reserved for the most hazardous group of industries. “The shed housing the pigs should be a minimum of 100 metres from the nearest house. If the distance is even one metre less, permission won’t be granted,” a board official said.

The board’s dedication to ensuring safety is laudable, even if its ideas about what makes an industry hazardous are a little odd. In 2013, it granted the Indian Oil Corporation – the public-sector oil behemoth and India’s largest corporation – permission to build a liquid petroleum gas (LPG) storage terminal in Puthuvypeen village near Kochi under the ‘Orange’ or ‘relatively less hazardous’ category.

Under this clearance, the company is free to build tanks designed to store industrial-scale quantities of LPG – the equivalent of over one million domestic gas cylinders – just 40 metres from the nearest house. Incredible as it sounds, a shed full of pigs in the same location would have to be built a good 60 metres further, for it to get the agency’s approval.

The residents of Puthuvypeen, though, are not impressed by the nuances of environmental regulation which allow an LPG Terminal to be built a stone’s throw away from their homes. They have been up in arms about the project from its inception eight years ago. The agitation reached a crescendo this June, when a series of brutal police actions targeted the agitators, including children and the elderly. Caught live on camera by TV crews, the action left many hospitalised with severe injuries and broken bones.

Maglin Philomena of the Puthuvype LPG Terminal Virudha Janakeeya Samara Samiti, which is spearheading the agitation, is one of its many leaders who were injured in the police action. She recalls what happened after she was arrested along with several other women, when there were no cameras watching them:

“The police had put down the shutters and were driving us at a speed even faster than an ambulance. Many women, including 80-year old grandmothers, who had no experience of being arrested before, fainted under the strain, and we shouted out to the police, begging for water, but they refused. At the station, they detained us for hours, refusing to let us even use the toilets. All this happened in Kerala, where a Left government is in power.”

The severity with which even children were assaulted by the police sparked widespread public anger, prompting the State Human Rights Commission and child rights panel to intervene. After taking a defensive stance initially, the state government, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), was forced to temporarily stop construction at the site and set up a panel to look into the issue.

In the shadow of a petrochemical SEZ

Puthuvypeen is located on the southern end of Vypeen island, which faces Kochi harbour, the proximity making it an ideal location for port-related infrastructure. Except that Vypeen is among the most densely populated islands in the world, home to more than two lakh people. A large part of Vypeen consists of marshes and agricultural land, with the population packed into many dense peri-urban settlements and villages such as Puthuvypeen.

Indian Oil’s Puthuvypeen LPG Import Terminal, which can store up to 15,400 metric tons of gas, is scheduled to be built next to two petrochemicals facilities that already operate in the area: Petronet’s 3,10,000 m3 capacity LNG Terminal, and Bharath Petroleum’s ‘tank farm,’ with a capacity of 3,30,000 m3 of crude oil. All three facilities are located in the Cochin Port Trust’s Puthuvypeen Special Economic Zone (SEZ), and are part of the port’s Rs 2,200 crore multi-user liquid terminal (MULT) for large-scale import of petroleum products.

Owing to their sheer scale and proximity to each other – the projects lie in a row, with only a few hundred metres between them – an accident at any one of the three high-risk facilities in the SEZ would pose a grave risk to the village of Puthuvypeen and beyond. In fact, the SEZ is not more than 5-6 kilometres (as the crow flies) from the heart of Kochi, Kerala’s commercial capital and its most thickly populated urban centre.

Google map view of the project site, clearly revealing its extreme proximity to both the village and the sea. The old seawall runs alongside the road built for the project.

Google map view of the project site, clearly revealing its extreme proximity to both the village and the sea. The old seawall runs alongside the road built for the project.

The people of Puthuvypeen, part of a dense settlement of 65,000, have rejected the project outright. It’s easy to see why; it’s being built literally outside their doors. Startlingly for a high-risk facility, the terminal’s perimeter wall is just 30 metres away from the village – the two separated only by a new road constructed by the company. If the project gets built, some 500 tanker trucks carrying gas will pass through this road every day.

Her voice tinged with outrage, Maglin asks, “Our question to Indian Oil is, why build it here? We are not opposed to the project itself, like the company claims; we just don’t want it here. This is not their first project, so let them tell us – where else have they built such a dangerous facility so close to a heavily populated place?”

Hazard: the company version 

When The Wire put Maglin’s question to C.N. Rajendra Kumar, deputy general manager (LPG) at Indian Oil, his first response was that the project site was not the company’s choice at all, but allotted to them by the Cochin Port Trust, which owns the SEZ.

However, Kumar affirmed that safety concerns about the facility were not valid in this case, since the project will employ ‘mounded vessel’ technology, which was the safest available worldwide. The term refers to bullet-shaped metal tanks that are partially buried and encased in a covered concrete bunker. The proposed Indian Oil Terminal plans to have eight such tanks, enclosed in two clusters or ‘mounds’. The gas, unloaded from ships at the port, will reach the terminal via a 2.8 km long refrigerated pipeline. The gas is stored in its raw, odourless form, and any leakage must necessarily be detected by sensors.

According to Kumar, “The terminal will be equipped with the latest technologies, and the storage vessels will be constantly monitored with sensors. Our technical assessment shows that the possibility of hazard to be only one in a million.” Kumar then ventured to make an even more startling assertion: “Even if an accident were to happen, we have the capability to contain it within the boundary wall.”

‘It would incinerate everything in a 1 km radius’

Sagar Dhara, a veteran risk analyst based in Hyderabad, went through the company’s risk analysis report for The Wire. An environmental engineer and former safety trainer for petrochemicals industry personnel, he said that the company’s claim about the safety of the tanks tell only half of the story. “Tank safety is far from the only risk with LPG. For example, what about the pipes that would bring the gas to the terminal from the ships? A rupture there could result in a leak of several hundred tons of gas. What if the sensors don’t work? Any number of such things is possible,” he says, dismissing the company’s ‘one-in-a-million’ claim as “absurd.”

Dhara then proceeds to make a grim assessment, “For a facility of this size, an explosion resulting from a gas leak would incinerate everything in a 1 kilometre radius. The vulnerable zone won’t be less than 4 kms. If you consider the distance at which the impact could break glass – a standard criterion, since this causes injury – it could go up to a 6 km radius. But the company has not taken into account the worst case scenarios – which are fundamental to any risk analysis.”

In 2015, a team of researchers from the Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT) conducted a ‘Population Vulnerability Assessment study’ of an existing LPG storage and bottling facility owned by Indian Oil in Udayamperoor, Kochi. The study found that people living within a 500m radius faced “potentially lethal risk,” while those living as far as 1300m may experience severe pain.” Remarkably, these estimates are for a single tank with a 150 ton capacity, less than one-hundredth of the total capacity of the Puthuvypeen Terminal.

The threat zone of Indian Oil’s Udayamperoor LPG storage facility, overlaid on a Google Earth map. From a study by Cochin University of Science and Technology.

In the scale and level of impact it predicts, the CUSAT assessment broadly matches the estimate made by Dhara, who warns, “They can forget about containing it within the boundary wall; they should be talking about a vulnerable zone in terms of kilometres, not metres.”

To illustrate the gravity of what’s at stake, Dhara cites the example of the September 1997 Vishakhapatnam disaster, an accident he has studied for the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board. The worst-ever LPG-related disaster in Indian history, it claimed more than 80 lives after an explosion ripped through Hindustan Petroleum’s port-based import storage terminal, a facility similar to Puthuvypeen.

A news report quoted eyewitnesses, one of whom said, “the impact of the blast was so great that the refinery’s administrative building, its canteen and some other buildings came crashing down like a pack of cards.” According one industry expert, “Even an earthquake measuring eight on the Richter scale might not have caused so much damage.”

“The storage capacity of the facility was 400 tons (nearly one-fortieth of the Puthuvypeen Terminal), and the most vulnerable zone was a 1 km radius, where there was 100% mortality. We found that there was partial damage to buildings etc as far as 3.5 kms away,” Dhara says. Importantly, his study showed that “The fatalities would have been ten times more had the incident not happened on a Sunday morning, when staff presence was at its minimum. On a working day, the admin building alone would have had 300 people in it.”

Dhara has a stark view of why industrial accidents keep happening with alarming regularity in India (it’s only weeks ago that an explosion at NTPC’s Rae Bareli plant left 32 dead and a 100 more injured), “In India, life is so cheap that we simply do not consider the risk to populations while planning projects, which adds to the project cost. People have to die every time for us to change our approach even slightly. And it’s always the poor who does.”

However, safety is not the only factor that makes Puthuvypeen a questionable proposition. What compounds the risk factor manifold is the island’s unique geography and infrastructure.

A planned disaster

Puthuvypeen got linked to the city just over a decade ago, by the ‘Goshree’ bridge, which connects to the southern tip of the island. As the single point of road connectivity to Kochi, the bridge is literally Puthuvypeen’s lifeline. But, it’s highly likely that it would be out of bounds for residents fleeing the area in the event of an accident, because all three high-risk facilities in the SEZ fall in the same direction as the Goshree, and would fall in the most vulnerable zone.

However, even in the unlikely scenario of the bridge being accessible, the Goshree may still be a non-option. Sunil Joseph, a resident, recalls what happened on December 26, 2004, when the tsunami hit Puthuvypeen. “All of us rushed to the Goshree bridge. But when we reached the bridge, we found it was completely jammed with vehicles escaping from the area. We didn’t want to get stuck, so we turned back, and headed towards the Cherai bridge instead.”

Google map image showing the layout of Vypeen island, and the two bridges connecting it to mainland, which are nearly 20 kms apart.

Given the ribbon-like layout of Vypeen (the island is 27 kms long and up to 2.5 kms wide), the next closest exit point – the bridge at Cherai that Sunil refers to – is a good 20 kms away, and in the opposite direction. What this implies is that, in the event of an emergency, both the residents trying to escape the vulnerable zone – as well as any firefighting, rescue or medical teams trying to get to it – will be forced to negotiate a narrow, poorly maintained village road to the north of Puthuvypeen, and the old bridge at Cherai that connects to the mainland. It would mean a 40 km round trip to the city of Kochi, which is just 5-6 kms away via the Goshree.

The conclusion is stark: In the event of a major accident, unlike any other hazardous site, Puthuvypeen will be like a sealed box with only one way in and out: quite literally, a deathtrap. Yet, these highly probable scenarios do not even figure in the company’s or the port’s disaster management plan. Instead, the documents make confident assertions about emergency operations carried out through ‘multiple modes of transport.’

Mohamed Nisai, a Vypeen native who spent several years in the Persian Gulf region as a safety manager in the petrochemical industry, raises some related concerns. “Plant safety itself is only one aspect; it’s also the unique nature of the location and the emergency response it can support that determine the risk posed by any such facility. How can a place that is virtually inaccessible support large-scale emergency response? On every count, this location is unsuitable,” he says.

He goes on to describe what an emergency scenario would be like in Puthuvypeen: “Imagine an accident that happens at night. The alarm rings, and thousands of people have just been startled awake. They are frightened, but expected to follow safety instructions. They can’t switch on the lights because it will ignite the gas, which they cannot see or smell. They have to flee the area instantly, but cannot use any vehicles; again because the ignition would lead to an explosion. Nor can they simply get out and run; they must first ascertain the wind direction, else it can be deadly. How realistic is it to expect people in panic to do things by the book? Locating the project here is a recipe for disaster.”

Questioning the government experts

The three-member expert panel tasked by the government to look into the Puthuvypeen issue, has made 15 recommendations in its report, now with the government. Of these, only one directly addresses the question of population vulnerability. When The Wire asked N. Purnachandra Rao, director, National Centre for Earth Science Studies, and the head of the panel, about this, he said, “We did find that a part of the vulnerable area was inhabited and has recommended some steps, if necessary including rehabilitation of the residents in that area.”

This draws a sharp retort from Maglin of the people’s council: “If the panel’s purpose was to address our concerns, then it should have concentrated on the risk to people’s lives. After all, this is our primary concern, not whether the company has violated this rule or that. Instead, their recommendation is to evict people from here, and move them to ‘better housing’ at the company’s cost!”

Comprising of two coastal scientists and a town planner, the panel clearly lacked the expertise to consider the question of population vulnerability. When asked about this, Rao said, “The panel members did not make recommendations by themselves – we have consulted several experts before coming up with them.” But Maglin rejects this, saying, “If the panel did not have the required expertise, then it should have been expanded to include such experts. In any case, who were the people they consulted? Let them name names, for their own credibility.”

She explains further, “This is a unique place with a fragile ecosystem, which the local people depend on for livelihood. From the start, our fight has been to protect its integrity. But, the panel’s report does not see it this way at all. For them, the project is the primary reality, even if it hasn’t been built, not the people who are actually living in the area, and the natural environment they depend on. It seems to us the very purpose of the panel was to push through the project with some cosmetic changes. So, we have no choice but to reject this report.”

‘Safe from the vagaries of the sea’

Indian Oil is presently facing a lawsuit for violating coastal norms, after two residents, K.U. Radhakrishnan and K.S. Murali, filed a petition before the Chennai bench of the National Green Tribunal. The company claims that their project does not violate any norms, and is located 50 metres from the High Tide Line (HTL), or the highest watermark. Given these claims, it comes as a shock when a visit to the site shows the project’s sea-facing wall jutting out into the water, with the waves crashing against it.

Photographs taken by residents show that things are much worse during the rough monsoon months. At this time the water enters the site by passing under the wall, where the sand has eroded, leaving the pillars exposed. The residents attribute the area’s accelerating erosion to the deepening of the Port’s shipping channel, and the constant dredging this requires.

Left: Seawater inside the project site. Right: The sidewall of the project, which the company claims is located 50 m from the High Tide Line.

To its credit, the government-appointed panel confirmed the company’s violation of coastal regulation norms, euphemistically referring to it as “a mismatch in the distance from the HTL to the project site”.  However, the company did not answer The Wire’s pointed query on this ‘mismatch’, and instead sent portions of a technical document on the project. The relevant bit reads thus: “The foundation of the vessels is designed to withstand seismic shocks as per requirements. Hence, it is safe from tsunami, earthquakes and vagaries of the sea.”

Another expert committee, a ‘people’s panel’ headed by V.S. Vijayan, a former chairperson of the state’s Biodiversity Board, has some alarming news for the project. “We found that the sea has come in up to 40 metres in the last eight years in Puthuvypeen. This implies the water could advance another 40 metres or more in the next eight years; which puts a question mark on the future of the project and the SEZ.” Vijayan told The Wire. The panel ascertained this by comparing satellite data from 2009, recorded in the company’s original project documents, with the present. The people’s panel also found traces of sea algae up to 35 metres on the project’s southern sidewall – widely at variance with the company’s claim that the site is located 50 m from high watermark.

The company, on its part, has always reassured those who have pointed to their crumbling project site by referring to a project report prepared by IIT Madras, which recommends building a Rs 15 crore seawall, using the ‘latest technology’ to ensure the terminal’s safety. But, doesn’t the need to build such expensive fortifications itself show that the site is not suitable? Again, the company has no answer.

The last word on the matter must go to Jacob George, former harbour master of the port, the owner of the SEZ: “There’s no doubt that dredging for the shipping channel has affected the adjacent coast. This not only makes Puthuvypeen a bad choice of site for the SEZ, its costs are bound to outrun the benefits in the long run. If you have money to waste, you can do anything – you could even build a channel to take ships to Delhi. But, would it be worth the trouble?”

Every trick in the book

The island of Vypeen is part of the fragile Vembanad wetland ecosystem, home to the longest lake in India and an area under intense developmental pressure post Kerala’s tourism and real estate boom. In Puthuvypeen, the Cochin port’s SEZ has almost swallowed whole the mangrove forests and the beachfront; all 6 kms of it. The exception is a tiny (180 m wide) stretch it has left open as a ‘fishermen’s corridor’. Once a popular getaway for couples from the city, and the venue for the village carnival, the ‘beach’ now plays host to a new kind of visitor: armed Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) guards patrolling the SEZ boundaries.

Murali, convener of the people’s council, explains how severely the SEZ has disrupted livelihoods: “Fishermen living along the entire 6 km stretch must now come to the ‘corridor’ to go to work. Since they cannot keep their boats here, these are brought in and out on trolleys. They also face constant harassment from the CISF guards on patrol. Incidentally, the corridor is still owned by the port, and they could shut it anytime.”

Skirmishes with the CISF personnel have become a part of the daily routine for Puthuvypeen’s fishermen. One of them, who prefers to be anonymous, told The Wire, “The guards keep holding us up for no reason. People have been held hostage for hours, even forced to strip at gunpoint and stand in the sun. They humiliate us for no reason.”

According to Murali, such incidents go unreported because the fishermen depend on their daily earnings, and can’t afford the expense or the hassle of court cases. “Besides, they have to go back to the same area to earn their living. In fact, many of them have now left the trade, and work as wage labourers in the city or in the SEZ itself. They have no choice but to work for the very projects that destroyed their livelihoods.”

Contract workers employed in the SEZ are required to get a ‘clearance card’ from the local police station, certifying that they face no criminal charges. Some residents allege the police has been using this rule to deny work permits to those who participated in the protests.

The women far outnumber the men in the residents’ agitation against the project. Many of those shown in the picture were injured during police actions against the protestors.

The women far outnumber the men in the residents’ agitation against the project. Many of those shown in the picture were injured during police actions against the protestors.

In 2010, when the port had initiated work on the SEZ site, Reema Narendran, a journalist on a fellowship to study the area, reported on the ghostly sight she encountered in the area: “It is a scene of absolute destruction. Acres and acres of tree stumps that look as if ravaged by a massive fire.” The report, worth reading in full, traces how the mangroves were poisoned with high concentrations of a herbicide to effect a slow death; a diabolic environmental crime that literally helped pave the way for the SEZ.

Using the ‘ecosystem services’ concept, Vijayan’s panel has calculated in monetary terms the ecological losses resulting from the destruction of the wetlands. “We estimate that losses from the SEZ development – including its impact on livelihoods – amount to Rs 198 crore per annum, of which Rs 19 crore would be from the Indian Oil site alone,” he told The Wire.

Looking ahead

At the moment, the Left front-led state government headed by Pinarayi Vijayan, is sitting on a fresh set of reports on the Puthuvypeen project – including one by the expert panel it appointed. If the chief minister decides to back the project, he can support his case with any number of reports and studies prepared by an entire army of experts, almost none of whom would be held accountable if things turn out different.

The government, which came to power in 2016, has shown itself to be an enthusiastic champion of big ticket projects, many of which are facing stiff resistance on the ground. But, in every single case – be it Adani’s mega port project in Vizhinjam, GAIL’s cross-country pipeline, or one of the state’s many grand highway projects – Vijayan has consistently taken a hard, ‘pro-development’ line.

In this, the government’s policies and Vijayan’s persona increasingly resemble their foremost political and ideological opponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Central government under Narendra Modi. Recently, Vijayan even got dragged into an  almost comical tug-of-war with BJP national president Amit Shah over who was the bigger champion of ‘vikas’ – Shah’s party, or his own.

The question remains: will a ‘people’s government’ address the fears of the public and prevent a violation of its own laws – and common sense? Or would it rather use the project as an image-building exercise, an opportunity to score a political point over its rivals? Either way, the people of Puthuvypeen are not exactly waiting for an answer; they are getting ready to intensify their protest.