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Baby death raises gas toll

- Glare on schools, houses coming up above pipeline
The charred kitchen of a house at Nagaram village in Andhra Pradesh on Friday. Picture by G Vijayalakshmi

Hyderabad, June 28: A baby girl today died of severe burns suffered from the fire fuelled by a leaking gas pipeline in a coastal Andhra hamlet, taking the toll to 16. Six persons are critical.

Fifteen persons were charred after the gas wafted into Nagaram village, 560km south-east of Hyderabad, through Thursday night and a tea-stall owner struck a match to light a stove early on Friday, setting off an explosion. The fire gutted houses, shops, coconut groves and vehicles in the East Godavari district village.

The pipeline belongs to the state-owned Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) and supplies gas from an ONGC gas field to private company Lanco’s power plant near Vijayawada, 200km away. It runs through settlements in Nagaram and adjoining villages.

“A baby girl who was undergoing treatment for severe burns died today at a private hospital in Kakinada,” G. Vijay Kumar, the East Godavari district superintendent of police said.

R.P. Singh, the joint secretary in the petroleum ministry, visited Nagaram and nearby villages through which the pipeline runs. About 150 villages in Konaseema in coastal Andhra have become veritable death traps because of lack of maintenance of the two-decade-old pipeline that run for up to 225km.

Hundreds of villagers from Nagaram, Jaggannapet, Gannavaram and Tatipaka villages today gheraoed Singh, the chairperson of the committee set up to probe reasons for the fire. He said he would submit a report as soon as possible.

Singh wondered how villages, schools and houses had come up above the pipeline that is about 3ft under the ground. “It was sheer luck that the blast took place early in the morning before classes began, otherwise the damage would have been severe,” Singh told a TV channel.

ONGC and GAIL officials said they were caught between the politics and the gimmicks of successive governments.

“When the projects are taken up, the government gives assurance that people will be vacated in and around project sites. But once the projects are completed, they take the side of the people and refuse to vacate the sites,” a spokesperson for the ONGC employees’ association said.

“We have appealed to villagers to keep at least one furlong away from pipelines, which are all three feet under the ground.”

Vanarasi Raja, who lives close to the blast site, said the tea-stall owner who lit the fatal match lost five members of his family but possibly saved the lives of hundreds living in three villages nearer the gas field’s mini refinery.

“A major catastrophe was averted. If this disaster did not happen, the leaking gas would have spread up to the mini refinery, leading to unimaginable loss of life,” Raja said.

The Nagaram fire is not the first gas leak-related disaster in the East Godavari district. In August 2013, 25 workers were killed in a fire at the HPCL refinery cum petrochemical complex in Visakhapatnam.

The biggest blow-out happened at an ONGC gas well at Pasharlapudi, about 60km from Rajahmundhry, in 1996. The fire raged for over 60 days and was put out only after a Red Adair oil well fire-fighting team took charge.