The Supreme Court order directing time-bound provision of safe drinking water to 18 long-suffering residential areas around the Bhopal gas tragedy site highlights two things — the slow pace at which even the highest judicial intervention produces results in India, and the persisting pollution threat to the health of thousands. In fact, the same court had directed that protected water be supplied to 14 localities around the Union Carbide plant in May 2004 (four more were added subsequently). The Centre claimed that a series of measures were taken by the Madhya Pradesh government to comply with the order, but not much relief has been available to the residents. The Municipal Corporation of Bhopal is yet to provide tap connections to households. Moreover, the water supplied is yellowish, with a heavy flat taste even today, involving consequences for health. Sadly, as governments have come to regard this 27-year-old industrial catastrophe as just another chronic problem, the residents have to bear the terrible consequences of this continuing denial of their right to a healthy life. It is welcome, therefore, that the Supreme Court has finally set a three-month deadline for water supply and appointed a fresh monitoring committee. The M.P. government must not prolong the misery of the victims and do everything to fulfil their needs.
The safe supply of water to the densely populated areas hit by the gas tragedy is essential to eliminate the public health threat. But there is also the question of disposing of some 350 tonnes of hazardous waste lying in the abandoned Union Carbide India factory premises. Here again, neither the Centre nor the M.P. government appear anxious to conduct a speedy operation. This, in spite of a new option available to avoid Indian disposal sites, and hand it over to a German firm that can move the hazardous material to Hamburg. It must also be emphasised that, while the responsibility of the Centre and the M.P. governments to remediate Bhopal is paramount, it does not mitigate the claim on Dow Chemicals for its liability towards Union Carbide's failures. Faced with global ridicule for its attempts at greenwashing through a ten-year Olympics sponsorship, Dow has disingenuously described its critics as “irresponsible.” If anything, it was its own decision to acquire the assets of a disaster-hit Union Carbide and disclaim any liability for the tragedy that calls for severe reproach. The proper course would have been to own up, to engage in a comprehensive clean-up and rehabilitation exercise, and to compensate victims in full. The immediate task, however, is to alleviate the physical misery of the victims by providing them a clean environment and good water.