No closure for Bhopal

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:36 pm IST

Published - December 02, 2014 01:10 am IST

For thousands of residents of Bhopal, the disaster began the night they choked on the air which smelt of burnt chillies, and it hasn’t ended yet. The survivors got a pittance as compensation, thanks to an out-of-court settlement by the Indian government, and the late >Warren Anderson , then chief executive officer of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), was not extradited for trial in India. Justice seemed remote then, and >30 years later even more so. Bhopal will be remembered for the horrors of industrial negligence and the havoc caused by methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals, and equally so for its aftermath of apathy and criminal callousness. Recently, survivors appealed against a court ruling to reverse the decision that a U.S. firm could not be sued for ongoing contamination from the chemical plant. According to official estimates, 3,787 persons died and over 550,000 were injured, while unofficial estimates put the death toll much higher. The affected population continues to suffer from severe long-term health impact. The plant, which has tonnes of toxic waste, is yet to be cleaned up, and various agencies are still wrangling over whose responsibility it is and who will pay. UCIL’s plant manufacturing the pesticides Sevin and Temik was dumping waste on 6.4 hectares on the premises. Tests of the groundwater and waste dumps have shown the presence of mercury and other toxic substances, and chemical contamination has made water in the tubewells around the plant unfit for drinking.

According to the law of the land, UCIL was fully responsible for the wastes and for the clean-up. The question of criminal liability was never really settled, though in the minds of the people there was no doubt about it. Andersen and the company were spared a trial while thousands of survivors continue to lead a life of pain and trauma. Some UCIL employees and its former chairperson Keshub Mahindra were convicted of causing death by criminal negligence and sentenced to two years in prison in 2010, but they were released on bail. If anything, the disaster should have taught some important lessons in environmental protection and law, compensation and criminal liability, but it didn’t. Bhopal was not a tragedy, it was a disaster waiting to happen. What is tragic is the predictability of events even after the gas leak: the lack of sensitivity and concern for the survivors, not even bothering to clean up the mounds of toxic waste, not attending seriously to the health issues, and making people run around for years for their rights. It is farcical that the government should enhance compensation for the survivors after having shortchanged them in the first place. Thirty years on, it is time for some serious reflection on the sensitivity of the state to such disasters.

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