30 years after the Bhopal gas tragedy

Lessons from India’s greatest industrial disaster with serious consequences for the environment remain unlearnt

November 02, 2014 12:20 am | Updated November 28, 2021 09:04 pm IST

Photo: A.M. Farooqui

Photo: A.M. Farooqui

Come December, it will be 30 years since the Bhopal gas tragedy occurred. The leakage of the deadly methyl isocyanate gas from the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) factory in Bhopal went down in history as one of the worst industrial disasters in the world. But after all these years, has anything changed in India with regard to adoption of environmental safeguards before promoting industries and related projects? More important, what is the fate of the victims of polluting industries?

Tragedy continues According to a January 2013 report of the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research, Lucknow, the soil and groundwater within 3.5 kilometres from the UCC factory site is contaminated with cancer- and birth defect-causing chemicals. “The contamination of soil and groundwater actually predates the disaster,” says activist Satinath Sarangi, who has fought for the cause of gas leak survivors.

“From 1969 to 1977, Union Carbide used to dump its toxic wastes at 21 spots, most of them unlined pits, inside the 68-acre factory premises. Despite 17 agencies, including government and non-governmental organisations, carrying out studies over the past two decades, a comprehensive plan for remediation of the soil and groundwater has not been prepared,” he says.

On Friday, October 31, when the news of Warren Anderson’s death spread across Bhopal, survivors of the tragedy got together to spit on a photograph of the former UCC CEO, the first accused in the case and a fugitive from justice. Survivors are unhappy with the court proceedings and compensation. “While over 25,000 people have died in the disaster, the government has paid compensation for only 5,295 deaths. The government acknowledged in June 2010 that the compensation it accepted from Union Carbide was indeed inadequate. Following this, both the Central and State governments have filed curative petitions in the Supreme Court seeking additional compensation of $1.2 billion,” Mr. Sarangi says.

Rashida Bee, president, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh, says three generations of gas leak victims have suffered, with their children being born with disabilities but little was done by the government to help victims and to give medical assistance to their families. Through the Chingari Punarvaas Kendra, run by Ms. Bee and her survivor friends, nearly 750 children are now being treated with the money that came with the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2004.

Lessons not learnt Lessons from the tragedy have not been taken seriously. Environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman says key lessons such as choosing appropriate sites for projects are violated to this day. “Take the proposed Cheyyur thermal power project in Tamil Nadu, for instance. If the power plant pollutes the land and waterbodies, who will compensate affected local communities?” he asks. “Another example is the Gorakhpur nuclear power project planned in Fatehabad. Located close to dense human habitations, the project has already raised several concerns,” he says.

Disaster response is another important lesson. “In Japan, even small children know how to respond to a disaster such as earthquake, but go to Kudankulam and the local villagers know very little about how to respond to any radiation leak,” he says.

The lack of preparedness in the face of hazardous pollution shows in the case of mercury pollution in Kodaikanal. Mahendra Babu, president, Ponds HLL Ex-Mercury Workers’ Welfare Association, said that in 2001, the Kodaikanal mercury thermometer factory of Hindustan Unilever Ltd. (then Hindustan Lever) shut down, but 36 ex-workers of the factory died from hazardous exposure to mercury. “In the past 10 years, 11 committees, including a Supreme Court-monitored committee, has been set up to redress grievances arising out of the pollution from the factory. No thorough clean-up of the factory site has been done as yet,” he says.

No prosecution Environmental lawyer and activist T. Mohan says there are hardly any cases of prosecution of environmental crime by corporate firms in India. “In India, ex post facto clearances are being given to projects by polluting firms. Environmental Impact Assessment notifications, which are supposed to be issued prior to the undertaking of projects, are being issued after the projects are executed,” he says. Although the Supreme Court has come down heavily on some instances of violations, government authorities have been quite lax in these matters, he adds.

Mr. Mohan cites the example of the Loss of Ecology Authority (LEA), a tribunal set up to award compensation for farmers affected by polluting industries, to demonstrate how settlement of legal compensation for victims of industrial pollution has not worked out. “The chairman of the LEA resigned a few months ago. The tribunal is rudderless and dysfunctional. Even when compensation was offered to victims of industrial pollution, the sum was paltry. Farmers from Karur in Tamil Nadu were offered as low as Rs. 5-7 a hectare of damaged land,” he says.

With >Anderson dead and having escaped imprisonment , Bhopal gas leak victims continue to suffer, Ms. Bee strikes a note of caution. “The new government should think about the consequences of going head over heels to woo industry without paying sufficient attention to the poor institutional response mechanisms in the event of an environmental disaster.”

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