New Delhi, December 1, 2014: Thirty years after the Bhopal gas tragedy, what is it that India has learnt? Answering this question at a public meeting held here today, Sunita Narain, director general of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), said: “Post-Bhopal, India improved its legislations for chemical industrial disasters and worker safety, but it is an unfinished business. Even if we have not seen (thankfully) another horrific human tragedy like on the night of December 2, 1984, the country continues to have many min-Bhopals – industrial accidents, which take lives and throw up a huge challenge of hazardous waste contamination.”
Narain added: “Thirty years later, there is no closure. Not because of what happened that fateful night, but because our response has been incompetent and callous. Bhopal was struck by two tragedies: one that happened immediately, and the other that unfolded in the years to come.”
The meeting Narain was speaking at was organised by CSE to commemorate 30 years of one of the world’s worst industrial disasters. The meeting included a panel discussion involving Indira Jaising, senior Supreme Court advocate who has represented the Bhopal victims; Raaj Kumar Keswani, Bhopal-based journalist who was one of the first to highlight safety issues at the Union Carbide factory -- before the tragedy happened; Vijay ManoharTiwari, author of Adhi Raat Ka Sach, a book that explores how Bhopal has been forgotten.
The panel discussed that as India industrialises with greater frenzy, the lessons of Bhopal must be understood.
The panelists released a book published by CSE – Bhopal Gas Tragedy: After 30 years – on the occasion. An exhibition of photographs was also organised to mark the anniversary.
Bhopal Disaster 2.0: contaminated site
People of Bhopal are also suffering another legacy of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL). For 15 years, UCIL dumped toxic wastes within and outside the plant. These wastes are still lying at the site, polluting soil and groundwater and affecting the health of the local community. This second legacy – Bhopal Disaster 2.0 – now threatens even a larger number of people than the first one.
Says Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general, CSE: “The worst part is thatcleaning and decontamination of the site have got embroiled in legalwrangles over how to clean the site, what should be done withthe waste and who should pay for it?” Meanwhile, the pollution continues to spread and engulf more areas. Dow Chemical, which has acquired UCC, denies the liability to clean it up.
In 2009, 25 years after the tragedy, CSE had conducted an independent assessment and found high levels of contamination in the soil and groundwater at the Union Carbide factory site and its adjoining areas. The contaminants included organochlorine and carbamate pesticides, chlorinated benzene compounds and heavy metals -- all of which could be traced back to the production process at UCIL.
In 2013, CSE collaborated with experts from across the country to develop an action plan for environmental remediation of the site and its adjoining areas. This is a five-year plan aimed at remediation of soil and toxic waste inside the plant and outside at the solar evaporation pond and decontamination of the groundwater in the nearby area.
The experts agreed on the levels of contamination, its linkages with the UCIL waste and that the 350 metric tonnes of toxic waste lying at the site is just a small part of a much bigger problem. A transparent remediation process under a central body such as the Central Pollution Control Board was proposed along with participation of the local affected community.
CSE went on to release the action plan in Bhopal and shared it with all concerned ministries/departments at the Centre and the state. But the logjam continues on the technical solutions that need to be adopted to remediate the site. So in spite of court orders, the waste continues to pollute the groundwater and put people of Bhopal at risk.
The lessons of Bhopal
The Bhopal gas leak was India’s first major industrial disaster. Till then, governments in the country had handled floods, cyclones and earthquakes; they did not know how to respond to this catastrophe.
The Environment (Protection) Act (EPA) of 1986 was the first major piece of legislation post-Bhopal. It gave authority to the Centre to issue direct orders to close, prohibit or regulate any industry. In 1987, amendments were made in the Factories Act, which empowers states to appoint site appraisal committees to advise on the location of factories using hazardous processes. It also sets up systems for the safety of workers and residents nearby and specifies emergency disaster control plans. By 1989, the country got the Hazardous Waste (Management and Handling) Rules. And in 1991, the Public Liability Insurance Act was enacted to provide immediate relief to persons affected by accidents while handling hazardous substances. Under the Act, an environment relief fund was set up to compensate affected people.
But, despite the legislations in place, India is fast losing the battle of environmental protection from and management of hazardous waste. Industrial accidents continue to happen frequently;many are unreported. In 2011, over 1,000 people lost their lives in factory accidentsand several thousand were injured. On the other hand, contamination of land and water is a growing problem. In 2010, ten toxic sites housing thousands of tonnes of hazardous waste were identified by the Union ministry of environment and forests.
Says Bhushan: “The problem is that institutional management provisions of legislation remain only on paper. Clearances to mitigate environmental damage have been reduced to procedures without any outcome. The rejection rate is near-zero. India’s environmental management system is a job half done. It should be finished so that we can meet the challenges of sustainable and inclusive growth. Only then will we really learn the lessons of the world’s most horrific industrial disaster.”
To prevent Bhopal 2.0…
The first thing that must be done – points out Bhopal Gas Tragedy: After 30 years – is a strengthening of the institutions. We need to fix what is broken, and not make new institutions that add to multiplicity and confusion. The institutions should monitor compliance and enforce their directions. There is a need to improve the tools for compliance and enforcement. Penalties need to be increased and processes made transparent.
Most importantly, the book points out, participation of local people in governance needs to be increased. This could be done through transparent public hearings and more public data dissemination.
There has to be a strong environmental liability regime for victims of environmental crimes. Says Narain: “Systems of corporate liability cannot remain inadequate as high-risk and unknown technologies pose new challenges. Only then will powerful companies worry about the implicationsof their actions on tomorrow’s generations. If we are to continue to use high-risk technologies then we must take on expensive safeguards, even if it makes technology uncompetitive. In the post-Bhopal age, all technologies must pay the real cost of their present and future dangers.”
Releasing the CSE book, Narain said: “Bhopal must never be forgotten. Dow Chemical must be held liable for the toxic waste still present in the abandoned factory. It must pay for the plant site’s remediation. It must do this quickly, before toxins spread more poison, travelling through groundwater, into people’s bodies. This is also why Bhopal is not just about Bhopal, but about our collective action to bring justice to the people and do right to the environment across the world.”