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when claims of indian exceptionalism run into bhopal gas survivors

in a month, it will be 27 years since the gas leaked out of that tank in union carbide’s bhopal plant. it is an event which has never quite lost its ability to shock people — the scale of the disaster; the state’s brutal abandonment of the gas affected; the subsequent discovery that households living near the plant’s toxic dumps and drinking the groundwater there were reporting severe abnormalities in new borns and high incidences of cancer; rapidly followed by the bhopal administration siting — wait for it — the new agricultural grain mandi about 500 metres away from these erstwhile evaporation ponds where carbide used to dump its slurry and, for good measure, allowing new houses to come up in the area; the hospital erected to take care of the gas victims slowly turning them all away and treating the city’s affluent instead… i could go on.

three days ago, my edit page editor, tk arun, and i found something new to be horrified by. new documents have been unearthed which reveal that…

Weeks after the tragic Bhopal gas leak in December 1984, the Indian government mutely accepted a settlement offered by Union Carbide Corporation (UCC). Among other things, UCC’s offer outlined the quantum of compensation to be paid out to victims and how injuries were to be categorised and compensated. In exchange , it wanted “extinguishment” of all claims against UCC, its Indian subsidary, Union Carbide India Limited, and its staff.

and, wouldn’t you know it, the government agreed. hook, line and sinker. take a look at this story. it briefly explains what the proposal was, why it was flawed. and yet, the bureaucrats and the rajiv gandhi government accepted the whole thing. no application of thought. even though the scale of the accident (india’s first industrial accident which involved communities living around the plant and not just the workers) far outstripped provisions in existing laws.

and you know the worse bit? it has been said that nothing challenges the idea of india as much as the bhopal gas tragedy. not really. there are a thousand unfolding/unfolded bhopals in this country. plant after plant under-represents the risks they expose local populations to. poverty forces people to live close to these. others, to work in them. their pollution leaches, usually untreated, into rivers and the earth. and the safety mechanisms rarely work.

these are not generalised rants. a friend, who did his phd on the nuke plant at kudankulam, told me once that the plant had told locals about low noise levels. not about the threat of radiation. as for the other assertions. poverty pushes people to live in cheaper, if higher risk, areas — slums along the riverside, next to drains. as for the pollution, i am reminded of a trip as a freelancer to orissa. plants were dumping waste into the hirakud dam’s reservoir! incredible, that. because those waters are then used for irrigation. in the same trip, i also heard about how plants would switch off their smoke/pollution capturing systems to save on bijli (electricity).

and 27 years after bhopal, while we have better laws, we continue to be crap at enforcing them.

not a country given to learning from its much-feted past, india.

ps – also see this story written last year after the court awarded two year jail terms, a mere 26 years after the event, to some of the staff and senior managers in UCC’s Indian ops.

Union Carbide. Reflections

this is the first of three opinionated stories i wrote for et’s 50th anniversary. i cannot find the links to these on the website, and so am pasting the raw text itself.

Blackened and twisted from the heat of the reaction, tank 610 lies on its side. Twenty-six years ago, on the night of 2nd-3rd December, it is from this tank in Union Carbide’s Bhopal factor that Methyl Isocyanate leaked out and spread, cloudlike, across a large part of the city. It was the world’s worst industrial disaster. Official numbers estimate that almost 4,000 people died that night. Tens of thousands were permanently disabled.

It’s an event that exposes a strange paradox about the Indian state. Think about it. On one hand, in the years after the leak, India made radical changes to her environmental law. Till the leak, industrial risk was understood as something confined to the factory. It was not till Bhopal that the definition of the community at risk widened and brought the community living around the project into the calculus of industrial risk.

The legislative response was the Environmental (Protection) Act (1986). It authorizes the central government to protect and improve environmental quality, to control and reduce pollution from all sources, and to prohibit or restrict the setting and/or operation of any industrial facility on environmental grounds. Today, it is an umbrella Act from which myriad other environmental laws, like the Environmental Impact Assessment notification, etc, derive their authority.

Another response came from the Supreme Court where, while ruling on a subsequent Oleum Gas leak in Delhi, Justice PN Bhagwati added the principle of Absolute Liability to India’s legal liability regime. Says environmental lawyer Videh Upadhyay, “When the Indian government tried to hold Union Carbide responsible for the disaster, the best legal principle available to it was the strict liability principle. Derived from British Common Law, this says any industry engaged in hazardous activity is liable for adverse consequences even if the industry/enterprise is not directly responsible for them. However, mitigating conditions could be factored in, like acts of god, acts of strangers, etc.”

While ruling on the Oleum case, Justice Bhagwati did away with the exemptions. His order said: “Where an enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and harm results to anyone on account of an accident in the operation of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity resulting, for example, in escape of toxic gas, the enterprise is strictly and absolutely liable to compensate all those who are affected by the accident and such liability is not subject to any of the exceptions which operate vis-à-vis the tortious principle of strict liability.”

This landmark legal principle, says Upadhyay, was developed in the backdrop of Bhopal. Joining other environmental principles like Polluter Pays and the Precautionary Principle, it has been used extensively since then.

It shows the caring side of the Indian state. But, look at how the victims have been treated, and you see something strikingly different.

In all these years, regardless of the party in power, the victims’ struggle for compensation and treatment has continued. A combination of disinterested gas relief hospitals and almost non-existent medical research into the effects of the gas leak on humans has resulted in the gas victims getting little more than palliative treatment for their medical problems. The symptoms get treated but little else more. Poor attempts at social and economic rehabilitation have resulted in them sinking deep into poverty.

Saddest of all, the number of victims has been swelled by a second generation of victims. Some are children born to badly-affected survivors are blind, lame, with limbs twisted or missing, deaf and mute, brain-damaged, with hare-lips, cleft palates, webbed fingers, cerebral palsy or tumours where there should be eyes. Others are those who unknowingly bought land abutting the ponds outside the plant where Carbide used to dump its chemical slurry. This water-affected population, reports Sambhavna Clinic, a charity set up to help gas victims, is showing an incidence of birth defects that is ten times the national average.

A strange paradox, indeed.

Union Carbide Followup. Three

In June this year, responding to the public outcry over the weak judgments handed out by a Bhopal sessions court, the Indian government unveiled a new relief package for the survivors of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. With the 26th anniversary of the leak around the corner, the Economic Times travelled to Bhopal to take stock of progress.

What follows is an excerpt from an interview with S.R. Mohanty, secretary (health), government of Madhya Pradesh, who is also in charge of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation Department.

Q But what happens to the people with “temporary disability”? Jabbar Khan, the Bhopal Gas activist, has been compiling a list of people, who while classed as temporarily disabled, are now suffering from cancer and renal failure and the like…

A That is a major problem. The 5,21,000 people who had been listed as suffering from minor injuries were not considered by the GoM. They did not want to reopen the question of recategorisation. On the whole, there are two issues on the compensation front. One, even as the number of cases rose far beyond initial estimates, the compensation amount stayed the same. The result, people got a fifth of what they should have. Second, the categorisation (into major and minor disabilities) itself has become untenable. As the years go by, people who had a minor wheezing problem now have collapsed lungs.

Read the whole interview here.

Union Carbide Followup. Two

and what the GoM recommended.

Union Carbide followup. One.

after the outcry, a meeting by the GoM (group of ministers).

A tragedy that looks like it will never end

eleven days earlier, a Bhopal sessions court had handed down measly sentences to seven people accused in the bhopal gas leak. in the resulting cries for revenge and demands for the extradition of warren andersen, a big point was ignored. the tragedy at bhopal did not just occur 25 years ago, it continues to unfold.

Widespread environmental contamination in and around the Union Carbide plant still poisons people. A combination of disinterested gas relief hospitals and almost non-existent medical research into the effects of the gas leak on humans has resulted in the gas victims getting little more than palliative treatment for their medical problems. The symptoms get treated but little else more. Poor attempts at social and economic rehabilitation of the gas victims have resulted in them sinking into poverty.

a field report from the city.