Bhopal blinded us all

OUR PLANET 8.6 - Chemicals

Bhopal blinded us all


says that the lessons of the world's greatest
industrial disaster are still largely unlearned

Indian family

On the night of 2 December 1984, a cloud of lethal gases swept out of a Union Carbide subsidiary plant in the central Indian city of Bhopal as people slept. They awoke to breathlessness, burning eyes, a toxic cloud that invaded their homes, panic, fear, flight and, in many cases, death. Hospitals were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the sick and dying: about 200,000 were treated in the first days.

Even today, at least 4,000 patients line up every day outside Bhopal clinics and hospitals to consult doctors and receive treatment. The death toll from gas-related injuries has exceeded 8,000. Compensation is being slowly and steadily paid out to the victims although there are cries of delay, fraud and corruption in the process. Litigation against Union Carbide and its executives proceeds in Indian courts. Annual rituals continue outside the closed plant, especially on the anniversary of the disaster, with the burning of effigies, calls for justice for Bhopal's suffering and warnings against multinational corporations, but as the years roll past, they appear hollower and hollower.

More than 11 years after the world's worst industrial disaster - which carried away more victims than all previous industrial tragedies put together - the voice of Bhopal is enfeebled. The conditions that led to the accident still exist in industrial areas across the developed and developing worlds. And the concerns that grew out of Bhopal - for strict regulations in the chemical industry, for public access to information about hazardous chemicals and processes, for reassessing strategies of development instead of blindly trying to follow an ASEAN, Japanese or any other model for growth - remain distant from reality.

In India, at least, there are many good laws on paper - such as those governing the transport of hazardous materials or those insisting on the relocation of industrial plants if situated in populated neighbourhoods. (One reason for Bhopal's high death toll was the existence of thickly-populated colonies that had sprung up opposite the plant in violation of town planning rules.) Environmental impact assessment reports are now mandatory for major industrial and developmental projects. Yet, the proponents of the mantra of economic liberalization leading to prosperity - without adequate consideration of the potential hazards to populations, environmental damage and destruction of traditions - appear to be winning.

Safety in industry appears no longer to have the resonance or priority that it was given after the disaster. At the time, many foreign companies said that they were cautious about investing in India because of the litigation against Carbide and that they were watching the cases carefully; but caution is clearly no longer the watchword as the governments of India and its states and provinces are desperately seeking foreign investors to revive a flagging economy.

Nevertheless, it is significant that the funds are only now flowing in, despite many promises by foreign corporations in the heady days of liberalization in the early 1990s. It is not that the lessons of Bhopal have been forgotten by developing countries: it was a benchmark in the environmental consciousness of the world. It is just that they are seen as too inconvenient, hampering potential investors and the investment climate.

Taj Mahal

The West's response

Ironically it is the countries which exported the technology and materials to sites like Bhopal - and not the importers which are most frequently hurt by industrial tragedies - that have taken the lessons of the disaster to heart. This is probably because there is so much more at stake, in corporate terms. The industrialized world, with more power, money and technical capability than poorer nations, realizes that its safety record must be seen to be better than others' if it is to retain its leadership and maintain a competitive edge.

The United States has built into law a Federal Right-to-Know, empowering individuals or groups to summon details of toxic material inventories and other records from companies that are storing, manufacturing or using such material. In addition, a Toxic Registry Inventory that forces companies to file exact details of emissions of over 300 chemicals with the Environment Protection Agency has been developed.

Bhopal was the trigger for this. Concerned and informed legislators played a key role in the process. Legislators who had chemical industries in their constituencies were pressurized to support such controls on industry. Safety audits were tightened. A responsible media played a significant role in ensuring that the chemical industry, shaken yet initially strongly resistant to change, fell in line. And, of course, responsible industrial leaders realized that it was in their interest to cooperate rather than to be seen as standing out against public safety.

Failure and potential

The Federal Right-to-Know is an example of what can be done to make industry more responsible and transparent. In Europe, there is the Seveso Directive - named after the Italian town hit by a gas leak in 1976 - which governs the transport and storage of hazardous materials. Of course chemical spills and accidents will continue to happen: there are limits to technology and human capability. But every effort should be made to ensure that tragedies like Bhopal are not repeated.

Why has this not happened in India, for example? The answer lies in a lack of both political will and sustained public interest. On the other hand, there has been judicial activism and will on such issues as saving the Taj Mahal at Agra from polluting steel foundries and getting hazardous industries to shift out of New Delhi. But there are limits to the power of the courts. Ultimately, they must depend on political leadership which is more concerned about the jobs of workers than the lives of hundreds of thousands living near these death traps. And although environmental consciousness is on the rise in India, there is a bare handful of environmental lawyers.

Levels of compensation for victims of industrial accidents have improved since the Bhopal disaster. Insurance cover has gone up for workers. Environmental journalism is growing in influence. But an overall reassessment of industrial development has hardly taken place. In the haste to economic reform, few have taken the time to consider its long-term impacts.

There is still time to act on the lessons of Bhopal, especially in the developing world. The public's right to information must be built into environmental impact assessment reports. More important, it must be made a part of a freedom to information law that cannot be tampered with by governments, corporations or trade unions. In this, the media can be a useful ally; not as an ill-informed, fickle mistress but as a responsible group that influences policy because of the strength and depth of its knowledge.

We cannot afford to forget that a Bhopal is never far away.

Sanjoy Hazarika, a former New York Times reporter, is currently with the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and is author of Bhopal, The Lessons of a Tragedy.

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