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Bhopal gas tragedy: Did Fera ferry the poison to India?

Vandana Yadav | New Delhi Oct 08, 2015 07:01 PM IST

The share of the BRICS grouping countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in the global chemical production grew from 13 per cent at the turn of the century to 28 per cent in 2009, showed the UN Environment Programme’s Global Chemicals Outlook Report, 2013. More alarming was the fact that India‘s production was estimated to grow by 59 per cent in the 2012-2020 period.

At a time when industrial pollution is one of the top five causes of death in the world, the report’s findings and estimates seem to sound the alarm bells. Besides, and importantly, India is yet to get over the horror of Bhopa’s Union Carbide gas leak tragedy of 1984, the worst-ever industrial disasters in world history.
Back in 1984, it was the dark night of December 2 when one Raeez Beg, son of Mahmuda Bi, started coughing in a dingy bylane of Old Bhopal. What at first seemed plain allergy suffocated him to death,  the deadly gas had infected him. Raeez’s wife, two sons and three daughters now don’t like to talk much about it. But Mahmuda Bi, now 75, refuses to let that horrifying night settle down in her memory. “It was painful to see him suffocate”, she says.
After years of stoic and resilient struggle for justice, though, Mahmuda Bi’s eyes have dried up. She doesn’t cry anymore; she only speaks and fights for justice. She wants more than just free treatment at hospitals. She seeks good health for her family, and relief & rehabilitation for survivors from the government.
Rahim Mahmud Ibrahim, another survivor, lost his son and daughter to the deadly gas leak. Those who survived are still ailing. “The government paid us Rs 25,000 and went away. It’s we, and our children, who suffered. They (the government) have little concern for our suffering”, he says.
According to Ibrahim, they have been rallying for 30 years now, without a fail, attending each rally, each dharna. People’s high hopes from the present central government under Narendra Modi brought them to Jantar Mantar last year. People from the younger generation still worry for their grandparents and parents, who are suffering from serious after-effects.

The Foreign Exchange & Regulation Act

Could the tragedy have been averted through financial regulation? Perhaps, yes. On January 1, 1973, India had enacted Fera (Foreign Exchange & Regulation Act) and imposed stringent rules on certain kinds of payments, dealings in foreign exchange and securities and transactions with an indirect impact on the foreign exchange and import-export of currency. But the amendments made by the central government in 1975 allowed companies like Union Carbide to operate in India.
Earlier, Fera capped foreign equity in Indian companies at 40 per cent. An alarmed Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), which owned a 60 per cent stake in Union Carbide India, offered to manufacture methyl-isocyanate (MIC) in Bhopal. In return, it sought to be exempted from Fera, a request that was granted under “amplified guidelines” in 1975. A set of WikiLeaks cables revealed how in the US, the government had pushed the case for UCC to set up operations in India. It showed that Union Carbide India managers were in touch with US diplomatic officials, seeking their intervention to secure terms for UCC’s investment in India.
The WikiLeaks revelation
The WikiLeaks cable (April 20, 1976) clearly says: “As a result of the amendments, the GoI (Government of India) hopefully will be able to make expeditious decisions on the 245 of 855 cases remaining under the Fera. The earlier guidelines had created problems in dealing with the cases of multi-product companies like Union Carbide, whose contribution to Indian industrial developments and exports was vital but could not match the strict criteria under the old guidelines…”
Therefore, it appears, calling what goes as industrial pollution a corporate crime, as in the case of the Bhopal gas tragedy, might not be incorrect. Three long decades have not been enough to kill the effects of a toxin that mutated and intertwined with DNA of ordinary people, thereby changing the very human fabric of the city and lives of its inhabitants.
With December nearing, another round of protests and uproar might be in the offing in Bhopal, only to be silenced sometime later. The long trend shows that it has been an annual drill. But, sadly, the drill has yet to bring any meaningful change in the lives of the survivors, the sufferers.

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