• The Statesman
    • 07 Dec 2014

usha ramanathan
The contours of risk, and harm, were altered dramatically on the night of 2/3 December 1984, when MIC escaped from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal killing thousands and causing injury to hundreds of thousands living in the vicinity. The extent of the harm has been unfolding since then, with deaths due to exposure to the gas continuing to rise, and chronicity manifest in the 5,00,000 people seeking relief in the hospitals run by the Gas Relief Department. The disaster has produced a ‘Vidhwa Colony’ and the ‘Bhopal Orphan’- there isn’t even a kindness in construction of the identity of the survivor. In 2000, sixteen years after the disaster, the Centre for Rehabilitation Studies set up by the Madhya Pradesh government was reporting that exposure to the gas was claiming one victim a day each day of the year. The numbers have continued to escalate.
In December 1985, a day and a year after the Bhopal gas disaster, there was a leak of oleum gas from the chlorine plant of Shriram Foods and Fertilisers in Delhi causing panic that was exacerbated by the then unforgotten memory of what had happened in Bhopal. There was a PIL pending in the Supreme Court raising concerns about negligence and heightened risk in the factory – fears that the gas leak confirmed were justified. The court, with Bhopal expressly in view, set out principles that could form the basis of mass disaster law. There were the principles of absolute liability and enterprise liability providing potential for making enterprises internalise the costs of accidents and disasters, but which, inexplicably, has only found staggered acceptance over the years. Then there has been the supervisor’s responsibility for lapses in safety, and the workers’ right to know about safety issues in a factory – till this judgment and the subsequent amendment to the Factories Act in 1987, workers actually had no such right despite being most proximate to the risk!
Two directions of the court carried particular significance. One arose in the context of Shriram appealing to the court that they be allowed to restart the factory once they had done what was considered necessary to repair and restore the plant to safety. The court was willing to give the go-ahead only if the Chairman and Managing Director of the DCM Ltd., which was the owner of the various units of Shriram, would give an undertaking that he would be “personally responsible for the payment of compensation for…..death or injury” in case “there is any escape of chlorine gas resulting in death or injury to the workmen or to the people living in the vicinity.” The court’s position was plain: if the Chairman was unwilling to guarantee that there would be no further leak, how could the whole population be put at risk? The factory subsequently restarted on the strength of the undertaking. The second direction related to the relocation of industries. Chemical and other hazardous industries, the court said, have an element of risk. “It is not possible to totally eliminate such hazard or risk altogether…..we can only hope to reduce the element of hazard or risk to the community by taking all necessary steps for locating such industries in a manner which would pose least risk of danger to the community and maximising safety requirements in such industries.” So, it was suggested, a national policy was to be evolved “for location of chemical and other hazardous industries in areas where population is scarce and there is little hazard or risk to the community, and when hazardous industries are located in such areas, every care shall be taken that human habitations shall not grow around them. There should preferably be a green belt of 1 to 5 km width around such hazardous industries.”
That was in 1985. In 1996, a successor court ordered the shutting down and relocation of all industries in Delhi to other sites in the neighbouring states. An assessment still needs to be done if this was a relocation of industry along with a reduction of risk, or, if this was merely the relocation of risk. The question that remains is if pollution, potential disaster and workers’ safety had been contained, or whether risk had only shifted its location. Since then, the vocabulary of risk and hazard has discovered many expressions.
Take NIMBY. Not In My Backyard. Why would any community of persons be more willing to bear recognised risk than any other? The difficulties encountered in disposing of the toxic waste that is in the Union Carbide plant site in Bhopal is an illustration. It was in the late 1990s that the contamination of the soil in and around the site, and of the water in the neighbourhood, was spotted. The effect it has had of re-victimising the victims of the disaster, and adding to their numbers, is now undisputed. A case was filed in the High Court at Jabalpur asking Union Carbide and Dow Chemical which had acquired Union Carbide, to clean up the site.
Along the way, a German company offered to do clean-up of the toxic waste. Among the reasons this fell through, apart from the intractability of the state government, was the resistance from civil society in Germany. Further efforts have failed to take off, the logic of NIMBY standing as an obstacle.
After all, why should people of Pitampura not refuse to host the toxic waste?
Then there is ‘fingerprinting’. This is a process which helps establish a link between an industry and the toxin emitted. The setting up of industrial areas in which multiple factories are located lends this added importance.
If workers and residents suffer the effect of emissions, identifying the offending factory could be a hurdle in fixing liability, and ‘fingerprinting’ could come in handy. Except, of course, there is little evidence that this science is being developed around us.
There is ‘body burden’. Simply stated, this phrase represents the burden of chemicals that is present in the human body at a given point in time. If we were to walk into a lab today and test our bodies to establish the chemical burden, the result is most certain to be frightening.
There are manifestations that we see around us but, in willed ignorance, refuse to confront. Think of the ‘Cancer Train’ from ‘Bhatinda to Bikaner’.
Where the disaster constituted a traumatic episode, the soil and water contamination at the plant site has crept into the system, leaving discovery for a date far from when the damage began.
There is the fiction of ‘permissible limits’ about which little is known to us, which is hardly re-calibrated based on science and experience, and which serves to produce a sense of safety where none should exist. In effect, the human body has become a global commons.
It is the tragedy of Bhopal that a disaster of such dimensions has not alerted us to the dangers of toxicity.
If it were not for the survivors and their supporters, who have kept alive to matters of justice, wrong-doing, responsibility and liability, the lessons from the disaster may well have vanished into the mists of irresponsible forgetfulness. Confronting toxicity is, however, yet to happen.