In post-Independence era, the greatest environmental disaster in terms of loss of human lives occurred in Madhya Pradesh in 1984.
The Bhopal gas tragedy struck 33 years ago after the formation of the Department of Environment on November 1, 1980 and 12 years after the Central Pollution Control Board was set up in 1972.
One may recall that Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act was also operative since 1981. So, one can say, India had a regulatory system of governance to avoid such a big disaster. A single disaster killed more than 15,000 people while maiming and injuring numerous others for life. The latest media report reveals that “lakhs of people are still affected and many are dying” (Millennium Post, December 6, 2017). Till date, adequate payments due to the victims have not been paid. The original owner, the US-based Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), has sold the property to Dow Chemicals.
In 2006, a government affidavit stated that the gas leak caused 558,125 injuries, including 38,478 temporary partial injuries and approximately 3,900 severely and permanently-disabling injuries.
Others estimate that 8,000 died within two weeks and another 8,000 or more have since died from gas-related diseases. The cause of the disaster remains debatable. The India government and local activists argue that slack management and deferred maintenance created a situation where routine pipe maintenance caused a backflow of water into a Methyl isocyanate tank, triggering the disaster. However, the UCC contends that water entered the tank through an act of sabotage.
According to a UCC statement, after the tragedy, UCC and UCC’s chairman at the time of the disaster, Warren Anderson, worked towards providing aid to the victims. Attempts were made on their part to set up a process to resolve their claims.
The statement further says that “all claims arising out of the release were settled in 1989 at the explicit direction and with the approval of the Supreme Court of India by means of a settlement agreement between the Government of India, UCC and UCIL. In 1991, and again in 2007, the Supreme Court upheld the fairness and adequacy of the settlement in response to court challenges from non-governmental organisations”.
Underground water supply has been polluted with toxic chemicals, which was not only due to the gas leak, but also due to UCC’s practices prior to the disaster. The water in Bhopal is also unsafe even now due to such contamination.
In 1998, the Supreme Court reached a settlement with UCC and paid US $ 470 million to India. At that time, it made a turnover of about US $ 9.5 billion, 20 times the amount. In return, there was no prosecution, but only a little amount of money reached the victims. The terrain where the plant is located is still contaminated with mercury and other carcinogenic substances.
Several cases have surfaced in India and the United States, demanding fair compensation for survivors and cleaning up the polluted environment, but in vain. Dow argued that since they purchased UCC 17 years after the tragedy, they did not inherit the liabilities of the former. But it should be taken into account that as a successor of UCC, Dow has inherited both its assets and liabilities. Anderson died a fugitive, never being tried for criminal charges (The Diplomat, April 19, 2017). Dow refuses to decontaminate the soil while Greenpeace estimates show that US $ 30 million would be required for it.
Helpless people are demanding the following: adequate compensation, clean-up of the hazardous waste site, rehabilitation of survivors, pension to gas victims with medical treatment and exemplary punishment to offenders.
There are too many organisations fighting for the cause. All one can see was the setting up of a big hospital called Bhopal Memorial. Now, it is said to be in a bad state like many other government-run clinics lacking basic facilities.
Promises of employment also proved hollow. So, was the payment of providing pension to the widows of the victims as it was discontinued in 2016.
The question remains unanswered how the culprits went scot-free? Case histories of environmental disasters by US multinationals in other parts of the world reveal the hefty amount of penalty they had to pay, for example Exxon Valdez. Even though the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska was the nation’s 34th worst oil spill, the US Supreme Court’s verdict was Exxon owed US $ 507.5 million (The Balance, April 27, 2017).
The Bhopal Gas Tragedy is the world’s worst industrial disaster and one of the biggest examples of human rights violation. The question remains why India did not take it to the International Court of Justice, if it cannot handle UCC and Dow Chemicals. Why environmental groups around the world remained silent for more than three decades since the disaster? Had the same accident occurred in the US, what punishment the offenders would have received? There are multiple questions and no answer.