14 Years Later..

...there's a Bhopal waiting to happen in the nooks and corners of the country. But the government is yet to take the right steps to ensure the safety of workers and the environment

By Raj Kishor Khaware
Published: Monday 15 February 1999

-- IT HAPPENED again, for the 14th time in a row. As a annual national exercise, one more dirge was sung for Bhopal. The Federation of Indian Chambers Of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and the Union ministry of environment and forests (MEF) jointly organised the 14th commemoration of the Bhopal gas disaster on December 4, also called Disaster Prevention Day or Bhopal Day. Entitled "Roundtable on Bhopal Gas Tragedy: An Introspection", the meeting aimed to be a solemn reminder of the disaster and also sought to motivate industries to undertake preventive action. But the amazing fact is that even after 14 years, Bhopal continues to be a dark blotch in the history of industrial safety in India.

"It is time to prepare for coming date will not wait for disasters to happen," said Suresh Prabhu, Union minister for environment and forests. It is gratifying that the government is finally recognising the need for a proactive role towards disaster prevention, even though it has taken 14 worrisome years to seep into its consciousness.

Intriguingly, the message from various presentations is that India has world-class legislations on industrial safety. "Legislation in India is as good, if not better, as anywhere in the world," said R K Garg, former chairperson, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). However, a recent report on industrial accidents by MEE spins a different tale. According to this report, after Bhopal, there have been 119 industrial accidents in India killing over 1,000 and injuring over 6,000 people. Is this what world-class legislations do to ensure the safety of its people and the environment?
Legal lapse After the Shriram chlorine gas leak case in 1986, a whole new chapter was added to the statute that deals with hazardous processes. There are provisions for the site appraisal committee to certify where a factory may be located, compulsory disclosure of information about environmental and health hazards from the exposure to hazardous chemicals during manufacture, transportation, storage or other processes.

A disaster management plan is to be drawn up before a factory begins operations. For the first time, workers are statutorily accorded the right to be principal participants in safety management programmes. And again, for the first time, compulsory disclosure of information is open not only to the concerned authorities but also to the people living in the vicinity of the factory. But, along with these constructive laws, some legal flaws are tucked away in an obscure cranny. Here, the infamous Section 7B(5) is worth a look. Even as the government put up a semblance of a battle to make the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) pay for the Bhopal disaster, this incongruous provision was slipped into the law without any debate. This section absolves manufacturers, designers, importers and suppliers of industrial plants and machinery of responsibilities in case of an accident if the user of such a plant or machinery gives a written undertaking "to take the steps... to ensure... the article will be safe (without the risk to the health of the worker) when properly used." Says Usha Ramanathan, a law researcher at the New Delhi-based Indian Law Institute, "This law shall have the effect of relieving the designer and manufacturer from what is otherwise prescribed as a duty to ensure safety of the workers." What Ramanathan has to say cannot be questioned. Indeed, this provision only serves to place the company controlling the technology beyond the reach of law.
The bumpy road of enforcement At the Bhopal Day meet, there were high decibel expressions of enforcement being poor. "Framing of rules and regulations is not enough unless we ensure compliance," suggested Garg, indicating the much-needed change. But the question is: why are enforcement laws considered separate from legislation? After all, legislation without enforcement is a tiger without fangs and claws. But if this is the question, then there is also an answer: "Enforcement is a difficult task, we are looking for participation from states," says special secretary Vinod Vaish of MEF, passing the buck on to the states' inability to comply. At the end of the day, everything seems confusing. People at the helm complain of bad enforcement. And the question remains unanswered. Do we need a new machinery to enforce such rules or is the existing machinery enough? Excuses do not prevent accidents, only actions can. One also fails to understand why the onus of compliance is not on the industries. Why cannot industries be forced to take upon themselves the task of complying with the rules?

The minister remarked that "MEF is not willing to play the role of the traffic police to first allow to jump a red light and then catch, but to prevent jumping". His theoretical perspective seems clear. But finding ways of bringing the issue to its logical conclusion has eluded the authorities all these years.

Prickly issues
People still wonder how the UCC was allowed to open shop in the heart of Bhopal, In addition, there are umpteen examples where a bad combination of industries has been allowed to share close geographical areas in the past. Which means many industries, each one fraught with enormous destructive potential, are located in close proximity. Chembur in Mumbai has, for instance, two oil refineries, three petrochemical plan fertiliser plant, a thermal power plant, a 10,000-megatonne ammonia tank, the BARC nuclear reactors and several small hazardous industries. Obviously, there is a lack of clear perspective on modalities on which combination of industries should be allowed to be established at close quarters. It is important that the planners know whether all such industries can be located together or be spread out.

Then comes the issue of relocation, which is an inevitable and effective tool for mitigation of public affliction. But this too is not flawless for the following reasons:

When industries are asked to relocate, they close shop, leaving the workers high and dry. And it is mainly the workers, who come from the lower sections of the society, that suffer;

Part of the human settlement also relocates in the new site. In Thane, Maharashtra, for instance, industries were relocated in 1961 to a remote area. By 1990, this area has substantial human settlements, both authorised and unauthorised.

Prabhu identified two problems with regard to industrial accidents: location of industries and urban planning. Then, of course, the problem of overpopulation was implicated. True, bad urban planning and overpopulation comes in the way of reducing public affliction due to an accident. But this all the more calls for ways of making industries accident-firee. This target can be reached faster than that of urban planning and overpopulation. But, the country has a good history of 50 years 'cluelessness' on how to tackle it.

The ministry should now put its own act together and recognise the flaws with direct legislations. For instance, considerable number of industries flout disaster management plans (DMPS) within the factory laws, surveillance premises, called on-site DMPS. Very few districts and participation have DMPS outside factory premises or off-site DMPS. These are glaring violations of rules. MEF should sort ensure the safety out these issues and find ways to ensure compliance. It should also force industries to create awareness among the workers and the public at large about the risks. A few decades of industrialisation is not a small time for such lessons. Else, bad safety record shall remain a stark reckoning and is likely to yield bad results in the era of liberalisation.

Another issue, conspicuous by its absence, is whether laws are equipped to protect the interests of the workers and those affected, both before and after the accidents. It is time to review them, unless we want to wait for another Bhopal to happen to learn what a toothless law can do to innocent citizens while letting transnational companies walk away with impunity.

Ensuring industrial safety is not an unmanageable task. What is needed is a clear perspective, strict enforcement of laws, surveillance and participation of all people. The industry must cooperate as for its own sake. Unless this happens, Bhopal will live on only in conferences and workshops.

The author is a researcher on health and environment issues and, a PhD in life sciences from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi

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