...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
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?
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.
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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