Young India’s Bhopal challenge

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

imageThe Bhopal question has one more angle: why was there so much public and media outrage over this 25-year-old issue? Why did the national media focus on this story, which till now had been consigned to the backrooms where only noisy environmental activists live?

Many things, I believe, have contributed to this outpouring of anger. One, there is a post-Bhopal gas disaster generation in the country. These young people do not know what happened that night or the events of the years after. They are shocked to see the scale of human suffering and stilled by the sheer injustice. Two, as a nation, we now recognize environmental questions as important, indeed critical, to our health. In Bhopal we see that chemical disaster, which is around us—in the pesticides in our food, in the air we breathe and in the industry that pollutes with impunity. Three, and perhaps most importantly, we see in Bhopal an utter failure of the Indian state to protect its people. We see the complicity and failure of our collective systems, from the executive to the judiciary.

But what riles us, more than anything else, is double standards of the big and powerful. This is the same time when global media is flashing into Indian homes the scenes of another devastation—the oil spill off the coast of the US. This is the time when another top executive of another top company, BP, is being hauled over the coals to pay for damages to the environment and people. We also see the same US government, incensed by homeland pollution, is so insensitive to the tragedy in faraway places involving its own companies. The focus on how Warren Anderson, the former chief of Union Carbide, got away that day from Bhopal and was never tried for the knowledge he had of the accident in the making, has to be seen in this context. A globalized world is also about equality— of intent and action. Indians, I believe, will no more want pusillanimous action from our leaders against big corporates, however much they may want the investment and lifestyle these companies promise. This is why Bhopal’s sufferings have touched this country.

But the question that bothers me is: will our collective anger, reflected in the media, sustain till justice is done? Let us be clear, what we face are not quick or easy tasks. The government’s own report, prepared by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), has confirmed the findings of CSE’s pollutionmonitoring laboratory—that the factory site is contaminated with high levels of toxins, from mercury to pesticides (see ‘Subterranean leak’, Down To Earth, October 1- 15, 2009). This is not a small victory. The Bhopal-based activists have been fighting, indeed screaming, about this contamination. But till date they have faced only denial and callous and criminal dismissal.

Now the clean-up begins. The Group of Ministers has accepted that the entire factory site—not just the stored 300-odd tonnes of waste—will have to be cleaned. It still does not know how deep the contamination goes and how much soil will have to be removed and then disposed of. NEERI says the only saving grace is that because of geological conditions contamination has not seeped into the city’s aquifers. But NEERI does confirm CSE’s finding that some three km away, borewells have the same toxins. So there is a need to drain these wells and treat the water. It’s no small task. This is poisoned land. Inside a thickly populated city.

The second challenge is of holding the company liable for contamination. Dow has issued statements saying it has nothing to do with the waste. It says the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) had settled all claims—in the unfortunate and unjust settlement by the Supreme Court. It says it has no responsibility. And it has smart lawyers—in this case, spokespersons and leaders of the Congress and the BJP—who will find legal loopholes once again.

This when we know the following. One, the contamination at the factory has little to do with the accident. It is about criminal negligence of the company when it was operating the plant. It dumped and left its waste on the ground. Claims for this poisoning have not been settled. Two, during this period the US company Union Carbide held operating control of the plant and is liable for the contamination. Three, it knew of this contamination and did nothing about it. We know now that NEERI was commissioned by UCIL in 1994 to study the site. We know that NEERI had given the report to its client. We know this because Dow’s lawyer in his 2006 opinion admitted this: his client knew of this report and the contamination of soil and groundwater in 1996. But the company did nothing. Instead it handed over the land to the state government. Now it can say it cannot be held responsible. It does not even own the land. It is an old corporate legal tactic: confuse ownership to convolute the liability trail. Will it work this time?

Mahatma Gandhi’s Young India has given way to another young India. Will this young India allow travesty of justice? I hope not. I believe not. —Sunita Narain

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  • While double standard of the

    While double standard of the Western countries have been very evidnt issues ranging from dumping of 'wastes' in the third world countries to the handling of the 'terrorists' links, going after Mr Anderson may be only to demonstrate the principle of 'owning responsibility'. In my opinion the GOI and the Lawyers of UCIL/Dow would use the time earned in diversionary tactics to divert the Indian govts attention, time and effort away from forcing Dow to own up and pay the real cost of the clean up as well as the compensation to the affected population. Govt of India has enough levers to force Dow to toe the Indian Laws, if it wants to be part of the 'growth' story of Indian economy. So the focus should be primarily on making the Dow own up the responsibility as the current owner of the earstwhile UCIL.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sunita ji, Appreciate

    Dear Sunita ji,

    Appreciate and completely support your views.
    I am optimistic and do wish things would get better. The ground situations reflecting continued inaction in each and every sphere of bringing sanity while showing little or no any care to human life. The hope of seeing improvements is receding by the day as most of us holding the responsibility and power appear neither inclined, ready nor willing to admit the need leave aside bring a change.

    You would agree, Bhopal was avoidable if the regulator had done their job. There were worker deaths almost two years prior that could have as well woken the regulator from slumber yet the reverse happened and the CM of state was seen giving certifications on a subject that he may hardly be familiar.That there is none who wants to pointed ask such people why were such unqualified certifications given or what was the basis? We are actually waiting for more such accidents to happen?
    Can we expect a near similar stand as taken by Obama on Oil spill from any of our leaders?

    So are we any different or better 25 years later.

    The news today is filled with breach in SYL and flooding of Ambala and Kurukshetra while the farmers are seen quoting that they warned the concerned officials as early as a month back?
    Who did not act? Will we act now?
    Who would take responsibility for inaction?
    Else, Public money would once again get wasted and no one would ever be answerable.

    I feel unless we bring honest accountability for each inaction to fore and begin to seriously deal with such and similar cases, there is no reason; Why more Bhopal's will not happen.
    To make a begining we need a system wherein every contact, approach, information and mail to every office of responsibility gets recorded and put to logical scrutiny, yet in a country where serious FIR's fail to get recorded it is probably expecting "too much". It remains as much a truth that unless we do this "too much" the gap shall continue drift to unmanageable levels further discriminating humanity on the basis of power,position and money.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • thanks for this great

    thanks for this great article! I still don't think India has all the right safety regulations in place to prevent another Bhopal from happening. All the other countries including the US are learning more from the Bhopal tragedy to make their plants safer. Guess india should use this opportunity to revisit our regulations and bring about small changes, one at a time to build/operate safer chemical plants, refineries .

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply