Another year, another ritual

Published: Saturday 31 December 1994

ANOTHER year, another Bhopal memorial ritual over, but the government has learnt little from one of its people's hardest lessons. And the agony of those maimed over a decade ago continues unabated.

Although laws have been enacted to protect citizens from accidents like the one that occurred at Union Carbide's factory in 1984, in the frenetic rush for US dollars, especially since the liberalisation of the India economy has become a priority, the government has chosen to ignore them, creating situations ripe for several future Bhopals. For one, the US-based power company Enron's gas-run plant, which is to come up in Maharastra, has been given the go-ahead without an evacuation and disaster management plan, mandatory under the law. Likewise, US chemical giant DuPonthas woven a clause into its contract that it is not liable for any accidents.

Moreover, according to the prevalent resource and capital intensive paradigm of development being pursued by the ruling elite of this country, the use of chemicals id equated with progress.

The demand for toxic chemicals continues to grow, making the world. Every year, some 102 million tonnes of 110,000-odd chemicals are produced and marketed. Of these, estimates are that the toxic effect of as many as 80 per cent remains unknown. Further, as concerns for the environment have grown in the West, the production of these chemicals and obsolete and environmentally unfriendly technologies used to produce them are being phased out there; and they are eagerly being strapped governments like India's.

The benefit of the use and production of chemicals is believed to outweigh their costs in terms of human lives, which is precisely why their environmental quality needs to be seriously questioned. Bhopal was indicative of the dangers that these outdated technologies hold for developing countries. Alternatives to the use of toxic pesticides like Sevin, when Union Carbide used to produce at its Bhopal plant, have been tried successfully in other parts of the world , and have been practised in this country for centuries, but the government remains obsessed with chemical pesticides, paying only lip service to existing alternatives. The need to assess alternative service to existing alternatives. The need to assess alternative development processes based on appropriated technology choices, and on appropriate lifestyle choices, is imperative.

But this can only be done in an atmosphere of transparency where information flows freely. But, in India, such information is closely guarded. The Bhopal disaster and the experience since then has only intensified the need to democratise access to information. It is indeed ironic that after Bhopal, the US hastened to monitor factories in their neighbourhood. But till date the government of India continues to block information flows to the public, and people have no way of knowing what factories produce and how that many affect their lives.

Nor has the judiciary been able to rise to the challenges that such a disaster laid before it. Despite several disaster after Bhopal, like the celebrated oleum gas leaks from the Shriram factory in Delhi, no mechanism has been evolved to established the liability - in which the enterprise is held guilty regardless of whether it is responsible for the accident -was articulated by the judges in the Shriram case, in the final Bhopal judgement the judiciary went back on its earlier enlightened stand, dismissing and not a legally binding principle.

Moreover, where the judgement have been enlightened, the judiciary has been hardpushed to evoke positive action from an executive steeped in bureaucratic complacency and indolence. Not only has the country paid the price for this apathy, but the greatest sufferers have been victims of the Bhopal gas disaster. The compensation received have been piecemeal and by no means commensurate with the disabilities suffered, and in thousands of cases has not even covered the medical expenses incurred by patients.

The individual-based compensation scheme evades issues related to the contamination of the environment. There are no provisions for detoxifying the soil or for helping former farmers whose lands were poisoned by the 40 tonnes of highly toxic methyl isocyanate released into the Bhopal atmosphere.

Not surprisingly, the Centre, at the instance of the Supreme Court, has become the guardian of the victims and has ended up the richer for it. If all the claims are finally settled, it is estimated that the government will net over Rs 300 crores. Humanity demands the need for effective mechanisms to transfer resources to those genuinely affected by the disaster -and systems which ensure transparent and efficient disbursement, with the fuel and active participation of those directly affected are, if nothing else, the moral imperative.

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