India witnessed one of the most devastating industrial tragedies in its independent history on 3 December, 1984. This incident took place in Bhopal’s Union Carbide plant established by the Union Carbide Corporation of US due to the leakage of methyl isocynate (MIC). And recently the Supreme Court pronounced its verdict, 26 yrs after the incident took place where 2 of the 7 accused were sent to just 2 yrs in jail and immediately after that they got bail! Is the quantum of punishment in anyway reasonable and the answer is an emphatic NO. So what are the lessons that can be learnt from an incident of this kind of magnitude? Before we look into what lessons could be learnt from this incident we must look at how this incident took place and what blunders were committed.
The incident was waiting to take place as the locals had witnessed similar kinds of gas leaks but on a much smaller scale. Even the Union Carbide Company knew that there was a problem with the way the plant was functioning as during there inspection of the plant they noticed that the safety measures were not in place and it was not in good working condition either. And the company’s fear of lack of safety measures held fort when on 3rd of December 1984, due to an exothermic reaction where water and MIC got mixed led to the gas leaking and since the safety valve was not functioning so that meant that the gas escaped into air and started spreading at a rapid rate to the colonies located right next to the plant. And since the incident took place in the night hence the incident claimed even more number of people because most of them were sleeping when the incident took place.
Many people suffered from suffocation, some reported burns on their bodies and some were vomiting. The patients who were brought in had to be kept in isolation wards as the gas was highly hazardous and patients already admitted might start feeling the effects of the gas leak patients. As if this was not enough the Union Carbide Company Chairman Anderson came to Bhopal to assess the damage caused and was arrested but later was released and was allowed to fly in the state aircraft to Delhi from where he would take a connecting flight back to US. So it can be seen that this was the most disastrous incident that took place on Indian Soil and there is no doubt that there was some kind of unholy nexus between the state govt., central govt. and Union Carbide Company.
Then when the incident had taken its full toll and it was time to compensate the families who had suffered major reverses in the incident there also the unholy nexus prevailed as many people were not given compensation because of the poor bureaucratic condition in the country. That’s primarily the reason why every yr on the anniversary of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Disaster the people who have been affected by the gas leak and who have still not been given compensation sit outside the Prime Minister’s house in silent protest against the injustice being done towards them.
The first and foremost step that needs to be taken to prevent a disaster of such a magnitude in the future is that during the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Company and the Government, it should be made clear to the company concerned that incase any mishap occurs then the responsibility will be bared by the company concerned if there is any security lapse on their part and it should also be made clear that incase an incident does occur then the company should pay at least half of the compensation to the aggrieved people and the govt. with which they signed the memorandum of understanding.
This was clearly violated in the case of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy as the Union Carbide Company paid a meager amount of compensation for the disaster that took place in Bhopal. And the Indian Government’s poor bureaucratic management ensured that many people did not get even that small amount of money that they should have got after the Company sent the money to the Govt. The second step that needs to be taken is that the victim should not be asked to provide evidence to get his/her compensation. This means that the tort law should not be used where the victim has to provide evidence for getting compensation.
Clearly this is a problem that people in India have been constantly facing and it is high time we changed this law so that the aggrieved people can get compensation easily and they don’t have to face hassle. Infact this point has been raised when in 1986 in the Sriram Industries case where there was an oleum leak in Delhi which led to the death of 1 person, the Supreme Court pronounced a judgment where this point was one of the landmark points in the case. The third step towards ensuring that such an incident doesn’t take place again is that if the local people notice and report something untoward happening near the factory site then the Govt. should take this seriously and take necessary action accordingly. This again was violated during the Bhopal Gas Tragedy as before this mega disaster took place the locals had reported that they witnessed gas leaks two or three times earlier as well but on a much smaller scale. So clearly, there was a problem in the way the plant was set up and had the govt. taken the local’s reports seriously the incident could have been avoided but that was not the case. So this brings up the next point connected to this and that is, there should be a clearance certificate issued to the plant before it is started and if the locals report any incident then the plant should be closed down immediately and an investigation should be ordered into pending which the plant will not be opened.
The next point that has to be kept in mind is that when the plant is built at that time the locals should be informed of the escape routes possible in case a disaster does take place and it is here that the role of the newly formed Disaster Management Committee comes into play. They should work together with the company management and then spread awareness regarding the possible escape routes. The last but not the least important point is that there should be some kind of witness protection act so that even if there is political or any other kind of pressure from the company then they are not forced to change their point of view leading to the escape of the culprits as has happened with many cases including this one.
Hence, there are many crucial lessons to be learnt from this incident and if necessary steps are taken then such a massive catastrophe could be avoided in the future.
The writer is a correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz. With his interests in socio-political issues, he is more than willing to change the ‘system‘. He sees himself as an ethical journalist in the years to come.’