The escalating tension around the Covid-19 crisis in India has created a hullabaloo not only in the world media but also in our lives. Something that caught our short-lived attention was an incident that took place in the heart of Visakhapatnam city. A South Korean plant of LG Polymers was in the news for a deadly gas leak in May 2020. This gas was later identified as ‘Styrene,’ a flammable liquid used by the company to manufacture industrial products. A total of 12 people were reported dead, and more than 1000 were hospitalized as a result of exposure to this gas.
A similar incident took place 36 years back in Bhopal, which is considered one of India’s worst industrial disasters. Methyl Isocyanate (MIC), a ‘potentially deadly’ gas, leaked from the Union Carbide plant on the night of 2 December 1984. Over 5 lakh people were exposed to the gas leak, and thousands were reported dead and are still dying as a consequential effect. Evidence shows that prior warnings were issued of a possible leak and its consequences.
In 1979, zonal regulations in Bhopal were changed, which allowed the Carbide plant to manufacture deadly pesticides in the heart of the city. In 1982, the alarm was detached from the siren warning system so that only the employees could be warned and not the neighbouring residents. Further, there were incidents of gas leaks in 1982 and 1983, controlled without much damage in the same plant.
If we do a comparative study of what exactly happened in the above incidents, we will be able to draw some stark similarities. In both cases, these industries had been operating without environmental clearances. The reasons behind the industrial disasters were a series of engineering failures, inefficiency, slack management, neglect of the trans-national corporations towards the plants.
Both the industries had been operating in areas that were densely inhabited by humans and were warned previously of the consequences if it continued to operate in such conditions. Non-compliance with the safety standards and the efforts to contain the leak were late in both cases. The death toll in Bhopal Gas Tragedy compared to the Vizag mishap is way more, but in both cases, exposure to these gases poses long term health hazards.
The styrene gas has been regarded as a ‘possible carcinogen’ as per the World Health Organisation (WHO) affiliated International Agency for Research on Cancer. The impact of MIC on the people has been alarming. After the exposure to the gas, there have been increased incidences of children born with abnormalities or health disorders, including cancer and neurological problems.
In both cases, the authorities failed to undertake an emergency plan to warn the local communities about the gas leaks. The death toll in Vizag could have been larger had it not been for the alertness of a resident who saw a dense cloud of gas enveloping the houses in the city. A team of environmentalists and experts revealed that the Visakhapatnam incident should be a reminder to the authorities to not permit chemical industries in close proximity to densely populated areas.
“Both the Bhopal gas tragedy and the Visakhapatnam (Vizag) gas leak occurred during the night and also when the plants were about to restart after some time gap. We need to learn a lot of things from such tragedies,” quoted by Professor V. Ramana Dhara of the Indian Institute of Public Health, Hyderabad.
Experts also claimed that the gas leak was a clear instance of ‘human negligence’. “Hazardous industries are vulnerable to mishaps and thus they need to follow standard safety procedures and do safety audits whenever they resume operations after a gap”, said Sankar Prasad Pani, a lawyer with the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
The repeated occurrences of such industrial disasters bring forth a serious question of accountability. Soon after an incident like this takes place, then begins the real blame game. Such incidents are followed by everlasting court trials where the power leads the game. The victims put forward their claims; the company refuses to take the liability of the claims and attempts to shift the responsibility.
In fact, such disasters are often referred to as an ‘act of sabotage’ by a dissatisfied employee. Further, the compensation received by the gas victims is unsatisfactory, delayed with no interest paid. It involves high corruption, and appropriate appeal mechanisms are denied. It took seven years for the Indian government to distribute the compensation among the Bhopal gas victims.
“Like in Bhopal, public money is being used by the government to provide compensation to the victims’ families and the survivors. Why should the public pay for a corporate company’s crime?”, a social activist quipped. I have been pondering upon this issue for long and don’t realise why the government should compensate for such disaster on behalf of companies by paying from its treasury.
Now, looking at such incidents from an environment perspective, who do we hold accountable? Such gas leaks and related environmental malpractices will have an everlasting on the residents of these places for decades. Aftermath of Bhopal disaster has been that the groundwater about five square kilometres around the plant has been tested as poisonous. About 1.1 million tonnes of soil has been contaminated. The plant, which was the source of Bhopal disaster, is still not secured. Similar incidents have taken a heavy toll on the environment.
The Baghjan gas leak in Assam took place a few days after the incident in Vizag. The plant which was the source of the gas leak was situated in close proximity to Dibru Saikhowa National Park (DSNP) and Maguri-Motapung Beel Wetland, an important bird area.
It thus posed a great threat to the floral and faunal diversity around the wetland. However, within a month of the incident, OIL was granted the environmental clearance by the Ministry of Forestry and Environment and Climate Change (MoEFCC) to conduct hydrocarbon drilling and testing at seven locations in the Dibru Saikhowa National Park.
The Chernobyl Disaster one of the worst man-made disaster in the world where a reactor exploded in the Chernobyl nuclear plant in a small town Pripyat of Ukraine. The fire in the Chernobyl reactor was more radioactive than Hiroshima in 1945.
The huge radiation release has caused cancer and birth defects among thousands and more than 3 lakh people have been permanently evacuated from the area. 34 years later it remains a dangerous place where the people are still suffering and the entire city is now a ghost town. The surrounding agricultural lands, forest and grazing lands were contaminated by the radioisotope deposition.
For three years straight, a journalist named Rajkumar Kheswani was carrying on an investigation after incidents such as the death of a carbide plant worker in the factory. From his findings, he urged the people to understand that the plant’s situation was risky and unsafe to carry on the production process. He published an article titled ‘Bhopal sitting on a volcano’ a few months before the tragedy.
There were ample warnings that were very evident but ignored by the government. A series of such catastrophic disasters that have happened in the history of India teaches us a lot about how we can manage and deal with things in such circumstances. Stricter implementation of laws, personnel training, and timely action will reduce the chances of events like these to happen in the near future. Learning from accidents in the future will cost us heavily, not only in terms of capital but also in human misery.