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As Disaster After Disaster Strikes, Perhaps Bhopal Gas Tragedy Is A Lesson Not Learnt

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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.

Source : India Today

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.

A Comparative Analysis

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.

Cases of ‘Human Negligence’

Source: Reuters

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).

It Is A Question Of Accountability

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.

Source : Scroll

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.

Conclusion

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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