Millennium Post

Bhopal’s toxic legacy still haunts

It was a cold shivery Monday morning this day, thirty years ago. As I entered my workplace, news had trickled in from Bhopal about a gas leak from a chemical factory. Initially, it did not stir us; but soon my science editor Dr J became anxious and concerned. The Bhopal bureau informed us that the city had turned panicky and chaotic with hundreds of people falling sick and going berserk.

A serious Dr J recalled the explosion at a factory in Seveso, Italy, in July 1976 that released a cloud of dioxin gas and forced thousands of people to leave their homes, though no deaths were reported. He said this was much more dreadful. Immediately, we explored story angles. Since nobody knew what the mushrooming gas veil was, I set out to find its name and focused on agriculture and pesticides as the notorious Union Carbide plant was manufacturing pesticides. I rang up Dr Mukherjee at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI). He instantly termed it as Methyl Isocyanate and enumerated its properties. Being a chemist and a science journalist, I understood its gravity. I keyed the story on the typewriter and it was transmitted through the wire to newspapers and the official broadcast media. The agri-scientist was absolutely right.

Our next task was to find out first aid, antidotes and the wind direction. The internet was unknown in 1984; hence, I rushed to the British Council Library, requested the staff to ferret out information on the Seveso leak as I rummaged through manuals. I found medical books, which advised covering the face with a wet towel. The librarian quickly pulled out a facsimile copy of a US newspaper which had reported the Italy gas disaster. The stories were rushed through the wire.

Meanwhile, Dr J was keen to find out the direction of the wind in Bhopal so that people could be asked to flee in the direction opposite to the wind flow and escape inhaling the gas. He called the Director, Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), who refused to specify the wind direction as it was a “sensitive issue”. His refusal story, ipso facto, also hit the newspapers.

Harking back, I can still visualise that tragic day. The years that have followed have been even more gruesome—people dying, paralysed for life and fighting unending court cases for adequate compensation. The tragedy that killed more than 5,000 people and affected 500,000, largely poor, remains etched in our minds. Another 100,000 continue to suffer from cancer, respiratory problems, blindness and immune and neurological disorders from the 40 tonnes of spewed gas. Some children born to survivors have mental or physical disabilities. For victims and their families, it is a life-long ruination.

UCIL used methyl isocyanate, a highly unstable, intermediate chemical to make sevin, a pesticide. Many more potentially hazardous industries manufacturing chemicals are still flouting norms, shunning accountability and transporting them furtively. There are 1861 Major Accident Hazard (MAH) units, across 25 states and three Union Territories, according to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). This shows every state is sitting on a dangerous chemical chamber.

This is  occurring despite the existence of many rules, regulations and laws that came into being in the aftermath of the Bhopal tragedy--such as the Chemical Accidents (Emergency Planning, Preparedness, and Response) Rules, 1996, the Environment Protection Act, the Disaster Management Act and the rules framed for manufacture, storage and import of hazardous chemicals and management of hazardous wastes. These address gas leaks and similar events and were framed to monitor plants or industries like the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. All these laws have had negligible impact, as these suffer from faulty execution, according to activists and legal luminaries. Primarily, political considerations are overruling strict adherence. The state bureaucracy has failed to handle the Bhopal catastrophe even after 30 years. India is still not properly equipped to handle such situations. The country does not seem to have learnt lessons despite the wake-up call in Bhopal.

According to NDMA, 130 ‘significant chemical accidents’ resulting in 259 deaths were reported during the past decade and till 2013. Recently, in July, six people were killed and 30 injured in a gas explosion at a Bhilai steel plant. Other industrial accidents include a chlorine gas leak at Jamshedpur (2008), a fire at a Ranbaxy Laboratories Ltd factory in Mohali (2003) and a chlorine gas leak in Vadodara (2002) that affected 250 people.

In August, 125 students from one college and three schools were hospitalised in two different incidents of gas leaks from the Kerala Minerals and Metals Plant at Chavara in Kollam district, Kerala. Last week, chlorine gas leaked at a chemical plant in Madhya Pradesh’s Raisen district affecting 39 people. Accidents continue relentlessly. The toxic legacy left by UCIL continues to haunt the city. The misery is far from over. The government now owns the contaminated site where the dilapidated plant stands as a mute testimony. Thousands of tonnes of hazardous waste lying buried underground are poisoning the drinking water and affecting the health of people living nearby. Unless the decrepit structure is bulldozed and the wastes are disposed of, the killer site will continue to devour more lives and torment others.

The author is an independent journalist

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