As one enters old Bhopal’s Arif Nagar area, there are two enduring reminders of the city’s toxic legacy that goes back to a fateful winter night three decades ago, when 30 tonnes of Methyl Isocyanate gas leaked out of the Union Carbide factory.
Along Berasiya Road, one of the many leading to the now derelict pesticide plant, the landscape is dotted with the exoskeletons of industrial units that shut down after that night killed and maimed thousands. Then, along the New Bhanpur Bridge road that leads away from the factory site, signboards spring up every 20 metres or so announcing the distance up to the Bhopal Memorial Hospital.
There have been many blips across the country since, including one just 18 km away from Bhopal where 500 tonnes of Basmati rice went up in flames at Mandideep industrial area on June 8 this year.
Taken together, those blips add up to this number: 1174. That was the total number of documented fatalities from industrial accidents in 2012 in just 11 states — in only the organised sector —according to figures collected by the Labour Ministry’s Directorate General, Factory Advice Service and Labour Institutes (DGFASLI) from the chief inspector of factories of states and union territories. These official statistics have been updated only till 2012,and there are no credible figures available for the vast unorganised sector, even though ensuring industrial safety will be a crucial factor in making Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ dream become a reality.
Take the accident six months ago near Bhopal, for instance. The fire at Daawat Foods Ltd resulted in an estimated loss of rice worth Rs 180 crore. Fortunately, there were no casualties as the fire happened in the storage area early in the morning.
M K Varshney, Principal Secretary in Madhya Pradesh’s Department of Labour, told The Indian Express that incidents take place despite the administration’s best efforts and repeated mock tests on factories and units conducted by senior officers in the state government’s labour and industrial safety wings, including Varshney himself.
Denying the charge that the state’s factory inspectors are diploma holders, as was the case at the time that the Bhopal leak happened, Varshney said, “All our factory inspectors are engineers. Other states too may have stepped up the vigil after the tragedy, but we are the sufferers. So the vigil is even higher.”
He added that all district magistrates in Madhya Pradesh have been given the additional responsibility to carry out inspections at industries categorised as “hazardous” in nature.
The next step forward for Bhopal is an expected trial run of an incinerator plant at Pithampur in Madhya Pradesh’s Dhar district, using 10 tonnes of waste from the Union Carbide factory site, that has been tentatively scheduled for December 30.
The issue of disposal is one of the most controversial fallouts of the tragedy, the lack of resolution of which has led to an estimated 350 tonnes of solid waste continuing to lie inside the ruins of the Union Carbide plant.
It has been stuck in court cases and agitations ever since an NGO first highlighted in 2004 through a PIL in Madhya Pradesh High Court that soil sample tests carried out in and around the closed plant showed waste was continuing to pollute the air and water in the surroundings areas.
According to Pravir Krishn, MP’s Principal Secretary, Health, and the officer overseeing the crucial ‘Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation Department’, if the trial run were to go through successfully, the remaining 340? tonnes of UCIL waste can then be incinerated over the next five weeks or so.
“The company (Ramky Group) has said they will finish it in five weeks after the trial. Once we take away the waste, the process of remediation on the structure will happen. A firm from Mumbai has been tied up for this project that entails an estimated cost of Rs 110 crore,” Krishn said.
“There is no gas now at the site. The medical emergency and trauma is also largely over. The problem is now poverty of the third generation survivors, which is as much a part of the remediation process,” he added.
Coming 30 years after that December 2, the waste disposal could also mark the beginning of a closure of sorts. For activists such as Abdul Jabbar, who are working for the tragedy’s survivors, the people near the defunct factory, the tragedy will linger till the time “they continue to face air and water pollution from the leaching of the solid waste lying in the factory”.
The Union government did take some steps over the last 30 years to avoid another Bhopal. Four years after the tragedy, the Factories Act 1948 was amended and a new chapter – Chapter IVA that relates to hazardous processes – was added to the legislation, which clearly spelt out the responsibilities of every occupier of an industrial premise, including the need to draw up an ‘On-site Emergency Plan’ and detailed disaster control measures for his factory with the approval of the Chief Inspector of Factories.
These were changes introduced subsequently to the Environmental Protection Act in 1986 and the ‘Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical’ rules in 1989.
Safety experts, though, say this still falls short of what is needed and point to proactive steps taken in other countries after Bhopal.
In the US, for instance, two years after the leak, the Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act, which laid out specific monitoring and reporting systems to beef up safety protocols. This includes the Toxic Releases Inventory, which requires companies to report if they produce more than 25,000 pounds of a listed chemical or handle more than 10,000 pounds of it.
In 1990, amendments to the Clean Air Act, known as “Bhopal” provisions, established the Risk Management Program to help prevent chemical accidents an authorised the Chemical Safety Board to investigate such accidents and recommend safety procedures.
Among other refurbishments was the US Department of Labor’s Hazard Communication Standard, issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is based on a simple concept ? that employees have both a need and a right to know the hazards and identities of the chemicals they are exposed to when working. They also need to know what protective measures are available to prevent adverse effects from occurring.
These are still grey areas in the Indian industrial safety scenario.
(Tomorrow: The danger zones: Industrial states, unorganised sector)
DEC 2, 1984: WARNING SIGNS WERE IGNORED
For India’s industrial sector, the run-up to the Bhopal disaster holds several lessons, considering that the deadly accident was preceded by several warning signs that should have set off the alarm bells well before the tragedy unfolded.
1976: Eight years before the accident, two trade unions complained of pollution inside the plant.
1981: A worker died after inhaling a large amount of phosgene gas.
1982: A phosgene leak forced 24 workers to be admitted to a hospital. A month later, a methyl isocynate leak affected 18 workers.
1983-84: By 1982-end, during 1983 and the initial months of 1984, there were leaks of MIC, chlorine and phosgene.
Dec 2, 1984: Water entered a side pipe that was missing its slip-blind plate and entered a tank that contained 42 tonnes of MIC. A runaway exothermic reaction forced the emergency venting of pressure from the MIC holding tank, releasing a large volume of toxic gases. About 30 tonnes of MIC escaped from the tank into the atmosphere and were blown in southeastern direction over Bhopal by the winds.
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