Written by Binoy Viswam and Rahil Chatterjee
On May 7, horrific visuals from Visakhapatnam shook the nation. People and animals were seen lying unconscious on roads, footpaths and in drains, frothing from their mouth following a gas leak from the LG Polymers plant nearby. The next morning India saw horrific images of another tragedy. This time it was of a railway track near Aurangabad, Maharashtra with clothes, slippers and a few chapatis strewn around. These were the possessions of 16 migrant workers, who had been mowed down by a train while sleeping on the tracks, overcome with exhaustion from the long and arduous journey they had undertaken on foot to return home. Two mornings, two unforgivable tragedies, and both shared a common theme — the utter disregard for human life in India.
The visuals from Visakhapatnam are reminiscent of the horrors of the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak — a disaster so huge that till date children in the affected areas are born with disabilities. While details about the cause of the leak at the LG Polymers plant are still emerging and a probe has been ordered, it is clear that the management of the South Korean company must be held responsible for their negligence and failure to undertake sufficient safety measures, given that the plant is located in a thickly populated area. Ironically, in an application to expand the plant in May 2019, the company re-assured that there “will not be any damage to environment or human health”.
In the aftermath of the Bhopal tragedy, there was a recognition that the industrialisation taking place in India should not compromise on safety regulations. Unfortunately, this realisation was short-lived. The pursuit of profit overshadowed the safety and well-being of individuals and the environment. Though various governments have taken cosmetic steps to improve the standards over the years, widespread environmental degradation with significant adverse human health consequences continue to occur throughout India, primarily due to the nexus between large corporations and the political powers that be. Take for example, the current government’s draft Environmental Impact Assessment, 2020 released by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change on March 23, a day before the country went into lockdown.
Besides the fact that the notification sought public responses within a 60-day-period amidst a nation-wide lockdown where routine functioning of individuals and organisations has been severely impacted, the draft itself seeks to fundamentally alter safeguards imposed on industrial projects under the garb of “transparency” and “efficiency”. Key exemptions under the proposed draft include the need for appraisal by an expert committee, reduced frequency of compliance reports post clearance, and the removal of public consultation, which were components of the previous EIA. The process of consultation was instituted to give affected communities a platform to voice their concerns. In its eagerness to satisfy foreign capital, the government is, once again, willing to forgo the interests of its own people and the environment.
How many more such disasters do we need to have before governments take any action? Why is our approach not preventive? Why do factories and industries working with dangerous substances still continue to function in thickly populated areas? When will governments start prioritising people over big capital? These questions, unfortunately, don’t even seem to be on the agenda.
The horrendous deaths of 16 migrant workers being run over by a train shall forever haunt the public conscience. Ever since the lockdown that has been imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the humiliation and disregard for the dignity of migrant workers has become evident. Abandoned by apathetic governments to scrounge for their next meal, thousands of workers continue to undertake excruciating journeys on foot to return to their homes. Visuals of hundreds of workers on highways and train tracks, children, pregnant women, old and young, are so frequently televised that people may have come to accept it as the new normal.
After 40 days of the pandemic, the central government finally decided to start special inter-state train services for migrants to return home. This too was not without the usual “pound of flesh” that workers in India have become used to paying: After being left for 40 days without any source of income and not knowing where their next meal was coming from, migrant workers were expected to pay for their journeys back home. The nadir of inhumanity and insensitivity was reached when the Karnataka government prevented workers from returning home by cancelling train services, subsequent to a meeting of the chief minister with builders in the state who are dependent on their labour to make their millions. A young elected member of the ruling party epitomised their apathy and self-interest through his Twitter post announcing that the decision was taken for workers to realise their dreams. Not to be left behind, governments of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat announced the suspension of the majority of labour laws in a bid to attract foreign investors looking to exit China.
Ever since Independence, the workers movement has fought an endless battle against large corporations and the state for recognition of their basic rights. From a minimum wage to toilet breaks, eight-hour workdays to safety precautions such as fire extinguishers, workers have waged an endless struggle to be treated with dignity and respect at the workplace. Using the cover of the worst pandemic in living memory, governments and corporations have colluded to set the workers’ movement back by over 100 years.
The disingenuity of it all is that these measures are offered as a silver bullet benefitting the workers, claiming that new investment will create jobs and put money into their hands. For the few who sit in their ivory towers and dictate tectonic shifts in labour laws, the suffering of workers seems whimsical and is easily cast aside when foreign money appears on the horizon. For a polity that sneers at the Chinese form of development and seeks to lure away its businesses, India is adopting the very same draconian labour practices they condemn.
The COVID-19 pandemic will forever change our world, no doubt. One hopes the change will be towards a more egalitarian and just society that recognises the ills of the large disparity in social and financial resources that have become so evident over the past two months. However, these two tragedies have only amplified the apathy and displayed the disregard that the powerful and privileged have for the ordinary people. As the lockdown moves into its next phase and life lumbers into a new “normal”, “we the people” must ensure that the lessons from these two tragedies are not reduced to footnotes in the annals of history. Workers’ rights, wages, humane and decent working conditions must inform policy making of the government. It must not be ruled by Mammon, to put still greater wealth into the hands of a few at the cost of the many.
(Viswam is member of parliament, Rajya Sabha from the Communist Party of India. Chatterjee is a social worker and law student. Views are personal)