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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 51 New Delhi December 10, 2016

Grim Warning from Bhopal

Sunday 11 December 2016, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

It was a massacre of innocents by all counts. What happened at the Union Carbide plant at Bhopal in the early morning of December 3 was not just a tragedy but a heinous crime which killed nearly two thousand and hospitalised countless others, brings out something much more ghastly than the hazards of modern industrialisation.

The enormity of the crime—unprecedented in our times—lies not merely in any negligence on the part of the workers and superintending staff behind the leakage of the killer gas that took such an unprecedently heavy toll of human and animal lives. The giant multinational company that the Union Carbide is—once acused by Ralph Nader of “environmental blackmail”—has, all these years, conducted itself with shocking impunity. The very location of the Rs 28-crore plant in a residential area was objected to in 1975 by the then Administrator of the Municipal Corporation, M.N. Buch, the well-known town-planner, who in 1975 issued a notice to the company asking for the removal of the plant to a safer area. But Buch was transferred and not the plant.

It has now come to light that leakage started in 1978 and there were a number of them in 1981-1983, but the Union Carbide seems to command extraordinarily powerful influence in political circles: all the incidents could be hushed up and in 1982, the Labour Minister of the State Government told the Assembly without batting his eyelid: “The factory is not a small stone, which can be shifted elsewhere. There is no danger to Bhopal nor will there be.” One wonders how this gentleman is faring today.

Conscience in politicians often turns to stone, as they are exposed to allurements from the business world particularly an affluent multi-national corporation. The Union Carbide guest house at Bhopal has been playing host to many a Minister, Central and State-level, while a local Congress-I leader is reported to have been engaged as the Company’s legal adviser and its PRO is the nephew of a former Education Minister. There are many other beneficiaries, perhaps less known.

It was meet and proper that the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh has ordered a judicial enquiry into the disaster. However, its terms of reference should include how the Union Carbide operates at the political level to cover up its misdeeds. It is quite obvious that the Company has blatantly violated the guidelines issued by the Department of Environment, and there is no report of it ever having been pulled up on this score. A PTI message datelined Washington says: “Environmentalists assume that the safety standards in the US and India must have been different. They have been warning of ‘double standards’ for quite sometime. Ken Silver, an environmentalist, said that one needs to be on guard to ensure that multinationals did not seek ‘pollution havens’ in the Third World.” A similar case as that of Bhopal, though on a smaller magnitude, took place in Mexico, where a refinery explosion brought out the fact that the building code banning gas tanks in residential areas was not followed, with disastrous results. Sometimes, safety drills enforced in the US are ignored by companies in India.

In the case of the Union Carbide, it is believed that the tank storage arrangements in its Bhopal plant is not upto the mark that is followed by the same company in the United States. With this is linked up the whole question of the code for transfer of technology whose terms, as proposed in UNCTAD, have been persistently blocked by the US on the pressure mainly of the giant multinationals.

The question of compensation to the victims has already come up and the Union Carbide management can by no means get away from it. The danger however lies in their coughing out petty sums for the purpose. On this point, the precedent set in Britain by the famous Thali-domide exposure should be adhered to. It is for the Union Government to take a firm stand both on the issue of punishing the guilty and that of compensation for the victims. Let it not be forgotten that Fortune, by no mens a Commie journal, once described the Union Carbide as “a reactionary ogre obsessed with profits”.

It is also imperative that the Centre should appoint a high-power body of scientists and engineers to immediately look into the state of affairs of every industrial plant and propose steps to eliminate or minimise hazards involved in their maintenance.

Out of this ghastly tragedy let the nation awake to the urgency of taking drastic steps to protect the environment from pollution. The time hs come for something more effective than seminars and discourses on this subject of life-and-death importance.

(Mainstream, December 8, 1984)