Opening our eyes to the horrific images of unconscious people and people with breathing difficulties brought the big media houses to divert from the ideological debates taking place since a long while. The gas leak incident took place at the LG Polymer plant (the South Korean company LG Polymers makes polystyrene and expandable polystyrene, a versatile plastic used to make a wide variety of consumer products like toys and appliances and has been in operation since 1961) at Gopalapatnam on the outskirts of Vishakhapatnam in the early hours of Thursday, i.e. the 7th of May 2020. The gas reportedly started leaking around 2:30 am when the workers were preparing to reopen the plant.
This incident takes us back to the night of December 2, 1984, when Bhopal recorded over a million deaths. The chemical, methyl isocyanate (MIC), that spilled out from Union Carbide India Ltd's (UCIL's) pesticide factory turned the city into a vast gas chamber. It was India's first major industrial disaster keeping the government almost clueless as to how they should respond to the same. The researches have pointed out to the grave health crises but since there is no epidemiological study, it is easy to dismiss these as conditions caused by poverty and lack of hygiene.
The Supreme Court had set up two committees—one to monitor the functioning of the medical system and the other to advise on what needs to be done for the best care of the victims. The state government has a separate department for gas relief. The institutional gridlock is such that there is no one institution that can be held responsible and accountable for decontaminating the site. The US-based multinational company, Union Carbide Corporation, which owned the plant through its subsidiary UCIL used trade secrecy as a prerogative to withhold information on the exact composition of the leaked gases. The worst part is cleaning and decontamination of the site got entangled in legal altercations. The sliding onus as to who should pay for it— state governments, the Centre, successor buyer of the factory, waste disposal and incineration companies, research institutes or non-profits etc. still remains a slippery slope.
The first major legislation that came post-Bhopal was the Environment (Protection) Act (EPA) of 1986. EPA is India's first legislation that gave authority to the Centre to issue direct orders to close, prohibit or regulate any industry. It is also an enabling law, which delegates wide powers to the executive, allowing it to make rules to manage different issues. By 1989, the country got the Hazardous Waste (Management and Handling) Rules for management, storage and import of hazardous chemicals. In 1987, amendments were made in the Factories Act, 1948, which empowers states to appoint site appraisal committees to advise on the location of factories using hazardous processes. In 1991, the Public Liability Insurance Act was enacted to provide for immediate relief to persons affected by accidents while handling hazardous substances. Under the Act, an environment relief fund was set up to compensate affected people. Despite this legislation in place, India is fast losing the battle of environmental protection and management of hazardous waste.
In the post-Bhopal age, all technologies must pay the real cost of their proximate and future dangers. Many countries have adopted the principle of absolute liability when it comes to the introduction of genetically modified organisms. The involvement of a transnational corporation that has presence in innumerable countries across the globe has chances of attracting responses of support from different parts of the country and the world.
The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is one such attempt to hold operators responsible for damage both from forthcoming and real threats from the use of new technology. More importantly, the issue of corporate liability is crucial, for only then will powerful companies worry about the repercussions of their actions on tomorrow's generations. With the imposition of a New World Order, due the pandemic, the need for collective action across national boundaries is being increasingly felt, particularly on issues of industrial hazards and the involvement of transnational corporations. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has issued notice to Andhra Pradesh Government and Centre over gas tragedy in Vizag. Bhopal should have provided the impetus and basis for such counter globalization yet it is about our collective shame and Vizag a 'shame in making', if we fail to learn our lessons from Bhopal's interminable misery.
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(Nabeela Siddiqui, Research – cum – Teaching Assistant, Dharamshastra National Law University, Jabalpur.)