Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Bhopal Gas Tragedy

There is acute unemployment in India and the rapid growth of population every year has lakhs of people enter into the labour market. India is an agrarian country which needs industrialisation for developing its economy. There is no scope for alternative employment opportunities in agricultural sector to employ the excess labours. India needs industrialization but the Bhopal Tragedy has proved that expanding industrialization in developing countries without concurrent evolution in safety regulations will lead to catastrophic consequences. Post Bhopal Tragedy, there have been some positive changes in Government policies & behaviour of a few industries have been made, even so the major threats to the environment from rapid and poorly regulated industrial growth still remains. For example, in South India at the Kodaikanal District the world reputed Anglo-Dutch company, Unilever, was caught red-handed when the local residents discovered a dumpsite with toxic mercury laced waste from a thermometer factory run by the company's Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Lever. The 7.4 ton stockpile of mercury-laden glass was found in torn stacks spilling onto the ground in a scrap metal yard located near a school. Similar case was found in Uttar Pradesh when the Central Pollution Board of India found in 2003 that the sludge from Coca-Cola factory was contaminated with high levels of cadmium, lead and chromium. Even worse was that the company was offloading cadmium-laden waste sludge as free fertilizer to tribal farmers who live near the plant. This leads to questions as to why they would do this and not provide clean water to local residents who lost their underground water supply due to large scale water-bottling operations of Coca-Cola Company. Such company which causes widespread environmental degradation with significant adverse human health consequences continues to occur throughout in India. As explained in the Stockholm conference in 1972 ‘it is imperative goal for mankind as to defend and improve the human environment for present and future generations. Man has both a right to healthy world around and a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environs for the next generation’. UCC build the plant in Bhopal because of its central location and access to transport infrastructure. This specific site was zoned for Light industrial and commercial use and is not meant for Hazardous industries. In addition to that the plant was constructed in such a way that the factory effluents blew very close to the slums in Oriya Bustee, Jayprakash Nagar and Chola where there is high-density of population. In the initial Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Report, UCC had not reported the storage of Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) in large quantities which is a clear violation of law. The plant was initially approved only for formulation of pesticides from component chemicals, such as MIC imported from the parent company, in relatively small quantities. The global competition from the chemical industry led the company to implement ‘Backward Integration’ i.e. to manufacture the raw materials and other products for the formulation of the final product within one facility. In present India we will find very few companies adhering to all the environmental regulations. In India, another problem that is arising as a by-product of rapid industrialization is Land pollution which is due to uncontrolled disposal of industrial solid and hazardous waste which has increased appreciably and the environmental impact this is significant. In my opinion the dubious standards of the industrial setup in India are: a)Contracting: Foreign investors hire main contractors for setting up their plants in India who in turn usually hire sub-contractors for delegating the obligations. This is usually for huge project size that also involves multi-site construction project. This also done when additional specialised consultants are required for advice or expertise. But in case of a dispute, the main contractor will not want to be bound by a decision under the dispute resolution procedure (DRP) in the master contract while it is still involved in the sub-contract DRP. This clause is often misused for passing the buck. The sole liability of paying the compensation should be on the main investors as the sub- contractors are usually comparatively small-scale firms with no means to pay the penalty for the disaster that may occur. Similarly, after the Tragedy UCC tried to extricate from liabilities of clearing up the mess by claiming that it had only 50.9% stake in UCIL which didn’t give them any hold over its Indian affiliate. They further argued that the day-to-day working of the UCIL was independent of the parent company and therefore it could not be held responsible for the gas leak. Investigations proved it to be false, as the annual budget had to be cleared with the parent company UCC which gave them substantial authority over UCIL. b)Maintenance: Though UCC claimed that the Bhopal plant was a model facility using modern technology, this was not the case. In an interview published early 1999, the mechanical engineer who was in charge of safety and had left UCC Bhopal a year before the tragedy stated that “On the day of the tragedy, not a single safety mechanism was in place”. The refrigeration system to keep MIC at 0°C had been turned off months earlier to save cost. The volatile gas scrubber was not working. The flare had been out of order for 3 months to replace a corroded pipe. Critical instruments installed to indicate pressure, temperature, high and low level alarms on Tank 410 had been malfunctioning for over a year (Lees, 1996). Hence, the rise in pressure was ignored until the sound generated by the cracking of the tank containing the MIC was heard and by then it was too late. Training and awareness: Most of the factories in India have labour issues and will only have floating labour population. Such labours will lack sound technical skills. It was reported that the initial induction training programme in UCIL which used to be six months were later reduced down to few weeks because of the huge attrition rate and as part of cost cutting. The work force at UCC Bhopal had been reduced a third and made to do work they were not qualified to do during their original job interviews. The management did bother to employ good professionals to implement and operate the adequate safety measures. c)Cost Cutting: The management of most companies is concerned mainly with profitability. Investment in safety appears as a drain on resources with no immediate returns and no quantifiable results even in the long run. The first tactic of companies to increase their profit margin or revive market losses are to cut their operational cost. In 1982 when Jagannathan Mukund took charge as Managing Director, he was under lot of pressure to cut costs of UCIL. As a result the principal safety system in the plant was shut down since the management felt it was unnecessary as the plant was no longer active and did not pay heed to the MIC that was meant to be stored in refrigerated conditions. Equipment like the scrubber cylinder used to decontaminate any gas leaks was also deactivated. About two hundred skilled workers and technicians were also asked to resign as part of cost cutting. It’s reported that in the MIC unit alone, the staffing in each shift was cut by half and only one man was handling the sophisticated control room with seventy dials, counters and gauges which shows the temperature and pressure of three tanks containing the MIC. d)Pre-emptive measures: Calamities are inevitable even in developed countries like how it happened in Chernobyl Disaster in Russia, Fukushima I nuclear accidents in Japan and Oppau explosion in Germany but the probability is higher in developing countries. At the UCC Bhopal plant, there had been numerous accidents before the 1984 tragedy. These were warning signs that were ignored - workers were agitated, and a series of articles were published in the local press warning of the impending disaster. However, neither the management nor the civic authorities took action to analyse the situation and take pre-emptive measures against any future accidents. The local government did not act tough on earlier accidents and ignored newspaper articles predicting disaster. Timely medical intervention could have saved many lives in Bhopal. Till date the correct composition of the gas leaked is still unknown. e)Inefficiency of the Regulatory Body: Few years back when the Environmental Minister Jairam Ramesh denied few industries the ‘Consent for Operation’ based on their Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report, there was huge hue and cry. Industrialization should not be at the cost of Indian lives. Environmental Policies in India needs to be reconsider and made more environmental friendly by giving subsidies for green-technologies. Consent of Operation should be only granted to those industries with top safety system which adheres to all the environmental stipulation in India. There should be also allowance for intermittent inspections in these plants for renewal of the right to continue operate. f)Inadequate legal Support: It is imperative that, all Companies, foreign or Indian, should take full accountability for any accident or environmental disaster that occurs and would be, by law, liable to pay compensation to the impacted people and the Government. The gaps and legal loopholes in our regulatory infrastructure allowed UCC to escape by paying paltry compensation to the victims of this tragedy. The most important reason for this injustice could be that the undeveloped tort law is India. In India, it is the government that announces that it is making ex gratia payments of a specified amount to the victims of disasters. The attributions of responsibility would be done by Governmental investigations. In comparison, the American system, claiming damages in tort law would have been much simpler and easier. If a disaster such as Bhopal had happened in the United States of America, it would have been much simpler to extract a substantial amount of money, and possibly resulting in the bankruptcy of UCC. The Bhopal tragedy continues to be an alarm for large corporations doing chemical business in developing countries. It is a warning that the path to globalization and development, can often come at the risk of human, environmental and economic liabilities. Though, today the regulatory environment of India has adequate provisions for protecting the environment and public health, the effective implementation of the same is far from desired.

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