Just after midnight on December 3, 1984, tens of thousands of pounds of methyl isocyanate (MIC), a highly toxic gas used in manufacturing chemicals, leaked into the air over Bhopal from the city’s Union Carbide pesticide plant.
The plumes of poisonous vapour killed 3,200 people in the immediate aftermath, says the government, though unofficial estimates fluctuate widely between 4,000 and 15,000. But it’s undeniable that thousands of people died in the hours after they inhaled the gas and thousands more from health problems they developed later as a result of exposure. The gas leak led to a slew of new laws to tighten regulatory grip over hazardous factories. But 30 years after the world’s biggest industrial disaster, most of these rules are poorly enforced.
“I think we are lucky that there has not been an accident like Bhopal again. But there have been smaller Bhopal-type accidents in the country despite several laws on safety in factories,” said Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based advocacy group.
Safety audits of hazardous manufacturing units still remain a distant dream owing to poorly staffed labour departments although the Factories Act prescribes a mandatory annual examination.
As a result, the country still records a higher industrial accident rate than any nation in the developed world. In just four years, between 2007 and 2010, over 3,000 people in India lost their lives in factory mishaps that also left 40,000 others injured.
Data compiled by the ministry of statistics and programme implementation shows on an average three accidents take place in Indian factories every day and the rate is very high even in progressive states such as Maharashtra and Gujarat.After the Bhopal tragedy, the Centre ratified the Environment Protection Act, 1986 that for the first time introduced the concept of environmental appraisal of all projects and incorporating ecological and safety conditions while approving new ventures. Under the law, the government notified rules for management and handling of hazardous materials and regulated their manufacture and storage.
This resulted in more regulatory insight but the inability of states to strengthen their labour bureaus and environment protection units caused unsafe factories to mushroom to meet the growing demand for industrialisation. As per the Central Pollution Control Board, the number of hazardous industries in the country increased threefold from the early 1990s to around 36,000 in 2010.
A senior government official acknowledged these limitations and said the audit of factories mostly remains on paper as it’s not humanly possible to inspect so many units. The problem has been accentuated by the fact that environmental and safety norms have been bypassed for pursuing economic growth, he said.
The impact of such skewed fiscal policies is reflected in growing pollution woes with one-third of the country’s water bodies contaminated and just one city among 250 monitored having clean air. An independent study says among the 25 most polluted and hazardous places in the world, three are in India – the towns of Sukinda and Vapi and the river Yamuna.
After Bhopal, India enacted its first public liability law for industrial disasters – a clause also introduced in the 2010 Nuclear Liability Act. But the provision has not been effective in making factories safer. The reason is that the law protects industry more than people as it fails to cover the cost of adverse health impact of living in and around a polluting industrial belt.
Activists say the situation may improve as the National Green Tribunal has powers to fix liability for Bhopal-type accidents including compensation and penalty. But that window may shut soon as, sources say, the government wants to curb the overarching powers of the tribunal.
Big industrial disasters after 1984
September 1992: Liquid ammonia bursts out from a high-pressure vaporising unit at National Fertilisers Limited in Panipat, killing eleven people
February 2000: Four people die and eight injured as ammonium carbamate solution leaks from Mangalore Chemical and Fertilisers at Panambur in Mangalore
October 2009: 12 people are killed as a fire breaks out at Indian Oil Company’s refinery near Jaipur after a leakage in a pipeline
December 2009: One person dies when the repair of a leaking pipeline at Southern Petrochemical Industries Corporation in Tuticorin goes wrong
November 2013: A fire at Bhushan Steel Limited plant in Dhenkanal district in Odisha after a leakage results in the death of a person. Nineteen others injured.