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    South Asia
     Jan 26, 2012

Bhopal tragedy still haunts India
By Neeta Lal

DELHI - More than a quarter of a century after the world's worst industrial disaster - the Bhopal gas tragedy - unfolded in the central state of Madhya Pradesh on December 2-3, 1984, its ghosts continue to haunt the Indian government.

The mishap, which killed over 25,000 people and maimed thousands, occurred during a storage tank leak at the pesticide plant of the United States-owned Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), the Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC).

The defective tank spewed such a lethal cocktail of methyl isocyanate gas and other industrial chemicals that entire families were wiped out within hours in the slums near the factory. The


accident created an international furor with many dubbing it as the "Hiroshima" of the industrial world, in reference to the nuclear bomb that was dropped on the Japanese city of that name in World War II.

Ironically, nearly three decades after the disaster, the residual toxic industrial waste continues to lie at UCIL's 20-acre (eight hectare) abandoned factory in Bhopal. Neither the Indian government nor Dow Chemicals, which bought Union Carbide in 1999, has taken the responsibility to clean up the mess. The result? Hundreds of tones of hazardous waste - an open invitation to death - lying in the open awaiting disposal.

Various studies have established that the dump still has the potential to kill. Research conducted by environmental non-governmental organization (NGO) Greenpeace has found significantly high levels of toxins like carbaryl, lindane and alpha napthol in the soil and water around the factory areas, the result of toxic debris seeping into the ground. Shockingly, even the breast milk of the women who consume the area's food and water has been found to be contaminated.

A study by Indian non-profit organization, the Center for Science and Environment (CSE), showed that groundwater up to three kilometers (two miles) from the plant contained 110 times the maximum quantity of the pesticide carbaryl deemed safe in Indian bottled water.

According to CSE director Sunita Narain, there is evidence that chemicals from the Union Carbide leak continue to poison the people through the water they drink. "The factory site in Bhopal is leading to chronic toxicity - continuous tiny exposure leading to poisoning," says Narain.

Last July, with sustained pressure from the media and activist groups, the Jabalpur High Court directed Delhi to identify an authorized facility in the country to conduct a trial run and burn the toxic waste from the factory in a controlled environment.

Some 350 tons of the toxic waste was to be incinerated at a Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) facility 30 kilometers from Nagpur. But this failed to be implemented as a local environmental action group moved the Bombay High Court for a ban on the High Court's decision.

It was discovered that the DRDO waste treatment plant was operating without proper consent. The Nagpur bench stayed the entry of the toxic waste into Nagpur and directed the state government, the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board ( MPCB) and the petitioners to file an intervention petition at the Jabalpur bench.

However, in a piquant turn of events, the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board said that the toxic waste had not been brought to the DRDO facility. It said the facility had not been functional for over two years and was ill-equipped to destroy the waste.

Again in 2008, while Indore was under curfew following communal riots, the state government surreptitiously tried to shift 40 tons of toxic waste from the factory to an incinerator in Pithampur, 230 kilometers away.

When the local people created an uproar, the state government backed off and the plan was dropped, but not before the then-environment minister Jairam Ramesh apologized to the locals. Following the Pithampur debacle, the waste was shuttled to Ankleshwar (Gujarat) but it could not be buried there either due to objections from municipal bodies.

This month, Bhopal's infamous toxic waste grabbed headlines yet again when the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the country's apex body to monitor pollution, decided to arbitrarily ship the toxic pollutants 784 kilometers away to the Mumbai Waste Management Limited in Taloja, Navi Mumbai. The waste was to be exhumed in the company's compound. However, the Maharashtra government denied permission to the CPCB for a trial run to burn 10 tons of waste.

State Environment Secretary Valsa Nair Singh told the media that "the toxic waste must be disposed of at a facility close to the incident site in Madhya Pradesh". However, sources say what really annoyed MPCB officials was the high-handed manner in which the Madhya Pradesh government handled the matter without even bothering to procure a NOC (no objection certificate) from Maharashtra's local municipal authorities.

"What is the need to conduct a trial run in Navi Mumbai when Madhya Pradesh has its own facility to dispose of hazardous waste located just 229 kilometers away from the defunct Union Carbide factory? It doesn't make sense for the toxic waste to travel around 780 kilometers if it has to be brought to Navi Mumbai," a senior MPCB official told the Hindustan Times.

Local environmentalists point out that the waste contains hazardous halogen nitrate compounds and a chlorinated organic chain. "Burning the waste could result in carcinogenic dioxine fumes being released into the atmosphere which could trigger deformities in the populace besides respiratory and nervous disorders," Neena Waghre, a local NGO activist, told Asia Times Online over phone.

Apart from severely embarrassing the Shivraj Singh Chouhan-helmed Bharatiya Janata Party government in Madhya Pradesh, the Bhopal debris also highlights shocking bureaucratic apathy.

The abject failure of the state and central governments in disposing of Union Carbide's toxic waste also raises fundamental questions about responsibility. Who is legally responsible for laying the debris to rest? Ecologists argue that as polluter, UCIL must take full responsibility. After all, it had agreed to surrender the land in usable and habitable condition, as per its lease terms with the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board. The board had also directed UCIL to carry out an environment investigation of the dumpsite and remediation thereafter.

Despite this directive, the site was surrendered without compliance with those directions. The prevarication of the Madhya Pradesh government - and the unethical manner in which it has tried to get rid of Bhopal's industrial waste - is in keeping with its reprehensible conduct so far, say critics.

Ironically, the Madhya Pradesh government has not even pressed into action provisions in the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 and the Water (Prevention and control of Pollution) Act 1974, which contain heavy penalties to prosecute Dow Chemicals.

Analysts opine this could well be because of alleged US pressure and fear about what kind of a signal it would send to potential investors across the world. In this uncertain economic climate, which is already crimping economic growth, India can't afford to be seen as being too harsh on multinational corporations (MNCs), say observers.

It seems the toxic remains of the Bhopal gas tragedy will stay put for now. Even a group of ministers headed by Home Minister P Chidambaram has failed to suggest how to conduct their treatment and disposal.

As Ashok Agarwal, senior advocate and convener of Social Jurist, a New Delhi-based civil rights group, puts it, "Bhopal stands out not only as a glaring example of corporate delinquency, but also of the inadequacy of domestic law to regulate, prevent or penalize errant MNCs."

Neeta Lal is a widely published writer/commentator who contributes to many reputed national and international print and Internet publications.

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