LPPYF Law and Public Policy Youth Fellowship is an Online National Summer School Program, a Two-Month Online Immersive Legal Awareness & Action Research Certificate Training Course and Internship Program, from June-August 2023 by IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute. An informative and interactive panel discussion on “Legal Hands-on Session-V: Environment, Disasters and Law” was held on day 13 by, Dr Shalu Nigam, Visiting Senior Fellow IMPRI; Advocate, Author, and Researcher, Gender and Human Rights
The Bhopal Disaster, 1984: Environment, Disaster and Law
Without further ado, she moved on to the first topic of her discussion and tried to take the attendees back in time to 3rd December 1984, during the time of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. She described in detail the incident, when on the night of 2-3 December, 50,000 people around the plant of Union Carbide India Ltd in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, were exposed to a highly toxic gas called methyl isocyanate resulting in the death of many and many are still suffering. She explicitly mentioned the details of this tragedy supporting the facts with necessary statistical data. Lawyers, academics and journalists have described the disaster as an Ecocide.
She expressed in detail a conclusion of the various reports and studies conducted in the examination of this dreadful accident which stated that safety regulations were compromised, there were malfunctioning valves in poor condition and that gas leakage was reported earlier too. The diseases caused overloaded the healthcare system with mass funerals and cremations. The sight was as dreadful as it can be with trees going barren in the vicinity and bloated animal carcasses piling up which had to be disposed of.
Then, she mentioned the compensation activities that took place and the parts played by the Indian Judiciary and the UCC in those activities. However, there had been a disparity in the figures forwarded by the survivors, reflecting downplaying and insensitive approach on the part of the government while calculating relief packages.
Finally, after a long-drawn conflict between India and the US regarding the responsibility for the accident and many other pressing issues related to the accident, the factory was closed in 1986.
Moving on, she highlighted the two major arguments which were involved in this disaster namely –
- The Corporate Negligence Point of View
According to this argument, the disaster was caused by a potent combination of under maintained and decaying facilities, a weak attitude towards safety, and an undertrained workforce.
- The Worker sabotage Point of View
This was held by UCC and this argument states that it was not physically possible for the water to enter the tank without concerted human effort and that extensive testimony and engineering analysis leads to a conclusion that water entered the tank when a rogue employee hooked a water hose directly to an empty valve on the side of the tank.
Further, she justifies with data, the long-term health effects of the tragedy with necessary statistical data with effective health-effect mapping owing to distance differences and gender-wise health effects.
Changes that Ensued After the Disaster
The importance of this disaster lies in the fact that the Environment Protection Act was brought in 1986, in response to this dreadful disaster which ensures that industries shall take steps and initiatives to protect the environment. Not only this, but she also mentions how this Act is an umbrella act that determines the type of pollution, provides safety standards regarding the existence of various pollutants, and bans the use of hazardous materials.
Another result of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy was the addition of a new chapter in The Factories Act formulated in 1948 relating to the scope that only covered the workers and extended it to the public and the people around the premises.
The most important effect was specifying the definition of the occupier which would help to understand who oversees the vicinity where hazardous activities were taking place.
The punishment-related provisions were also revised and changed if a person did not comply with the hazardous process relating provisions.
Few More Gas Leakage Events that Followed
She then expressed in detail that even after changing the provisions of various acts, several other gas leakage cases followed, unfortunately:
- On 27 June 2014, a massive fire broke out following a blast in the underground gas pipeline maintained by GAIL at Nagaram, East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh killing at least 15 and injuring over 40 others.
- In June 2014, 6 were killed and over 40 injured in an incident of leakage in a methane gas pipeline at a water pump house at Bhillai Steel Plant in Chhattisgarh’s Durg district.
- In 2017, around 470 schoolchildren were hospitalized after inhaling poisonous fumes that spread due to a chemical leak at a container depot near two schools in the customs area of Tughlaqabad depot.
- Vizag gas leak in Andhra Pradesh in 2020.
- In April 2023, Ludhiana City was hit by a deadly gas leak killing at least 11 people and hospitalizing 11.
She raises questions due to occurrence of such incidents that whether India’s safety standards are apt and with growing as the fastest economy and liberalization policies running full-fledged, how well-prepared India is to contain such disasters and how successful it actually is in ensuring safety. She also questions that how just it is to place compensationary values on human lives and if yes what value are we placing of human lives vis-a-vis market-oriented development. She ended her session with these open-ended questions and an insightful Q&A session.
Samprikta is a research intern at IMPRI.
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