Bowing to Dow

Twenty years after Union Carbide’s (now Dow Chemicals) plant gassed 5,70,000 people, the Madhya Pradesh government plans to dismantle the plant that caused the world’s worst industrial disaster, letting the MNC off the hook
By V K Shashikumar in Bhopal
Mohammed Ansar turned 22 this year. A victim of the gas tragedy, he hasn’t moved for 22 years. He can’t walk, and can’t even lift his hands. “Death continues to elude him,” says his mother, Kausar. Last week she fed him mangoes and forgot to wash his mouth. When she came to check him the next morning there were ants all over his mouth.
Miles away from Ban Ganga, where Ansar stays, in Arif Nagar and Shiv Shakti colony, women come out in droves assuming that we are pollution control board surveyors. “We don’t have water,” they all complain. Groundwater in areas around the Union Carbide Chemicals (UCC) factory site in Bhopal is highly contaminated and the state government has to date failed to provide drinking water to these protesters.
Twenty years after it happened, the Bhopal administration doesn’t care anymore about the tragedy that sparked off far-reaching environment protection laws across the world.
Even as the disastrous effects of the world’s worst industrial disaster continue to unfold, the Babulal Gaur government has embarked on a foolhardy plan to clean up tonnes of hazardous chemicals stockpiled in the factory. The public seems to be nonchalant. On June 16, the police cordoned off the plant, even posting armed constabulary along the broken perimeter walls of the factory. “I have instructions from the top to disallow anybody from entering the factory premises,” Joint Collector SK Upadhyay, supervising the security arrangements, says.
Sources in the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board (MPPCB) have revealed how the plan will be implemented through the year. As a first step, sacks of chemicals lying in the open have been shifted to a shed. Now, experts from the National Environment Engineering Research Institute, National Geophysical Research Institute and some other national institutions will visit the site. Each institution will give its recommendations on final remediation measures and be assigned specific clean-up tasks. “Once all the institutions submit their plans we will bunch them and that will constitute the clean-up protocol,” says a senior MPPCB officer.
In the meantime the state government will float a tender for construction of a landfill in Dhar. The 25,000 tonnes of chemicals and drums of tar will be dumped in the proposed landfill at Dhar. “The containment of the chemicals at the factory site is temporary. We will dump it into the secure landfill and then begin the process of remediation of the factory site and surrounding areas. The restoration of the highly contaminated groundwater is difficult and we don’t know how that will be done because it will be very expensive. And finally we will decommission the plant. But the government is yet to decide what to do at the site. Maybe a memorial for Bhopal gas tragedy victims might come up,” says the MPPCB official.
The officials assert all precautions are being taken during containment, which has been contracted to Hyderabad-based Ramky Limited. The first phase of the three-phase clean-up plan has been hastened because of the Jabalpur High Court’s order to complete the task by June 20.
Road to Recovery: A clinic attended by the victims
The Centre had showed its commitment to uphold the ‘polluter pays principle’ by granting consent to a US court to direct Dow Chemicals to clean up the mess it left behind. The state, by acting in haste, seems to be diluting Dow’s accountability
“The proposed containment of above-ground toxic wastes in the factory site is an acceptable proposition but the state government must allow independent experts, community representatives and ngos to monitor the containment to ensure complete transparency,” says Vinuta Gopal of Greenpeace India.
In June last year, the Centre had shown its commitment to uphold the internationally recognised ‘polluter pays principle’ by granting consent to a US court to direct Dow Chemicals to clean up the mess it left behind in the Bhopal plant. The state government, by acting in haste, seems to be diluting Dow’s accountability. “If the US court gives judgement forcing Union Carbide/Dow Chemicals to clean up the site we will welcome it,” says an MPPCB officer.
For years local and international environment advocacy groups have cautioned the government against any hasty remediation measures without public consultation on its proposed clean-up protocol. And yet when the government embarked on the first phase of the plan, environment activists found themselves barred from the factory site. “The government’s plans came out in the open when unprotected workers were sent into the factory site in the first week of June by the state government to move sacks of chemicals lying in the open into a shed,” says Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action.
National and international environment groups vociferously protested and the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal even set up a kiosk outside the factory gate to demonstrate safe and proper hazardous waste containment protocol.
“We want the government to make the clean-up protocol public. It should demonstrate a clear mechanism to recover costs from UCC,” says Vinuta Gopal.
Bhopal will be a test case of corporate accountability across the world and if Dow Chemicals is allowed to escape from its liabilities it will weaken the ‘polluter pays principle’ internationally.
This article is published under the fellowship programme of the National Foundation for India, July 09, 2005.

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