This happens only in India – Hazardous work, Bhopal style

BY NITYANAND JAYARAMAN FOR THE INTERNATIONAL CAMPAIGN FOR JUSTICE IN BHOPAL, 2 p.m. (Bhopal time), 18 June, 2005
Pictures from today’s action, even the police are covering their faces, in one picture you can clearly see tar on the ground.
More than 200 Bhopalis, led by survivors organisations, today entered the Union Carbide factory site to stop the illegal pre-remediation work being carried out by Ramky Pharma City Ltd.
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For three days, survivors and residents living adjacent to the Carbide factory site have complained of extreme distress due to the pesticide dust generated by the shoddy handling of pesticides within the factory site. Despite repeated requests by residents to follow best international practices in handling the toxic wastes within the factory, the Madhya Pradesh Government and Ramky went ahead with pre-remediation work using unprotected workers — working without masks or gloves — in clear violation of Hazardous Waste Management Rules, 1989. Survivors and residents say they had to take this extreme step after waiting in vain for three days for the Madhya Pradesh State Government and the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Wastes (SCMC) to stop what was clearly a dangerous and illegal activity. First hand reports from Bhopal confirm that people in the settlements adjacent to the factory site are suffering from symptoms of poisoning including headaches, nausea, vomitting and giddiness. Goldman awardee and Bhopal activist Rashida Bee speaks of a 6-month old child who went to bed normal, but awoke on 17th June with her face and body swollen.
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More than 20,000 people, including survivors, reside in the vicinity of the Union Carbide factory. Most of them suffer from chronic illnesses either because they’re survivors or because they have been consuming water that has been contaminated with Carbide’s poisons. Earlier studies confirmed the presence of dangerous levels of chemicals, including mercury, in the blood and breast milk of residents near the factory. “It goes without saying that these people are hypersensitive to chemicals, and need to be protected even more than normal populations are from chemicals like these,” said Satinath Sarangi of Bhopal Group for Information and Action. Sarangi is also managing trustee of the Sambhavna Trust Clinic which provides free medical care to survivors.
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On June 16 and June 17, the chairman of the Bhopal Local Area Environment Committee — an empowered group set up by the SCMC on Hazardous Wastes — personally visited communities outside Union Carbide and wrote empatic letters to the Chairman of the SCMC. “At 1 PM today I have personally visited four communities namely, Arif Nagar, New Arif Nagar, Atal-Ayub Nagar and Jai Prakash Nagar with an estimated total population of 10, 000 and confirmed that the residents of these communities are being exposed to airborne pollutants [possibly benzene Hexachloride] emnating from the Union Carbide factory premises as a result of the work being carried out by the said firm,” the LAEC chairman Mr. Satish Tewari wrote on 16 June. On 17 June, Mr. Tewari visited four other communities in the neighborhood and confirmed “that the stench to be much stronger than yesterday.” In his letter on that day to the SCMC, he said he was “extremely dismayed to find that you have taken no action with regard to my letter of yesterday either in ensuring the safety of the resident population or to issue directions so that the work inside the factory is carried out in a transparent manner.”
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Sarangi reports that the Bhopalis gheraoed (surrounded) the managing director of Ramky Pharma City (India) Ltd Mr. K.S.M. Rao. However, Mr. Rao states that he was not gheraoed. “These people like me. There is some odour complaint, and they came to find out what was causing it. They wanted to know what the dangers of these chemicals are,” he said. In a written declaration given to the protesters, Mr. Rao says: “In one of the sheds, there is BHC pesticide. This pesticide has high odour. This odour causes: nauseating feelings, headache. On high exposure, muscular spasms. If this pesticide is not handled properly, then this can cause ill-effects on surrounding communities.”
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According to Mr. Rao, the odour complaints were evident only on the first and fourth day (today). “We haven’t even begun working on the odourous compounds like BHC. On the first day, when we worked, we broke open doors to make room for equipment to move in. People complained then. Today also, there is a cross wind and because the shutters are open, the dust is going out. We’ll take steps to ensure that there is no ventilation.” Ramky says the work till date has included some civil works, repacking of naphthol residues and handling other non-odourous material like contaminated soil.
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According to Mr. Rao, BHC dust has a very low odour threshold — one can smell it even at very low concentrations. Asked whether there are monitoring equipment stationed in the residential areas to detect pollution due to the pre-remediation work, Mr. Rao said: “There is no monitoring outside. So you’re right that I’ll not be able to ascertain whether there is pollution outside or not.” However, he says laughingly, “People are the monitors. If they can smell it, then we know that there is pollution.”
Survivors say that the work at the Bhopal factory site is happening in an ad hoc trial-and-error basis that does not reflect the seriousness of the contamination. Monitoring of pollution and dust during and immediately after activities involving handling of hazardous wastes are a common requirement to ensure speedy steps to correct any situation where workers or communities may be exposed to toxic pollution. Mr. Rao places the blame for the problem squarely on the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board. “It is not normal practice to not monitor. But monitoring is not our responsibility. We have told the Pollution Control Board that this should be done. But they are not doing it,” says Mr. Rao.
Survivors and their supporters have demanded that Union Carbide be made to clean up the factory site. But the Government of India is reportedly hesitant to hold the company accountable for fear of invoking the anger of the US Government. Interestingly, even as a arrest warrant is pending against the company, the Government is considering normalising business relations with Carbide by allowing Indian Oil to purchase technology from the company.
To date — it’s more than 20 years since the disaster — the Madhya Pradesh Government and the Government of India have done nothing to deliver clean water to the survivors or make Union Carbide clean up the toxic wastes. Earlier this month, more than 200 women and children who went to the Gas Relief Minister’s office to press their demands for clean water were viciously beaten by the State Police and taken to jail. In the heat of summer, with temperatures soaring above 40 degrees, the survivors of the world’s worst disaster remain waterless and at the mercy of a corrupt Government and an impotent judicial system.

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