Those who do not learn from history are fated to repeat its mistakes. Tomorrow (3 December) is the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal gas disaster. 24 December is the 10th anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami. Any disaster is an opportunity to learn about things that could have been done to avert or minimise the damage. Each disaster would have its own lessons to offer. Identifying these lessons is a matter of picking out the causes that led to the disaster.
The 1984 poisonous gas leak from Union Carbide’s pesticide factory in Bhopal was a disaster by any definition. About 8,000 died in the immediate aftermath. Till date, more than 25,000 have died due to the long-term effect of the poisons. Nearly six lakh people have been compensated for health damage. Bhopal symbolises a worst-case result of decisions where investments and corporate welfare are prioritised over environment, safety and public good.
Of the many lessons Bhopal has to offer, three are particularly important – siting; safety as a function of technology screening and emergency response; and rehabilitation in the event of disaster.
A highly hazardous factory was allowed in a densely populated locality in working class Bhopal. Keen to accommodate corporate investment, the government allowed Carbide to deploy untested technology without proper screening by independent regulators.
In the absence of robust emergency preparedness, everyone – the district administration, public health officials and the people – was caught off-guard when the disaster happened. And finally, the tasks of compensation, medical and social rehabilitation and environmental remediation that ought to have happened without delay still remain to be completed today, 30 years later.
On these three counts, it can be safely said that our decision-makers may have passed laws that reflect the lessons, but they have stoutly refused to enforce these laws.
Siting Elaborate site selection guidelines are available for various kinds of polluting industries. These guidelines are routinely set aside for political and financial considerations. This is evident from the number of cases clogging our courts where inappropriate siting is the key argument.
Take the case of the 4000 MW coal-fired ultra mega power plant that is set to come up in Cheyyur, Tamil Nadu. Coal-fired power plants pollute the water and land with heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, cadmium, chromium and lead. Coal plants also emit tons of acidic pollutants like sulphur dioxide that return to the ground as vegetation-destroying acid rain.
There is no good place to locate a coal plant. But if one had to make a choice, then one would avoid areas rich in water bodies, agriculture, fisheries and other ecologically sensitive areas.
In choosing Cheyyur, the proponent – government-owned Coastal Tamil Nadu Power Ltd – has stated that the site was chosen as it had minimum agricultural land, and no water bodies, ecologically sensitive areas or places used by migratory species in the vicinity.