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Unarguably
the worst industrial accident to have taken place, on the nights of 2-3rd
December 1984 forty-two tons of a poisonous gas called methyl isocyanate (MIC) escaped
from Union Carbide’s pesticide manufacturing plant. By the following morning,
thousands of citizens of Bhopal were dead, with the official number declared by
the Government of Madhya Pradesh as 37871.
Activists however claim this figure to be grossly under-calculated.

Apart
from the short term fatalities, long term effects were also felt. The obvious
air pollution due to the leak mixed heavy toxic metals like mercury, lead and
chlorine in the atmosphere, which when breathed in caused skin and eye
irritation, vomiting, nausea and breathlessness due to the mercury mixing with
body fluids2.
These metals also resulted in the death of two thousand domesticated animals,
mixed in the water bodies by leaching and caused acute shortage of fish, and
seeped into underground water tables and soil, causing genetic abnormalities in
plants3.
Greenpeace released a report in 1999 whereby it claims that in the years
following the leak, Union Carbide continued to dump its industrial waste in the
nearby area, amounting to mercury concentrations in excess of seven million
times than the permissible limit than prescribed by the World Health
Organization4.

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What
followed was an arduous litigation, where the final settlement of $ 470 million
was agreed to by both parties5.
This sum proved to be paltry, as it was insufficient to look after the
immediate needs of those affected, let alone of later generations also
suffering from after effects. Dow Chemicals, the current owner of the premises,
has refused to clean up the area.

1.      Chasnala
Mining Disaster

In
1975, a coal mine in Chasnala (in the state of Jharkhand) suffered from an
explosion due to the ignition of pockets of gases released due to the mining
activity. The cause of the explosion is uncertain, but it resulted in
collapsing of the mine. Water from a nearby body flooded in at seven million
gallons per minute, drowning all miners. The official death toll declared by
the Government of Jharkhand was 3726.

Apart
from releasing toxic inflammable gases into the atmosphere, this accident also
resulted in the mixing of heavy metals such as mercury into the underground
water table7.
The hundreds of acres cleared for mining also cause deforestation, and mining
operations remove the fertile top soil, making such environmental damage
irrevocable. Increased sedimentation is also witnessed in adjacent water
bodies, reducing their viability. 

The
Indian Iron and Steel Company, which owned the mine, absolved responsibility by
stating that they had complied with all international safety standards. In the
end, the judgement declared in 2012 held two people liable, convicting them to
serve one year rigorous imprisonment and rupees five thousand fine each.

2.      Jaipur
Oil Depot Fire

As recent as 2009,
India had not learnt any lessons from its past mistakes and continued with its
lax attitude towards safety norms. On October 29, Indian Oil Corporation’s
Jaipur plant suffered from a blaze ignited by faulty transfer of eight thousand
kilolitres of petrol. The fire raged uncontrollably for a week, with those in
charge failing to curb the situation. Its proximity to the city of
Jaipur-Rajasthan’s capital-resulted in the evacuation of half a million people8.

The petroleum vapours in the air made it difficult
to breathe, and increased the risk of further fires due to its highly
inflammable nature. A Legal Notice had been issued to Indian Oil Corporation for violating The Water (Prevention and Control of
Pollution) Act 1974, The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981,
and The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. The Central
Pollution Control Board (CPCB) reported air pollution across Jaipur was way above
maximum permitted limits when the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) depot on the edge of the city was caught
fire. It had significant effect on the air in Delhi and Agra.

The Disaster Management Act of 2005 which mandated a
Disaster Management Plan, was not implemented in Jaipur. The State Government
promptly announced a cash compensation of Rs. 2,000,000.00 to the dead and in
addition Indian Oil Corporation paid Rs. 10,000,000.00 to the next of the kin of
dead and varied amount of compensation between Rs. 1,000,000.00 and
2,000,000.00 to the injured. Atleast 12 were killed, and almost three hundred
injured due to the fire.

 

PUBLIC LIABILITY INSURANCE ACT 1991-
A SUCCESS OR FAILURE?

India’s response to industrial accidents was the
public liability insurance act in 1991, which was supposed to provide for
immediate and interim relief to disaster victims till their claims of compensation
were finally decided. A cursory look at the provisions of this law shows that
the amount of compensation is abysmally low and that it fails to provide for
something basic such as inflation indexation. Owners of industries dealing in
hazardous substances are required to take out insurance policies under this
act. While on the one hand it requires the insurance policy to not be less than
the paid-up share capital of the company, on the other, it imposes a cap of rs.50 crore on
the policy. The provisions of the act could seem dated in the present-day
scenario. In a system where it takes years for such claims to be decided, the
compensation under this law is completely inadequate9.

1 Official archives,
Government of Madhya Pradesh, https://web.archive.org/web/20120518020821/http://www.mp.gov.in/bgtrrdmp/relief.htm

2 Irina Bright, Bhopal
Disaster: A Tragic Environmental Pollution Case Study (2011),
http://www.tropical-rainforest-animals.com/bhopal-disaster.html

3 Ingrid Eckerman, The
Bhopal Saga—Causes and Consequences of the World’s Largest Industrial Disaster (2005), India Universities Press.

4 Greenpeace, The Bhopal
Legacy (1999),
http://m.greenpeace.org/india/Global/india/report/1999/10/the-bhopal-legacy.pdf

5 Union Carbide
Corporation v Union of India, AIR 1992 SC 248.

6 India Today Report, http://www.indiatoday.com/itoday/20070702/60-73to77.html

7 MIT, Environmental
Risks of Mining,
http://web.mit.edu/12.000/www/m2016/finalwebsite/problems/mining.html

8 Rohit Parihar, 12 dead,
over 200 injured in Indian Oil depot fire in Jaipur, India Today (29 October 2009).

9 Shreeja Sen, Industrial
Disasters: Is India Better Prepared than it was in 1984? Livemint (published on
December 2, 2014), http://www.livemint.com/politics/ntycwmazgais6cepj4yakp/industrial-disasters-is-india-better-prepared-than-it-was-i.html

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