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Haunted by the past

Dr K K Paul | This article was first published in The Pioneer on Thursday, 7 May 2020.

Haunted by the past

The gas leak incident near Visakhapatnam in the early hours of May 7 has led to the death of more than 10 people and hospitalisation of over 200. According to the district authorities, the gas was confirmed to be either styrene or vinyl benzene. As an intermediary, styrene is known as PVC gas and is used for the manufacture of insulation material, plastic, rubber, pipes, fibre glass and also for the packaging industry. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), it is the 12th most used chemical in the world. It is to the credit of the district authorities and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), who reacted quickly, that fatalities remained low. Around 500 kg of chemicals were airlifted from Gujarat to neutralise the effect of the gas well in time.

Separately, with the direct intervention of the United Nations (UN), the bar for investigation of the Vizag gas leak case has not only been raised but has also been virtually internationalised. The spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, Stéphane Dujarric, said, “We obviously send our condolences to the victims and hope for the quick recovery of those who have been impacted. These kinds of incidents should be fully investigated by the local authorities.”

While detailed investigations would undoubtedly be undertaken, prima facie, it appears that the protocols necessary for the recommencement of operations after the 45-day lockdown was lifted were not followed. When the accident took place early in the morning, only a handful of casual workers were present. Elements of negligence at multiple levels are more than obvious. For this, evidence will have to be secured immediately and this should be done in the right earnest. While the plant must have been sealed, a team of experts headed by a scientist from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) needs to be constituted immediately to get into various aspects of this matter.

According to scientific research approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency and published in a top scientific journal, Environmental Health Perspectives, chronic exposure to styrene has been linked to the occurrence of neurological and behavioural deficit. This may eventually result in decreased performance, including delayed reaction time and visual disturbances, hearing loss and possibly even peripheral neuropathy. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that styrene is a possible carcinogen and can cause cancer on prolonged exposure.

In this context, let us not repeat the mistakes of the Bhopal tragedy. Even after 35 years of the disaster, scars have not fully healed yet. The chain of suffering of the people has continued unabated for generations as genetic deformities have been reported in some newborns. Bhopal has been listed as the world’s biggest man-made environmental disaster. Thousands of people were killed in this disaster and many more suffered permanent damage or a genetic impact. Responses of our entire system — the executive, legislative and even the judiciary — were found to be inadequate to meet the expectations of the people. Whatever was done by way of relief was too little when compared to catastrophes across the world.

In the case of Vizag, the plant was run by Hindustan Polymers 1961 onwards. Later, it merged with UB Group in 1978. Subsequently, LG Chem of South Korea took over Hindustan Polymers and renamed it as LG Polymers India Pvt Ltd in July 1997. It is understood that after the lockdown, permission to recommence operations was obtained a couple of days ago on phone. The factory inspector and the pollution control board had neither inspected nor understood the sensitivity of such a plant recommencing operations without adequate precautions.

This incident should be a wake-up call for Government agencies as well as the manufacturers since a large number of industries would be preparing to recommence operations after the lockdown is relaxed.

Particularly after the Bhopal disaster, a number of legislations were enacted. From the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 to the Public Liability Insurance Act 1991. According to the relevant rules framed by the Government, styrene is classified as a hazardous and a toxic chemical. This should naturally have required a greater degree of supervision and monitoring of operations. Some of the major laws and regulations that appear to have been overlooked in the instant case are, Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 and the rules framed there under such as the Hazardous Waste Management and Handling Rule 1989 and ones framed there under, including the Manufacture, Storage And Import Of Hazardous Chemical (Amendment) Rules, 1989, among others.

Despite a plethora of rules and regulations, there are certain aspects which indicate weakness in our legal system in dealing with such cases. During a discussion in the Parliament on the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010, it was mentioned by the late Arun Jaitley, who was then the leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, “We have a sad and unfortunate experience of the Bhopal gas leak. This law deals only with nuclear incidents. I think, two lessons still remain. If there are incidents and accidents, which are not on account of a nuclear incident but because of which a large number of casualty and damage does take place, our legal regime even today is only the conventional legal regime. The victims go to a civil court and then have their remedies adjudicated, and we are all conscious of the limitations of our legal system that it almost takes decades, not years, in order to compensate the victims…”

These were ominous words, whose importance one realises only after 10 years when a tragic incident has occurred in Visakhapatnam. The Parliament can still amend the existing laws or legislate a fresh enactment to fill up this major lacuna. While Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jaganmohan Reddy has already visited the spot and his Government is undertaking necessary relief measures, there still might be individual compensation seekers, whose expectations would have to be suitably addressed.

The number of lawsuits filed in India and abroad after the Bhopal tragedy was so large that a special enactment had to be undertaken. All such matters were transferred to a single judicial forum, which, however, failed to deliver complete justice. So let us not repeat the mistakes of Bhopal and ensure adequate compensation to the victims and those injured in tune with international standards. Compensation for the damage caused to the environment, too, must be made.

(The writer is a former Governor and a Senior Advisor at the Pranab Mukherjee Foundation)

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