Bhopal is known for its historical records, artificial lakes and greenery but most of all, the city is remembered across the globe for the worst industrial mishap of the world. Post-midnight on December 3, 1984, poisonous gas that leaked from the factory of Union Carbide in Madhya Pradesh capital Bhopal killed thousands of people directly. The incident is now known as the Bhopal disaster or Bhopal gas tragedy. The factory in Bhopal was launched at a time when India was facing severe food shortages. The country launched its Green Revolution in the early 1960s in an urgent bid to feed its growing population. Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) was one of the early beneficiaries of this new commitment to technology, and began marketing its pesticides with the slogan “Science helps build a new India.” In 1969, UCC built a plant in Bhopal to manufacture carbaryl (sold under the brand name Sevin) and alidcarb (Temik). At first, the company imported methyl isocyanate(MIC), the toxic gas required to make the pesticides, but by 1980, it had begun manufacturing the gas on site. MIC is colorless and heavier than air, is extremely toxic, and irritates the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes of the respiratory tract. On December 3, 1984, about 45 tons of the dangerous gas methyl isocyanate escaped from an insecticide plant that was owned by the Indian subsidiary of the American firm Union Carbide Corporation. The swift wind that blew that night delivered the lethal fumes to an area of 40 square kilometers near the site. Those who didn’t choke to death woke gasping for breath, their eyes burning from the toxic gas and their mouths frothing. If only they had known, all they had needed to do was climb to a higher spot or covered their faces with a wet cloth. As it was, because MIC is twice as heavy as air, children were affected most. With no training and no knowledge of what they were treating, the doctors could do little to help. Overnight, the city turned into a mausoleum. The gas that drifted over the densely populated neighborhoods around the plant, killed thousands of people immediately and created a panic as tens of thousands of others attempted to flee Bhopal. The final death toll was estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000 although official figures vary between 3000-4000. The events in Bhopal revealed that expanding industrialization in developing countries without concurrent evolution in safety regulations could have catastrophic consequences. The disaster indicated a need for enforceable international standards for environmental safety, preventative strategies to avoid similar accidents and industrial disaster preparedness. Thus the Bhopal disaster could have changed the nature of the chemical industry and caused a re-examination of the necessity to produce such potentially harmful products in the first place. However the lesson of acute and chronic effects of exposure to pesticides and their precursors in Bhopal has still not changed the agricultural practice patterns. An estimated 3 million people per year suffer the consequences of pesticide poisoning with most exposure occurring in the agricultural developing world. It is reported to be the cause of at least 22,000 deaths in India each year. In the state of Kerala, significant mortality and morbidity have been reported following exposure to Endosulfan, a toxic pesticide whose use continued for years after the events of Bhopal.
India at present is experiencing a rapid industrialization. But the tragedy of Bhopal continues to be a warning sign at once ignored and heeded. Bhopal and its aftermath is a warning that the path to industrialization, for developing countries in general and India in particular, is fraught with human, environmental and economic perils. Some moves by the Indian government, including some positive changes in government policy and behavior of a few industries have taken place; major threats to the environment from rapid and poorly regulated industrial growth remain unaddressed. Widespread environmental degradation with significant adverse human health consequences still continues to occur throughout India. No doubt following the events of December 1984 environmental awareness and activism in India increased significantly. The Environment Protection Act was passed in 1986, creating the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and strengthening India’s commitment to the environment. Under the new act, the MoEF was given overall responsibility for administering and enforcing environmental laws and policies. It established the importance of integrating environmental strategies into all industrial development plans for the country. However, despite greater government commitment to protect public health, forests, and wildlife, policies need still be geared to be implemented in practical sense. Thus the need of the hour is that local governments should not allow industrial facilities to be situated within urban areas, regardless of the evolution of land use over time. Industry and government should bring proper financial support to local communities so they can provide medical and other necessary services to reduce morbidity, mortality and material loss in the case of industrial accidents. The advancements made in the technology of pollution monitoring be used to keep a tab on industrial units for emissions and effluents discharged into the environment. Targeted action through the use of data can be done to check industrial emissions. Better enforcement of environmental laws is need of the hour to ensure no repeat of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. A robust push towards cleaner and greener technology in the fields of mobility, electricity generation and consumption, water supply, industrial manufacturing, etc. can be another step in combating pollution. National Pollution Control Day can be counted as an occasion for policymakers and the public to discuss the issue at large and explore new ideas in the fight against pollution.
( The author is is Assistant Professor -Selection Grade-at Govt. Degree College Chatroo in Kishtwar district. Views are his own) [email protected]