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Can a Bhopal happen again?

By Rakesh Kalshian

This investigation of the toxic hotspots in just one Indian city, Delhi, reveals that the disaster management plan for even the capital remains largely on paper. Delhi alone has 1,777 industries generating hazardous wastes, but no chemical hazards map. Tilak Bazaar, Asia's largest chemical market, is in the heart of Chandni Chowk. It's a tinderbox waiting to explode

To a newcomer, it looks like any other bustling street in the labyrinth called Chandni Chowk, Delhi’s oldest and busiest marketplace -- congested, dilapidated and a messy mix of tradition and modernity. But Tilak Bazaar is different in one important respect: instead of the wafting swirls of spices and aromas of vintage culinary delights, here your nostrils are assaulted by strong vapours -- acrid and pungent -- of a chemical miasma.

Welcome to Asia ’s largest chemical market. With its narrow lanes, ramshackle and densely-populated houses, haphazard electric wiring, poor sanitation, and virtually no fire-safety precautions, Tilak Bazaar is a tinderbox waiting to explode. Indeed, between 1994 and 1996, at least 55 people were killed and over 500 shops destroyed in fires that have engulfed the area.

Here, you can witness flagrant violation of practically every law in the book as poor migrant workers cart and unload and load drums of dangerous chemicals sans any caution. A cocktail of deadly chemicals flows in open drains. Nobody knows how many different kinds of chemicals are stored here, let alone what might happen if a major fire was to break out in one of the storerooms. Apart from the residents, an estimated 20,000 workers work in this small area. R C Sharma, Delhi’s Chief Fire Officer, says, “It is impossible for a fire brigade to enter this area and put out the fire. And when chemicals catch fire, they release all kinds of gases injurious to people’s health and lives. The pity is we can’t do anything about it. The only way you can avert a disaster here is to shift this market to an area where it can be properly regulated.”

Tilak Bazaar is not an exception. Delhi’s many-layered, thickly-textured architecture hides many a chemical Minotaur that can trigger a mini Bhopal any time. According to the Delhi-based National Productivity Council, there are currently 1,777 industries that generate hazardous waste every day, much of which is either dumped into wastewater drains or in landfills. Many of them are housed in thickly-populated residential areas where they pose a grave danger to people’s health and lives. Consider the following toxic hotspots:

  • Asia ’s largest PVC market in Vishwas Nagar, where more than 20,000 migrant workers toil in appallingly hazardous conditions to eke out a living. People living around the PVC manufacturing facilities are also exposed to the same health hazards as the workers. Worse still, highly inflammable materials such as PVC resin are stored in large quantities on site. A fire in the area could be potentially damaging to people’s health. In 1997, a major fire had gutted Delhi ’s largest waste plastic market, spewing into the atmosphere many dangerous gases such as dioxin which are likely to have been slowly absorbed into the bodies of nearby residents.
  • The Roshnara Garden market which for a long time has served as an unregulated chemical godown and which witnessed a minor fire in June this year. According to Sharma, there were no casualties but the possibility of a major fire cannot be ruled out.
  • The Wazirpur industrial area where steel is processed uses all sorts of hazardous chemicals which often find their way into the groundwater.
  • The five water treatment plants at Chandrawal, Badarpur, Haiderpur, Wazirabad and Bhagirathi, each of which store over 900 kg of chlorine gas. A leak in any one of them could pose a danger to thousands of people over a distance of 6 km, according to the Delhi government’s off-site emergency plan.
  • The gas-fired thermal power station at Indraprastha where, according to experts at Delhi ’s National Disaster Management Institute, a leak of naphtha gas could affect communities in a radius of 3 km.

Besides, cold-storage plants that store ammonia, tankers transporting all kinds of toxic chemicals and gases, and several huge oil depots, all operating amidst residential areas, are also potential threats. According to the National Capital Territory (NCT) Off-Site Emergency Plan of 1998, the most significant hazards arise from the uncharted storage of chemicals and materials as there are many unlicensed and unauthorised industries, operations and activities.

K T Ravindran, professor of urban planning at the School of Planning and Architecture, laments a complete absence of an urban planning strategy or ethos. “The authorities seem least concerned about the safety of workers or residents. Let alone dramatic chemical accidents like Bhopal , we are all victims of slow disasters that are happening all the time—pesticides in water and vegetables and toxic chemicals in the air.”

A glaring example of official apathy towards the safety of both workers and neighbourhoods is the recent accident in a steel factory in Ghaziabad in which at least ten contract workers were blown to pieces and several critically injured when a live bomb exploded in their faces as they were unloading a truck full of imported metal scrap at a steel plant.

This accident could have occurred anywhere as authorities combing scrap godowns and factories found bombs, many of them potentially explosive, in various parts of the country. Fearing raids by the police, factory owners had dropped them wherever they pleased—two live shells were found just outside a school in Ghaziabad , creating a panic situation.

Had it been a terrorist strike, one could still have blamed it on bad luck, bad diplomacy or a combination of both. But this was, once again, a case of negligence. The authorities were caught napping as usual. And this wasn’t a freak accident either. It was merely one more in a series that has consistently demonstrated the unconscionable disregard for the safety of workers and communities in the event of a disaster in installations dealing with hazardous substances. Since human memory is short, let’s remind ourselves of some recent accidents (see also History of hazards).

  • In the last four years, in Nandesari, about 25 km from Vadodara, at least 13 incidents of gas leaks and fire accidents have left 14 dead, 22 injured, and 14 crippled forever.
  • In February 2004, an explosion and fire at India ’s space centre in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh, left 36 dead.
  • Last October 2003, 5 workers were killed and 41 injured in a major explosion in a fertiliser plant in Bharuch.
  • In January 2003, nine firemen were injured when they were trying to douse the flames in a storehouse of chemicals in Ahmedabad.
  • In 1997, a fire at a refinery in Vishakhapatnam claimed 34 lives and injured 31 workers.
  • In 1997, an ammonia leak from a tanker injured 400 people in Bhopal .
  • In 1995, another ammonia leak from a tanker affected 2,000 people in Maharashtra .
  • In 1995, an explosion in a tanker carrying petrol killed 100 and injured 23 in Chennai.
  • In 1994, a chlorine leak from a tanker killed 4 people and injured 300 in Thane district, Maharashtra .
  • In 1994, a fire in a chemical store injured over 400 people in New Delhi .
  • In 1992, an explosion in a chemical warehouse claimed 43 lives in New Delhi .

The Bhopal disaster raised difficult and unattended issues such as how to prevent potentially dangerous chemical plants from being located in heavily populated areas; how to ensure that as much as possible is known about the risks and effects of toxins being used or produced; how to ensure the safe operation and maintenance of industrial facilities; and how to develop effective disaster plans for the protection of workers and nearby residents.

Any civilised and caring society would have taken these four lessons to heart. But have we?

“To be fair,” says Dr N H Hosabettu, who heads the Hazardous Substances Management Division in the Ministry of Environment and Forests, which deals with chemical and industrial disasters, “in the wake of the Bhopal gas tragedy, the government did enact a few stringent laws to ensure that another Bhopal does not occur.” Among other things, these laws regulate the handling and transport of hazardous materials; provide for the relocation of industrial plants if situated in populated neighbourhoods; bestow on workers the right to demand information about health and safety at work; oblige employers to disclose to the public all the information regarding dangers of chemical operations, their health hazards and measures to overcome such hazards; and mandate an up-to-date and adequate on-site and off-site emergency plan in case of a chemical disaster. The rules also provide for the creation of crisis groups at central, state, district and local levels with differentiated roles and responsibilities to deal with an emergency.

“The trouble is,” admits Hosabettu, “that the administrative machinery, especially at the level of state governments, has lacked the political will and competence to enforce these laws.” Delhi is a classic case of the dangerous gap between theory and practice. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the authorities entrusted with the task of preventing or managing chemical disasters haven’t awakened to the gravity of the situation yet.

To begin with, the officials of the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA), an agency entrusted with the task of managing disasters in the city, seem least concerned about their responsibilities. They refused to speak to this reporter, while the Home Secretary declined to be quoted. Unfortunately, this characteristic tight-lipped bureaucratic attitude couldn’t have been more inappropriate, given that the nature of the agency requires openness and proactive outreach to all audiences to educate them about disaster prevention and preparedness. Little wonder then that neither communities nor factory owners or workers have heard about the DDMA.

It appears, though, that the DDMA had good reason to malinger. They had precious little to say because the disaster management plans for the city are still to be finalised. According to Brig B K Khanna (Retd), a disaster management consultant with the National Disaster Management Institute in New Delhi , the plan was supposed to be ready in February this year when DDMA formally came into being. “We have been asking them to give us their plans but no luck so far. While most other states have sent in their plans, I wonder why they are sitting over it.”

A disaster management plan does exist, confirms Dunu Roy, an activist fighting for industrial workers’ rights. However, he believes the bureaucrats will not share it with communities or NGOs. That, unfortunately, runs counter to the very purpose of a disaster management plan. It is ironical that an authority that is supposed to deal with emergencies is so inaccessible: it has only one phone number which it shares with another department. Nor does it have any literature to disseminate, even to journalists, let alone other citizens.

The authority’s website dismisses chemical disasters in two paragraphs. Ravindran, whose advice is often sought in such matters, says, “Chemical disaster is not even discussed at such meetings. All they are worried about is earthquakes.” Indeed, so far there have been only three mock-drills to demonstrate Delhi ’s preparedness in managing disasters, and not surprisingly, all of them dealt with earthquakes.

According to the plan, each cluster should have a well-designed emergency control room equipped with facilities such as a sophisticated communication system that allows emergency response agencies to act quickly and in concert when a disaster occurs; a regularly updated inventory of hazardous materials in the area; a station that provides data on crucial variables such as wind velocity and direction for real-time simulation of accidents; a ready reckoner of the possible impact of hazardous chemicals on people’s health, as well as information about what relief agencies can do to alleviate immediate suffering; and a detailed map of the area showing the location of industries, residential areas, sensitive locations, access routes, etc.

But all this remains on paper so far. Sharma admits that what is being done in the name of disaster management falls far short of what we ought to do. “The laws are in place but there is a lack of will and coordination among different authorities to handle such disasters in an effective manner. Besides, we need more people and machines to cope with the city’s disaster potential.”

He regrets not having a chemical hazards map of Delhi and believes that “if we had one, it would be much easier to identify potential disasters and thereby prevent them from happening. I also think that authorities like the MCD, which are supposed to regulate such hazardous activities, should take their tasks a little more seriously.”

Say, for instance, forcing all hazardous industries to prepare an offsite emergency plan which is now a legal requirement. The industries are required to put a board outside their premises with details about the hazardous chemicals and wastes stored on site, and the dangers posed by them. The law requires them to disseminate information to communities and workers on how to respond to an emergency. “But,” says Khanna, “very few abide by this rule; the majority haven’t even prepared the offsite emergency plan. In fact, at least four industrial plants have approached our institute to prepare these plans for them.”

The health establishment too is grossly under-prepared to deal with the consequences of a chemical disaster. A senior epidemiologist in the Central Government Health Services (CGHS), who refused to be identified, concedes that “hospitals in Delhi are not geared to handle emergencies in the event of a chemical disaster. Unless we create a team of doctors specially trained to give first-aid as well as treat victims of chemical exposure, we can’t save lives in the event of a chemical disaster.”

It is clear that Delhi ’s political masters lack the political will to deal with its disasters, chemical or otherwise. “Every time there is talk of hazardous industries, the authorities react with the response -- shut them or shift them. That this might deprive thousands of workers of their livelihoods doesn’t seem to bother them,” says Roy .

For Roy , an alternative strategy could be based on the notion that industry has to provide ‘safe’ livelihoods. “In other words,” he says, “it has to protect both livelihoods as well as environment. This is the concept on which the ‘garden towns’ of the earlier industrial complexes were built. We could learn a lot from the experience of the ‘mixed-use’ industrial towns, the fundamental principles of occupational safety, the struggle of citizens groups to protect their environment, and the creativity of small household enterprises.” He suggests the following roadmap.

  • Convert polluting units into viable non-polluting ones, and shut down those that cannot be controlled with accessible technology.
  • Promote the mixed use of land (as accepted by the Second Master Plan), so that industry and residences and recreational and commercial areas co-exist and reduce the need for large infrastructural investments.
  • Make it mandatory, using existing zoning laws, for industry owners and regulatory authorities to live in mixed-use industrial areas so as to provide personal incentive to plan for pollution prevention measures.
  • Assert the Right to Work in a Clean Environment so that both livelihoods as well as environment are protected, as provided for in existing labour legislation and in Article 21 of the Constitution.
  • Make workers and communities an integral part of disaster management plans.

But the big question, as always, is: how soon, if ever, will political will catch up with this eminently good sense? Until it does, painful memories of Bhopal must be kept alive.

(Rakesh Kalshian is an independent journalist based in New Delhi . He writes on the impact of economic policies on society and the environment. He has worked with journals like  Down To Earth  and Outlook and is a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists) 

InfoChange News & Features, December 2004