The Bhopal gas tragedy of December 1984 claimed thousands of lives, injured lakhs of people and risked the future of the local communities forever.
Indian authorities failed to bring America’s Warren Anderson back to Indian soil for legal proceedings. The responsible company – Union Carbide – ended up paying inadequate compensation of $ 470 million, and an Indian court, after dragging the cases for years, convicted eight Indians and sentencing them for two years.
India’s state of affairs on industrial safety and chemical disasters has been disappointing. Involvement of high-profile industry units, brute political power and spineless bureaucratic leadership has proved to be a fatal combination for failing the lost lives.
The discussions on India’s regulation on industrial units surfaced once again when on 7 May 2020, hazardous ‘styrene’ gas escaped the industrial unit of LG Polymers in Visakhapatnam (also known as Vizag), Andhra Pradesh.
The accident killed 13 people and more than 1000 were admitted to hospitals.
The Vizag Gas leak once again highlighted the faltering lines of operation between a giant multinational corporation and the state.
The LG plant was without an environmental clearance from the central government. As per the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification 2006 — a union law dealing with environmental clearances for the industrial facilities — a unit like LG Polymers falls under the category ‘A’ of the industries. The law makes it mandatory for such facilities to take clearance from the Union Environment Ministry every time it expands or undergoes a change in the manufacturing of the product.
It was also revealed that between 2016 to 2018 LG Polymers unit at Vizag expanded five times without any consent from the Union Environment Ministry.
NGT has ordered an investigation by a committee headed by retired Andhra Pradesh Judge B. Seshasayana Reddy. The green court also slapped an interim fine of Rs. 50 crore on the company which was to be deposited with the District Administration of Vizag. NGT has also issued show cause notices to Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board, Central Pollution Control Board and the Union Environment Ministry.
Following the accident, the UN’s Special Rapporteur issued a strong statement and said to establish accountability of such accidents and honor human rights.
From Bhopal to Vizag, what is more disturbing to see is the apathy of the system towards these issues. The governments have made only enough attempts to evaluate and sort out the underlying challenges prevailing with regard to industry regulations and safety in India.
On the other hand, with rising privatization, multinational corporations are dominating the business discourse with the governments at national and state levels. Lobbies are getting strong, leaving little scope for the government bodies to negotiate about the environmental well being or human rights.
Shrinking labour laws
The recent spree to reform labor laws by states have become a big cause of concern amongst civil society. Labor comes under the concurrent list of the Constitution, meaning both the states and center can frame laws on it. Several states saw COVID-19 as an opportunity to initiate labor reforms and save the dwindling economy. Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have been few states to announce their plans for reforming the laws.
Just to give you an idea about what these reforms are; UP passed the Uttar Pradesh Temporary Exemption from Certain Labor Laws Ordinance, 2020 which guarantees a three-year regulatory holiday for the businesses. Meaning: there will be no safeguard on industrial disputes, layoffs, working conditions of workers, health, sanitation and the list goes on up to 2023. In Madhya Pradesh, the working hours have been increased and provision of trade union’s collective bargaining has been done away under the new legal policy.
This is a cause of worry. As per the government’s data, 54,000 workers were killed or injured from 2014 to 2016. As per the Labor and Employment Ministry, every day 3 workers die and 47 are injured. State of Gujarat, which was one of the first states to reform the labor laws amidst the COVID crisis, witnessed the maximum number of fatalities (687) in factories from 2014 to 2016.
A callous approach like this is only going to weaken the conservation frameworks and foundations for human rights. In the times of bringing the big corporates under a strict scanner for fouling environmental and labor safety standards, India is withering down its regulatory structures. Corporates should not double play government; demand a relief package and generate pressure to initialize labor reforms; downplay the health and environmental hazards. A blind perusal of economic targets can cause much more damage to national prospects while integrating sustainable and environment-first approaches can yield positive and long-lasting effects for the citizens.
COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to rethink our approach and create more self-reliant, circular and green economies. To make this happen, it is imperative to honor the environmental standards and laws on human rights.
(Rishabh Shrivastava is an independent journalist. He tweets at @Writer_Rishabh)