BREAKING NEWS

India's chemical plant disaster: another case of history repeating itself

The gas leak at a chemical factory in Visakhapatnam will immediately remind many in India and beyond of the 1984 Bhopal disaster, widely considered the world’s worst industrial disaster.
 
So far, the scale of the tragedies are very different. 
Eleven people are confirmed to have died in Visakhapatnam — but with hundreds hospitalised and thousands affected, there are fears the toll will rise. In Bhopal, 4,000 people died within days of the toxic gas leak from a pesticide plant and thousands more in the following years.
 
But there are also startling parallels. The leak in Visakhapatnam, an industrial port city in Andhra Pradesh state on India’s east coast, was from two 5,000-tonne tanks of liquid chemicals. According to a local police officer, it occurred as the plant was being restarted as coronavirus restrictions imposed in late March were eased.
 
In Bhopal, a much bigger leak occurred, also from a tank full of chemical liquid – extremely hazardous methyl isocyanate — as parts of the complex were reactivated after a shutdown.
 
In both cases, the leak occurred at night, releasing gas into the crowded homes of workers and their families living around the factories. And both plants had overseas owners: South Korea’s biggest petrochemical maker, LG Chem, in the case of Visakhapatnam, and the US-based Union Carbide in the case of Bhopal.
 
Both incidents are only the most high-profile of thousands, big and small, that happen every year in India.
 
Quite how many industrial accidents occur in India annually is unknown, as many go unreported. Government statistics — which show 54,000 killed or injured in factory accidents between 2014 and 2016 — are thought to only represent a fraction of all casualties. Campaigners claim the true figure is up to 15 times greater.
 
One problem is that few workers or their relatives are aware of their rights or have the resources to seek legal redress. Many are migrant workers from distant rural communities, a higher proportion are women, a significant number come from the most disadvantaged communities, and so are vulnerable to physical or other threats. Employers often pay compensation privately to ensure a bereaved family’s silence.
 
Though a profusion of laws exist to protect workers in India, few are enforced. Inspections are rare, and some officials are easily compromised. Last year a fire caused by a short circuit killed 43 people and injured 60 in a workshop in Delhi. The building had been repeatedly inspected by local officials but no alarms were raised despite its evidently poor condition. Police said they would investigate alleged corruption.
 
Similarly, owners often escape sanction. The criminal justice system in India is slow, and scarce police resources are unlikely to be focused on the investigation of industrial accidents. Local political rivalries, or tensions between state-level and national-level governments can also complicate the search for justice. 
 
Pursuing multinationals or foreign owners is expensive, complicated, time-consuming and fraught with uncertainty.
In the case of Bhopal, the then chairman of the company, a US citizen, refused to return to India to face charges, and Union Carbide only paid $470m (£282m) in 1989 to the Indian government in an out-of-court settlement. In 2010 a court sentenced eight Indians to two years in jail.
Finally, there is the profound problem of political will. 
 
Campaigners point to the example of traffic accidents. There are between 150,000 and 300,000 road deaths a year in India. Most of the casualties are poor people, with pedestrians and cyclists prominent among victims. 
 
Political decision-makers are significantly more likely to be among those being driven in large, safe cars on the chaotic roads than among those suffering most from the potholes, poor discipline and driving skills, or badly maintained vehicles.
 
The same is true of air pollution, which causes more than 2 million deaths each year, according to some estimates. Once again, those who suffer most cannot afford air filters, sealed windows, homes with gardens or travel during acute periods.
 
PV Ramesh, a senior official in the Andhra Pradesh government, said 10m rupees ($131,900) in compensation would be given to the families of those who died on Thursday at Visakhapatnam, and the causes of the accident investigated. “Obviously something has gone wrong,” Ramesh said. “Nobody will be spared.”

Photo Gallery