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5 December 2014, Gateway House

Bhopal tragedy and the future

A tragic ‘anniversary’ this week drew attention to what it would take to ensure that the current excitement about ‘make in India’ becomes a boon and not a curse

former Gandhi Peace Fellow

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December 3rd marks the 30 years since the Bhopal gas tragedy which, by a conservative estimate, killed 3,787 people and permanently impaired tens of thousands more who are still suffering.

Extensive media coverage has detailed multiple levels of negligence — by a private company and government agencies — which first led to the lethal accident at the pesticide plant of Union Carbide India Ltd, and then denied the victims a fitting compensation and relief.

What did India learn after being the location for what is widely regarded as the worst industrial disaster in history?

Certainly there has been a slew of legislation since then, from the Environment (Protection) Act (EPA) 1986, Hazardous Waste (Management and Handling) Rules of 1989 and the Public Liability Insurance Act of 1991, all nobly intended to  provide  timely relief to persons injured or killed while handling hazardous materials. Even the Factories Act was amended in 1987 to institute site appraisal committees.

Alas, as in other areas of life in India, the laws have not been led to effective implementation. According to the Centre for Science and Environment, in 2011, over 1,000 people lost their lives in factory accidents across India, while several thousands were injured. Excessive bureaucracy has also created a climate in which much of the private sector now sees environmental regulations as retarding economic growth.

It might be this combination of poor environmental regulation plus an urgency for growth, that has led a mouth piece of the Chinese Communist Party to suggest that the best way for

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ campaign to succeed is to let China shift its low tech and polluting industries to India.

Of course it is a contemptuous suggestion. To think that the ‘Make in India’ endeavour should be seen through the single dimension of money profits and higher GDP is short-term and self-defeating.

But it will remind those who see ‘Make in India’ as a mission to build a healthier and more wholesome business eco-system that will serve generations yet to be born, to learn and pay heed to the lessons of the Bhopal tragedy. Production lines that are rooted in safety and responsibility can be the hallmark of a new industrial era in India.

Rajni Bakshi is the Gandhi Peace Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

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