From Bhopal to Toulouse

Print edition : December 08, 2001

Seventeen years after the Bhopal gas tragedy, a blast in a chemical plant in the French city of Toulouse once again brings into focus the hazards posed by the chemical industry.

ON the night of December 2, 1984, about 2,600 people died when methyl isocyanate (MIC) leaked from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. Over the years, about 16,000 people died as a result of exposure to the gas. In the first phase of registration of claims itself, more than 5,00,000 claims for injuries and losses were recorded. The traumatic episode was bound to alter perceptions of risk.

The Azote de France fertilizer factory in Toulouse, after the explosion.-ERIC CABANIS/AFP

On December 4, 1985, a leakage of oleum gas from the Shriram Foods and Fertilizers plant in Delhi re-emphasised the danger posed by the chemical industry and the urgency to deal with issues of safety. In February, March and December 1986, the Supreme Court, hearing the oleum gas leak case, re-negotiated the responsibility of an enterprise engaged in hazardous processes of production. The Shriram Foods management was permitted to restart the plant only when a director of the company agreed to be held personally liable in case of similar incidents. This was also the time that notions of enterprise liability were introduced into legal discourse, that is, that an offending enterprise should be made to pay damages according to its capacity to pay. The proposition was premised on deterrence and was intended to increase the costs of unsafe operations within a plant.

Both the Bhopal and the oleum gas leak experiences demonstrated the vulnerability of the populations living in the vicinity of chemical factories. They also demonstrated the helplessness of the local administration and the problems of providing care to the victims where little was known about the delinquent substance. In 1987, the Factories Act, 1948, was amended and a new chapter was added that dealt with factories that engage in hazardous production processes. The amendment stipulated that people living in the vicinity and the local administration were to be informed of the nature of the potential hazard and of what they should do in the event of a disaster. Disaster management plans are to be drawn up. Earlier, the workers had neither a say in safety management nor the right to information about the hazards. Safety and environmental concerns have also contributed to the constitution of Site Appraisal Committees which will be instrumental in deciding where factories that intend to engage in hazardous production processes may be 'safely' located.

However, the moot point is whether such laws have made a difference or whether they are observed only in the breach. That anxiety persists about the possibility of disasters is evident in several court cases and orders. In 1996, the Supreme Court ordered that industries within Delhi be closed down because of the pollution and the potential hazard that they represent. The industries were given the option of closure or relocation. In the same year, the court also intervened in a dispute between residents of a locality on the outskirts of Mumbai and chemical industries located in the area. The residents wanted a buffer zone to be created between the industries and the residential areas. With Bhopal still in memory and "the knowledge of what a tragedy can be caused by chemical industries", the court was prone to tread warily. However, the court was not keen to wield the hatchet as it did in the case of the relocation of industries in Delhi. It said: "If the industrialists wanted to safeguard their interest in the event of some accident happening in their factories, it was for them either to obtain the ownership of the area in question or to shift their factories to such places where the residential area could be kept wide apart from the factory premises."

HOWEVER, concern about the safety of people living in the vicinity of a chemical industry is not unique to India. For instance, in Toulouse, France, an explosion in the fertilizer plant of TotalFinaElf on September 21 killed 30 people. It also left over 2,000 people injured and left more than 11,000 homes and university, school and public buildings without windowpanes and with weakened structures. The incident occurred in the Azote de France (AZF) fertilizer factory. The factory, established in 1924, was received by France as part of the indemnities after the First World War. Toulouse has a complex of chemical industries. However, the protest against the potential risk posed by the industrial belt is of relatively recent origin. Mrs Real, a member of the Comiti de Quartier (Neighbourhood Committee), set up to protest against the location of the industries, said: "We did ask for the closure of the plants, but the Mayor's answer was that it would be too expensive to close them." Yet the protests forced the industry owners to put filters in their factory chimneys and to reduce the output of effluents. According to Professor Chaudret of the Laboratoire de Chemie de Coordination, there are three options: to relocate the industries, to close them, or to allow them to function from the present site. He says that if the risk caused by the factories cannot be dealt with, there is no point in relocating. Hence the debate is really about closure or reducing risk.

A view of the complex of chemical factories in Toulouse, virtually contiguous with the city's area of habitation.-USHA RAMANATHAN

However, the Indian courts and the executive have addressed the issue of risk in a different way. They have emphasised on relocation that inevitably puts new communities at risk. Bhopal, Mumbai, Delhi and now Toulouse illustrate the axiom that industry will encourage people to settle in its vicinity. For instance, in 2000, the Delhi government demolished slums in Delhi and resettled the 'eligible' population in Narela, on the outskirts of Delhi. At the same time, the government also cleared a proposal to relocate some chemical units within 4 km of the resettlement site. The location of the chemical industries near the resettlement site was one way of addressing the criticism of the resettlement policies that cost people their jobs or increased the distance between their place of work and their houses. By bringing the chemical industries within range of the resettlement site, the industries were provided with a working class population and the residents at the resettlement site a potential source of employment within accessible range. However, what is not stated is that the resettled community is now the community at risk.

The problem is one of inherent risks and, often, of negligence. As Toulouse has shown, negligence is not a privilege of the developing world. La Depeche du Midi, a newspaper in Toulouse, alleges that the ammonium nitrate that caused the explosion at the AZF factory was stacked "in a real dump" with minimal surveillance and security, and "incredible negligence". The newspaper also reported that the storage area was excluded from the area to be inspected by a regional industry and environment authority in May this year. The French Chemical Workers' Union, Fedechemie CGFTO, has said that its representatives at AZF had "difficulties" in "obtaining the maintenance of safety". The union demanded an investigation to confirm whether the tragedy was "not the result of the widespread policy of cutting costs" in the chemical industry.

Professor Chaudret, who has been helping the workers in the AZF factory to understand the nature and import of the risk, said: "To begin with, there is a need to recognise the risk. Certain hard decisions have to be taken on the future of chemical industry: eliminate products that are too risky, because too little is known about them; and for the rest, take precautions as are taken for explosives."

In France, the Toulouse explosion has set off a debate about the future of the chemical industry. The delinquent fertilizer plant is one of 1,250 factories in France that are classified as high-risk ones. Often, the solution is likely to be relocation. In Toulouse, as in Delhi after the closure of industries, workers are protesting against the relocation or closure of industries. However, the focus of the policy continues to be on relocation, carrying the risks from one territory to another. While in India relocation has meant invading areas with a relatively low concentration of populations, in France it could mean shifting risky industries beyond the country's borders. Yet the importance of reducing risk even while relocating has not found any significant space in public debate nor in the making of public policy. Bhopal introduced the country to the unanswered questions of 'relative' safety where lesser standards of safety and environmental concerns in some countries may make them safe havens for unsafe industry. The difficulties faced by the Bhopal victims in their battle against the multinational corporation, Union Carbide, are also testimony to the impunity that corporations enjoy when they locate themselves in the developing world. In the years that have passed since the Bhopal gas disaster, it would be safe to conclude, no systems have been put in place to induce an increased emphasis on safety. The culture of impunity continues.

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