The Madhya Pradesh high court has ordered that the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) dispose of toxic waste from Union Carbide’s bhopal plant. Why the secrecy?
INDIA MAY have sent rockets into space. But as a nation, we are not yet potty trained. With more than six decades of industrialisation behind us, one would think that India would have a policy to deal with the remediation and restoration of pollution hotspots. But no. Our continued bungling of the Union Carbide contamination in Bhopal is a sorry case in point. In the lead up to the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal gas leak, the Madhya Pradesh Government wanted to convey to people that the issue of contamination had been resolved, and that time was such a great healer that even without doing anything, the highly contaminated Bhopal factory site had magically cleaned itself up. How did the government do that? By getting scientists to say that the site is safe and that whatever was toxic is no longer toxic.
One prominent scientist recruited for this job was R Vijayaraghavan, Director of the Defence Research Development Establishment (DRDE), a supposedly high-tech laboratory of the Ministry of Defence. For an R&D agency with such pretences, the director’s statement on the Bhopal toxic waste was frighteningly simplistic. “For a 70kg man, there will not be any death even if he takes 200gm (of toxic wastes stored inside Carbide’s premises) by oral route,” he wrote in an official opinion given to Madhya Pradesh. His conclusion was worse. The government’s plans to open the factory site for public visits, he wrote, would not cause ‘any untoward, adverse or toxic effect to the public’.
Going by his suggestion, recruiting 17.5 lakh men weighing above 70kg to consume about 200 grams of Carbide wastes each should take care of the 350 tons of toxic wastes without troubling anybody.
Bhopal activists countered this scientific skullduggery in their own comical, cynical way. Exactly a week before the 25th anniversary, they served up a banquet with a difference. On the menu was an assortment of ‘toxic delicacies’ – Semi-processed Pesticide on Watercress; Naphthol Tar Fondue; Sevin Tar Souffle; Reactor Residue Quiche; and Lime Sludge Mousse. All served with a complimentary bottle of B’eau Pal water. “Your appetite will contribute to a cleaner Bhopal,” invitees were told. Vijayaraghavan was named as the chef of the faux banquet.
Bhopalis are totally unimpressed by Vijayaraghavan’s brand of ‘science’. But the Madhya Pradesh High Court has unquestioningly reposed its faith in the Defence Laboratory. The court is hearing a case filed in 2004 seeking directions to make Dow Chemical clean up and compensate the affected people. A number of Bhopal organisations have impleaded in the matter. Time and again, they have underlined that any remediation effort must be informed by science, that the science must be subject to public scrutiny, and that the polluter must pay. On July 12, the court ordered that about 350 tons of toxic and obsolete pesticides currently stored in Union Carbide’s factory should be disposed of at the Defence Research Development Organisation’s (DRDO) facility located in the vicinity of Nagpur.
The said DRDO facility is truly off the radar. Jairam Ramesh is credited with having identified this hidden facility. If national security hinges on keeping the plant’s location secret, then our security is soon to be breached. The plant’s location will not remain secret for long as nosy journalists and apprehensive residents from Nagpur would make a beeline for it. Already, there are murmurs that DRDO’s mysterious operation is in Buti Bori, an industrial area 35km from Nagpur. This is the third attempt to burn the wastes. The first two were abandoned after residents living near those facilities highlighted the inadequacy of the incinerators in handling Carbide’s wastes. The incinerator in Ankleshwar, Gujarat, caught fire because it had stored several hundred tons of toxic wastes in violation of its own hazardous waste authorisation. The explosion happened in April 2008 when Bhopalis were sitting on dharna in Jantar Mantar demanding, among other things, that the Bhopal wastes should be disposed of without subjecting other communities to another slow-motion Bhopal.
The second facility was in Pithampur, near Indore. This facility was constructed cheek-by-jowl with a residential area, in violation of setback guidelines. Incidentally, locating the Union Carbide facility in a densely populated part of town was an important contributor to the Bhopal disaster’s massive death and injury toll. The Pithampur facility too had an explosion nearly killing a worker just days before Jairam Ramesh was to visit it.
The Madhya Pradesh High Court’s order is problematic, even illegal, on many counts. Time and again, bureaucrats, politicians and now the court have used the fact that these wastes have lain here so long as a justification for getting rid of it quickly, by any means and for bypassing due process. The very least that needs to happen if the Bhopal wastes are destined to a facility is to verify if that facility has the wherewithal to receive the wastes. Other questions have to be answered too. Is the facility licensed? Does the facility have a good track record? Incineration is not just about burning; does the facility have a suitable mechanism to dispose the highly toxic ash and residue generated by burning the wastes? Are the people living near the facility comfortable with the facility’s operations? Was the facility designed to receive and dispose the kinds of wastes currently stored in Bhopal? Are workers and people in the vicinity informed enough to react suitably in the event of an emergency?
These are not irrelevant questions. Had they been raised before Bhopal, the world’s worst industrial disaster may never have happened. But we are a nation addicted to political and social expediency. Forget what is right, whatever can be pushed through must. The court has directed the DRDE Director to instruct the DRDO to make arrangements to receive, store and dispose the of toxic waste as and when it is brought from Bhopal starting right away. The state government is directed to start packing and transporting the wastes within 10 days.
I made some phone calls, nothing that state pollution control boards or the environment ministry could not have done. It turns out that the DRDO facility is truly secret. People don’t even know where it is. The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board agrees that there is a facility somewhere near Nagpur, and that it does secret things. One person told me an incinerator was commissioned at the facility about 18 months ago to destroy some super-toxic military stuff, something to do with the Brahmos missile project. The regional officer of Maharashtra Pollution Control Board was categorical: “If you’re releasing pollutants to air or water, you have to get our consent. Defence establishments have no exemption as far as I know. The ammunition factory in Nagpur has our license.”
THE DRDO facility has never been inspected by the regulatory body. Till date, nobody has approached the Pollution Control Board seeking its approval. The facility does not have a license to operate. It does not have a hazardous waste authorisation. It has not submitted the mandatory emergency response plan to the district administration. The DRDO has said that its responsibility begins only after it receives the wastes from Madhya Pradesh. But as things stand, if the operator of the DRDO facility were to comply with the Madhya Pradesh High Court order, he or she could land up in jail for up to two years for violating environmental laws and handling hazardous wastes without authorisation. Licensing formalities aside, experts are skeptical whether the incinerator would actually be able to deal with the Bhopal wastes.
The secret DRDO facility is truly off the radar. But its location will not remain secret for long as nosy journalists and apprehensive residents from Nagpur make a beeline for it. There are murmurs already that it is in Buti Bori, 35km from Nagpur.
Thermax is the largest incinerator manufacturer in the country. It has supplied incinerators to the DRDO. Its CEO Unnikrishnan was categorical when asked if Indian incinerators can handle the Bhopal wastes. In a May 2010 letter that has been submitted to the high court, Unnikrishnan said: “To the best of our knowledge, there aren’t any incinerators currently in operation within our country that have the level of sophistication and safety systems in-built to tackle the waste under consideration.” A consultant advising GTZ, the German bilateral technical extension agency, concurs. This is particularly significant because the Germans are known to have perfected the art of destruction by burning.
The Bhopal wastes contain high levels of chlorinated chemicals and heavy metals. Burning chlorinated material in the presence of heavy metals is the best recipe for generating dioxins, a category of carcinogenic, immune system-busting chemicals that are the most toxic substances known to science. The opaque manner in which authorities have attempted to deal with the Bhopal wastes does not bode well for the evolution of a robust policy to deal with contaminated sites. Survivors’ groups say they were taken by surprise by the order as they were never consulted or heard on the matter. An October 2003 order of the Supreme Court is unequivocal in its emphasis on community participation in any matter relating to hazardous wastes. Clearly, the decision to send the Bhopal wastes to a secret DRDO facility in a clandestine manner is not informed by this apex court decision.
It is not just the Bhopal groups that were in the dark. Eminent scientist and Padma Bhushan awardee PM Bhargava is part of a technical committee appointed by the court to advise on disposal plans for the Bhopal wastes. He too had no idea about the current proposal until I spoke with him. “It is pertinent to know what the design specifications of the DRDO incinerator are, and whether it is designed to handle such wastes,” he says.
Bhopal survivors may have been denied an opportunity to comment on the proposal. But, the court records in its order its invitation to Dow Chemical to suggest a cheaper option. The consideration shown to Dow’s financial well-being is curious given that the American company has consistently refused to submit to the writ of Indian courts.
All this makes one wonder whether the rule of law and science-based decision-making are mere rhetoric. India is a country strewn with toxic hotspots. In Kodaikanal, a toxic mercury hotspot caused by Unilever’s thermometer factory, has clocked 10 years without clean-up. In Mettur, farmers have registered complaints of groundwater and soil contamination by Chemplast’s chemical factories since the late 1960s. In Roro, Jharkhand, an abandoned hill of asbestos wastes, which has poisoned the air for decades, continues to spew lung-crippling fibres of death. Entire stretches of industrial areas, in Vapi, Ankleshwar, Vellore, Patancheru and Sukhinda Valley are industrial disaster zones begging for remediation. In all these cases, agencies of the state are yet to decide whether the environment is contaminated, whether the contamination is caused by the company and whether the company is liable to repair the damages and compensate farmers.
One would imagine that the government and the courts would use the perverse opportunity provided by the Bhopal disaster to better advantage – to develop mechanisms to ensure that factories don’t pollute, and to implement a rigid polluter pays regime to enforce clean-up to world standards in a transparent manner, and to deter polluters.
But left to the agencies of the state, no such policy will emerge. After every disaster like Bhopal, or every time that we discover pollution as with Unilever’s mercury pollution in Kodaikanal, citizens will have to wage a battle against the combined might of the polluter and regulator over decades to get a place cleaned up. Forget rehabilitation of the Bhopal site. Perhaps, it is time we focused on cleaning up the state.
Nityanand Jayaraman is a volunteer for the International Campaign for Justice, Bhopal.
Illustration: Vikram Nongmaithem