Since the last newsletter, we were deeply involved in two important events. The first was the celebration of a decade of the Pollution Monitoring Laboratory (PML). We had setup PML to do research for public interest. The lab monitors environment pollution and food contamination and pushes for improved policy and regulations. Over the years PML has achieved remarkable results. By testing pesticides in soft drinks and bottled water, PML has pushed for better standards for pesticides in food commodities. By making public the results of its tests on Lead in paints, it has forced big paint manufacturers to phase-out Lead in their products. Recently, PML found antibiotics in honey, which forced the newly established Food Safety and Standards Authority to come out with new standards for antibiotics in honey.
We organized a major conference to celebrate the achievements of the PML. It was attended by experts, regulators and activists from all across the country. The discussion focused on current status and way ahead on diverse issues such as pesticide regulations, organic farming, antibiotics in food commodities, junk food and non-communicable diseases and role of independent laboratories. The conference came out with some key recommendations on food safety and public health.
The second event, I think, was much more important and could help heal wounds in the psyche of people who have suffered the world’s deadliest industrial disaster.
Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), Bhopal used to manufacture two carbamate pesticides named sevin (carbaryl) and temik (aldicarb) and a formulation of carbaryl and γ-HCH named sevidol. The plant was functional since 1969 and was shut down after the infamous gas leak disaster in 1984. For 15 years, the toxic wastes generated in the manufacturing process were dumped carelessly by UCIL at different locations inside and outside the plant premises. These wastes have contaminated soil and groundwater at the site and surrounding areas. The worst part is that even after three decades, the dumped toxic wastes are still lying at the UCIL site and is a continuing threat to the health of local community.
Over the years, several government bodies and committees have looked at the issue of contamination but failed to resolve it. Even the Supreme Court has struggled to move the matter forward because of the dispute over the extent of the contamination and the remediation plan.
In the beginning of the year, we were approached by the community representatives and NGOs from Bhopal to look at the contamination issues and find a way forward. I might add here that in the year 2009, CSE’s pollution monitoring laboratory had done an extensive study of the soil and water contamination in and around the UCIL site. We had found widespread contamination and had recommended a plan of action then.
For the last three decades, people of Bhopal have struggled to come to terms with what happened to them on the night of 2–3 December 1984 and ever since. The apathy of the government departments and the inability of our institutions – whether legislatures, executives or judiciary – to resolve the issues have exacerbated the situation. All these have made Bhopal a highly contentious issue. Position within the government and NGOs have hardened. They disagree on everything and refuse to even sit together to resolve differences.
It was in this situation that we decided to take up the Bhopal issue.
Our approach was to bring everyone on board. So, we invited everyone who had worked on the Bhopal issue or had experience in contamination/ decontamination issues – from research institutions, government departments, private sector, NGOs, community members from Bhopal, academic institutions – to come to a round table to discuss and develop the way ahead. In the last three decades no such attempt was made to bring everyone together.
On April 25-26, the expert group deliberated over a round table on various issues such as contamination of soil and groundwater in and around the UCIL site, toxic waste lying at the site, fate of the site and remaining structures. The group developed an action plan based on the review of past studies and after having exhaustively deliberated upon the points of agreements and disagreements. For the first time, we believe, we have an action plan that might be acceptable to all stakeholders. The round table in many ways was, therefore, historical.
On 1st of August, 2013 we unveiled the action plan in Bhopal. Our hope is that the government will seriously consider the action plan and kick-start the process of decontamination. This will help heal some of the wounds of Bhopal.
We look forward to your comments and suggestions.