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What are the safeguards against chemical disasters in India?

Topics Covered: Disaster preparedness.

What are the safeguards against chemical disasters in India?

What to study?

For Prelims and Mains: Safeguards, their need and significance, challenges in implementation.

Context: Vizag gas leak tragedy has put the spotlight on the safeguards available against chemical disasters in India.

At the time of the Bhopal gas tragedy, the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was the only relevant law specifying criminal liability for such incidents.

  1. Section 304: culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
  2. Section 304A: deals with death due to negligence and imposes a maximum punishment of two years and a fine.

Soon after the tragedy, the government passed a series of laws regulating the environment and prescribing and specifying safeguards and penalties. Some of these laws were:

Bhopal Gas Leak (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985, which gives powers to the central government to secure the claims arising out of or connected with the Bhopal gas tragedy. Under the provisions of this Act, such claims are dealt with speedily and equitably.

The Environment Protection Act, 1986, which gives powers to the central government to undertake measures for improving the environment and set standards and inspect industrial units.

Hazardous Waste (Management Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 1989: Industry required to identify major accident hazards, take preventive measures and submit a report to the designated authorities

Manufacture, Storage And Import Of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989: Importer must furnish complete product safety information to the competent authority and must transport imported chemicals in accordance with the amended rules.

Chemical Accidents (Emergency, Planning, Preparedness and Response) Rules, 1996: Centre is required to constitute a central crisis group for management of chemical accidents; set up quick response mechanism termed as the crisis alert system. Each state is required to set up a crisis group and report on its work.

The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991, which is an insurance meant to provide relief to persons affected by accidents that occur while handling hazardous substances.

The National Environment Appellate Authority Act, 1997, under which the National Environment Appellate Authority can hear appeals regarding the restriction of areas in which any industries, operations or processes or class of industries, operations or processes shall not be carried out or shall be carried out subject to certain safeguards under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

National Green Tribunal, 2010, provides for the establishment of a National Green Tribunal for effective and expeditious disposal of cases related to environmental protection and conservation of forests.

Recent major gas-leak related disasters:

  1. 2014 GAIL Pipeline Blast: On 27 June 2014, a massive fire broke out following a blast in the underground gas pipeline maintained by the Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) at Nagaram, East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh.
  2. 2014 Bhilai Steel Plant Gas Leak: In another incident in June 2014 at Bhilai Steel Plant in Chhattisgarh’s Durg district, six people were killed and over 40 injured in an incident of leakage in a methane gas pipeline at a water pump house.
  3. 2017 Delhi Gas leak: Around 470 schoolchildren were hospitalised after inhaling poisonous fumes that spread due to a chemical leak at a container depot near two schools in the customs area of Tughlaqabad depot.
  4. 2018 Bhilai Steel Plant Blast: Nine people were killed and 14 others injured in a blast at the Bhilai Steel Plant of state-owned SAIL.

What happened in Bhopal?

In what is the biggest industrial disaster of the last hundred years in India, 5295 people died and 5,27,894 were affected after being exposed to some 40 tonne of methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a pesticide plant owned by the US multinational, Union Carbide Corp, in Bhopal.

It has been more than 35 years since the incident which happened on December 3, 1984, but there is still a massive debate on the number of people affected. Some activists estimate around 20,000 to 25,000 deaths.

Cause for concern now:

  • According to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), in the recent past, over 130 significant chemical accidents have been reported in the country, which have resulted in 259 deaths and caused major injuries to more than 560 people.
  • There are over 1861 Major Accident Hazard (MAH) units spread across 301 districts and 25 states and three Union Territories in all zones of the country.
  • Further, there are thousands of registered and hazardous factories and unorganised sectors dealing with numerous ranges of hazardous material posing serious and complex levels of disaster risks.

Sources: Indian Express.