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30 years after Bhopal tragedy, India fails in industrial safety

By BS Bureau
December 05, 2014 13:20 IST
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India has an appalling record on industrial safety.

Image: A victim of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy. Photograph: Raj Patidar/Reuters

The 30th anniversary of India's worst industrial disaster - and one of the deadliest in history - should be seen as an occasion for introspection.

Has India, in the decades since poison gas wafted out of the Bhopal plant of Union Carbide, done enough to ensure rational and implementable industrial safety standards?

The events of December 1984 have cast a dark pall over Bhopal's present, unfairly associating that town's name with tragedy.

It must be acknowledged that what happened in Bhopal was a failure of regulation and administration, not a failure of trade or of openness. 

Image: Victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy takes part in the ‘Bhopal Special Olympics 2012’ at a stadium. Photograph: Raj Patidar/Reuters

India stands poised on the brink of another leap towards industrialisation, of the sort that had led, all those decades ago, to the setting up of the Bhopal Union Carbide plant in the first place.

What stands in the way of the industrial revolution that would give so many millions of young people respectable work is the inspector raj that India's regulatory edifice has become.

The prime minister has spoken, correctly, about easing the burden that puts on companies. It is not the case, however, that Bhopal should be forgotten.

The point of reform is not to end regulation. It is to make regulation better, more implementable and more effective. Only if more and safer factories are set up will reform have been done right. 

India has an appalling record on industrial safety. The statistics are not up to date, but it has been reported that between 2007 and 2010 at least 3,000 people were killed in the organised sector alone.

Photograph: Raj Patidar/Reuters

The number in the unorganised sector must be many times higher. And as India rebalances its economy towards the industrial sector, this number will only increase - unless something is done to repair the regulatory architecture.

There are literally dozens of safety regulations that all factories must comply with, many dating back to the 19th century; most of them are unreasonable, and others are contradictory.

When there are so many conflicting laws, all of them are not followed - none of them are. Inspectors, knowing that every factory is a technical lawbreaker, become rent-seekers instead of doing their jobs.

Over-regulation, as India's high rate of industrial fatalities shows, is the worst possible thing for industrial safety. 

So the government must honour the memory of the thousands who died in December 1984 by making regulatory reform a priority.

Instead of minor tweaks to the legislation governing factories, there should be wholesale reform, followed by administrative overhauls of the inspector cadre.

And all those who continue to view the Bhopal case as an opportunity with which to oppose industrialisation should recognise, instead, that their skills are needed elsewhere - in lobbying for more effective regulation.

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BS Bureau
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