From Bhopal to Petlawad, No Change !

Why did that most infamous and devastating gas tragedy take place in Bhopal, the capital city of Madhya Pradesh, in December 1984? Who all were actually responsible for it? Why has it happened again in Petlawad after thirty-one years? Who are the real culprits for it this time?

Bhopal gas tragedy, as it has registered itself in the history of man-made tragedies of the world, had taken place at the pesticide plant of the multi-national Union Carbide of India and had claimed precious lives of four thousand innocent people. The tragedy of Petlawad, tehsil of Jhabua district, MP, has reportedly claimed around a hundred lives. Over two lakh victims who survived the Bhopal disaster, even after three decades, are still struggling with their emotional trauma and physical injuries. There is no information about the severely injured survivors of the blast, in what allegedly was a warehouse of illegally stored explosives at Petlawad.

Warren Anderson, the influential American chief of the multi-national company and described as the man responsible for the tragedy, escaped to America enjoying multi-fold protection at the hands of powers that be at that time in Bhopal and Delhi and could not be brought back to India for any trial. Similarly, the Police force of Madhya Pradesh, even after over three weeks, continues to search Rajendra Kanswa, the man behind the explosions.

One does not know if Kanswa is already dead but for the reasons best known to people engaged in the investigation, his search will continue, at least till the tribals’ anger has subsided. We don’t have answers to the questions which the Bhopal gas tragedy raised. In the same fashion we will also never know the answers to the blasts in Petlawad. Riding on the sympathy wave generated in the wake of Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s brutal assassination, the Congress party then led by Arjun Singh as Chief Minister, had successfully won the Assembly elections held on the fringes of the tragedy.

Similar has been the case with the lucky Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Belying all speculation and caring two hoots for the infamous Vyapam scandal, the Bharatiya Janata Party under his leadership, has kept winning by-poll after by-poll, including the recently held civic body elections. Petlawad or no Petlawad, luck may continue to favor Shivraj in Jhabua-Ratlam Lok Sabha and Dewas Assembly by-polls. Human tragedies have ceased to affect election results simply because the strategies of political manipulations successfully overpower voters’ emotional injuries.

It was the leakage of MIC from the Union Carbide plant at Bhopal which led to the world’s biggest industrial disaster. At the time of the commissioning of the plant, it was innocently stated that the plant would manufacture pesticides. Dr.M.N.Buch, noted environmentalist and the architect of modern Bhopal said that nothing was disclosed about the manufacturing process or about the likely adverse or hazardous effects of the material/s to be used. Dr. Buch was the then Secretary, Housing and Environment when the plant expansion was proposed. He had even suggested that such a potentially hazardous chemical plant should be set up only in a specially earmarked area to protect the population from any adverse effects. Union Carbide did not follow those directives and the then Chief Minister in 1980 even regularized the expansion. Dr. Buch was posted in Delhi at that time. The tragedy was there for the world to witness — in December 1984. Now the debris of the plant is said to be planned to be transported and buried at Pithampur, a part of another tribal district of Dhar.

What will be the outcome of the Commission of Inquiry instituted to go into the reasons of the Petlawad tragedy? Will it be able to finish its task before the people have erased the tragedy from their memory? Would the government make its findings public and take action against those found guilty? The experiences of the past with successive governments merits a decisive and an emphatic ‘No’.

The state Government removed the SP of Jhabua district Abid Khan on charges that police did not take seriously the complaints regarding violation of rules by the explosives dealers. The government will never offer any explanation as to the recovery of illegally stored explosives from various places following the tragedy at Petlawad. And what about the fact that the dealers of ‘deaths’ enjoying political and administrative patronage have been fearlessly carrying out their smuggling business of explosives to benefit the mining mafia and others? The high count of casualties at Petlawad has been attributed to the explosion of a large number of gelatine sticks.

There can be no denying the fact that the stakes are very high in the legal-illegal nexus of this business of explosives, firecrackers, etc. The stake-holders include manufacturers, businessmen, politician-facilitators, transporters and users. Therefore, there has never been any strict control over the production, storage and sales of such items. Multi-departmental supervision and control leads to no direct responsibility. Despite strict safety guidelines for the handling, storage and usage of such items, no norms are actually followed. There are no examples of any deterrent action that has been taken even when violation of rules is found to be rampant as has been the case at Petlawad. The business of explosives has not flourished overnight. As per reports appearing in the aftermath of Petlawad, gelatin sticks are the most commonly used explosives and are easily available. The main accused Rajendra Kanswa was allegedly storing explosives in his rented godown for the last ten years. His father and brother were also said to be engaged in the business of blasting. The godown was taken for storing seeds and fertilizers but was being utilized for the illegal storage of explosives also. All the activities were being conducted in residential-cum-commercial complex flouting all the rules and regulations. Kanswa had obtained license from the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organization (PESO) “even though he was under constant surveillance for smuggling of explosives for many years.”

Will the ordering of an SIT or a judicial inquiry by the Chief Minister provide any answer to this man-made tragedy? If Kanswa is still alive, will he ever be arrested and brought to book? No high-profile culprit actually responsible for Bhopal gas tragedy has ever faced punishment and it appears unlikely that anyone will be penalized for Petlawad. The all powerful mining mafia would not let it happen.