The Bhopal Plant Incident

In Bhopal, India on December 2nd, 1984, 30 tonnes of highly toxic gas leaked from a chemical plant owned by the American company Union Carbide, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people from exposure. Roughly 600,000 people who were workers and lived in the surrounding areas were thus exposed to the deadly gasses, which caused painful symptoms like burning eyes and throats, and nausea. The death toll is estimated to be approximately 15,000. The leak was determined to have been caused by “substandard operating and safety procedures” that stemmed from understaffing. 

Although this tragedy took many lives, the corporations and executives that dominate the chemical industry in India have not learned from this mistake and have not taken sufficient steps to address the industry’s issues. It is still a very unsafe industry for its workers as leaks, fires, and explosions occur frequently. For example, a gas leak occurred in 2020 in the city of Visakhapatnam in which hundreds of people were exposed to styrene gas, and  11 people were killed.

As well, the gas that was released during the Bhopal plant incident, methyl isocyanate, is still not banned in India and is used in the production of a plastic called polyurethane despite causing detrimental damage to thousands of people. In 2018, carbaryl, a pesticide that was also manufactured in Bhopal was banned reluctantly by the Indian government. 

The Negative Impacts of the Chemical Industry 

The chemical industry in India is expected to be valued at $304 billion USD by 2025. India is also the fourth-largest producer of agrochemicals in the world that are used in everything from pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and household products. While the chemical industry is important for India’s economic development, it is also mostly unregulated save for a few highly hazardous chemicals. Many of the ingredients used to manufacture these chemicals are extremely dangerous to work with and often cause workers chemical burns. Over the last three years, there have been 152 recorded major chemical accidents in India,  however, many cases go unreported. 

Not only are workers vulnerable to the negative impacts of chemical exposure, but these chemicals also cause significant harm to the environment as they are not disposed of and distributed in environmentally-friendly ways. The chemicals used in the industry release harmful gasses into the air which contribute to greenhouse gasses; chemicals that necessitate the high production or use of carbon are among those that cause the most harm to the environment. There is also significant groundwater and air pollution that occurs as a result of the disposal and usage of the chemicals. 

In addition, a United Nations Human Rights Council report stated that such hazardous substances “pose a serious risk to the full enjoyment of human rights.” and proposed that there be proper regulations for their disposal and that there be monitoring and reporting of any new changes that occur during the handling of such substances. Even though treaties and laws have been put in place to try and minimize the harmful effects of the chemicals used and produced in this industry, progress has been uneven and not implemented properly in many places.

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), and the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade are jointly administered by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and are all UN conventions that have been created for the proper distribution and disposal of industrial chemicals. Furthermore, over 120 countries have not implemented the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, a set of regulations nations should follow to ensure safe handling of chemicals, including India

Another large problem within the chemical industry in India stems from the heavy presence of foreign companies. Foreign Direct Investment, or FDI, is when foreign companies invest in businesses outside their borders. Given that it is so profitable and the Indian government has enforced few restrictions when it comes to FDI, the chemical industry is quite attractive to foreign corporations. Many of these companies thus gravitate towards the Indian market as they can receive tax exemptions and can also exploit workers for cheap labor to increase their own profits.

The Pandemic and Worsening Conditions for Workers 

Workers in the chemical industry have been exploited and mistreated for decades, but the pandemic worsened this mistreatment. Companies do not properly abide by the laws and policies in place, often finding loopholes to avoid having to do so. One such policy that was adopted by the chemical industry is “Responsible Care.” It was introduced after the Bhopal incident in 1986 in an effort to implement labor safeguards and minimize human rights abuses in the industry. However, many companies do not abide by it and it is not enforced.  They also hold power over their workers because of workers’ vulnerability and their lack of alternative means of income. 

Six states in the country suspended general labor laws to allow the industry to recover from the economic effects of the lockdowns after pressure from business leaders. Even many workers pressured the government because they do not have any other means of work and would have no livelihood otherwise. However, removing labor laws offers little to no protection for workers against inhumane, unfair treatment and practices. For example, one of the new regulations put in place extends shifts from six hours to twelve hours for a three-month period. Chemical companies also wanted to implement regulations that would get rid of guaranteed wages and also not allow workers to form unions for three years. While these measures were all supposedly put in place to help the industry recover from the effects of the lockdowns, the government essentially helped aid companies exploit their workers.

Even though workers are aware that the mistreatment they experience flies in the face of laws that protect workers’ rights, they often do not possess the power to protest against the companies they work for and fear being fired if they do speak up. 

The chemical industry in India is a fundamental pillar of the country’s economy, but the industry also produces many harmful effects to the environment and its workers are subjected to unjust treatment by their employers. The Indian government along with countries around the world need to put better regulations and policies in place to protect workers and the environment from becoming further exploited and harmed. 

Edited by Chelsea Bean

Tatheer Tariq

Tatheer is a Pakistani-Canadian political science student at the University of Calgary. Her main research interests include social justice, human rights, politics and diplomacy, mainly focused in the Global...