The Indian government has decided a German agency will dispose of toxic waste that leaked from a Union Carbide plant in central India almost 30 years ago. At least 15,000 have died as a result of the Bhopal gas tragedy.
In 1984, some 3,500 people were immediately killed when a storage tank at Union Carbide India Ltd’s Bhopal factory in central India leaked, spewing methyl isocyanate and other poisonous substances into the surrounding slums.
According to government figures, the total death toll from the pollution and its side effects had climbed to over 15,000 by 2007. Activists place the figure at twice that number.
More than 27 years later, there are still 346 metric tons of toxic waste that need to be disposed of in the area around the plant, which was bought by Dow Chemicals in 1999.
Where to incinerate?
For various reasons, the disposal of the contaminated waste has proven difficult and there was a great debate about where the incineration should take place. The Madhya Pradesh government favored incineration in Germany, whereas other officials preferred the option of carrying out the process at Pithampur waste disposal plant, some 200 kilometers away from Bhopal.
Finally, the Supreme Court asked the Indian government to take a quick decision and a specially constituted group of ministers opted to enlist the help of the German Academy for International Cooperation (GIZ).
Some 97,500,000 rupees ($.19 million or 1.5 million euros) have been allocated to remove the waste.
"We have already discussed the issue with the representatives of the German company. It will happen soon," said Madhya Pradesh Minister for the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, Relief and Rehabilitation, Babulal Gaur, optimistically.
Some 350 tonnes of hazardous waste still need to be disposed of
A booming industry has emerged in Germany with incineration firms importing massive amounts of toxic waste from around the world.
"Germany has become one of the major importers of hazardous waste," environmental scientist Sundar Raman told DW. "The country has the greatest technical know-how. From asbestos to lead acid batteries, it incinerates everything."
Relief amid residents
The decision has been met with relief by activists and residents. “I am happy that the toxic waste is being destroyed elsewhere,” Pradeep Kumar of the Centre for Environment Protection Research and Development told DW.
"We were against the incineration at Pithampur, an industrial township near Indore. The facility there is not fully operational yet and any attempt to burn the hazardous waste there could lead to another disaster," he said.
Residents of Pithampur had also protested against the original federal plan, saying their town lacked the facilities to dispose of such toxic matter and that the incineration would adversely affect the health of hundreds of thousands.
"We are happy it is not happening in Madhya Pradesh," agreed activist Rachna Dhingra. "But the authorities must be careful that the process of transport of this waste from Bhopal to the port be done carefully."
The GIZ, in which the German government has stakes, has proposed to airlift the waste to a modern incinerator in Hamburg.
For the victims of the gas tragedy and their families, the incineration of the waste will provide little solace. Thousands continue to seek medical treatment for ailments that are related to the gas disaster, and scores die periodically.
Author: Murali Krishnan
Editor: Anne Thomas