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How to Celebrate Bhopal

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If you were prime minister of India, how would you celebrate the 30th anniversary of Bhopal, the worst industrial accident in world history? If you are Narendra Modi, you try to recreate it around your country by eviscerating environmental laws and giving chemical companies open season to pollute and kill.

VAPI, India — Factory owners in this city on the western coast of India have been fuming, railing, and arguing for years against a single troublesome number: the pollution index used by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, which identified Vapi as an area so badly contaminated that any further industrial growth there was banned.

They finally got some good news in early June, about two weeks after Narendra Modi was sworn in as prime minister. The new officials at the ministry told them that the pollution index would be revised — and in the meantime, Vapi’s chemical and pesticide factories were again free to expand, and to snap at China’s share of the global chemical export market.

Rightly so, said Harshad Patel, standing outside the plant where he works. The air had an acrid-sweet smell, and reddish-brown effluent was gushing from a treatment plant down the road at a rate of 55 million gallons a day into the Daman Ganga River, but Mr. Patel looked untroubled. “Clean India is fine — we also like clean India,” he said. “But give us jobs.”

Indian industries have often complained that convoluted environmental regulations are choking off economic growth. As a candidate, Mr. Modi promised to open the floodgates, and he has been true to his word. The new government is moving with remarkable speed to clear away regulatory burdens for industry, the armed forces, mining and power projects.

Not surprisingly, Modi is using the same strategy that U.S. corporations want in our nation–devolution to state regulators:

“We have decided to decentralize decision-making,” Mr. Javadekar said. “Ninety percent of files won’t come to me anymore.”

He said the new government was not phasing out important environmental protections, just “those which, in the name of caring for nature, were stopping progress.”

Environmental activists are alarmed at the plan to devolve power to state regulators, in part because state chief ministers have powerful incentives to support industry. “It would be a rubber stamp, because the chief minister would just call the pollution control guy and say, ‘clear it,’ ” said Jairam Ramesh, who served as environment minister under the previous national government. “In the state, the chief minister is the king, he’s the sultan.”

Bhopal for all!

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