Despite the Bhopal gas tragedy, India seems to have learnt few lessons. Since 1984, major incidences of chemical disasters in India include a fire in an oil well in Andhra Pradesh (2003); a vapour cloud explosion in the Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited Refinery, Vishakhapatnam (1997); and an explosion in the IPCL Gas Cracker Complex, Nagothane, Maharashtra (1990). Over 20 major chemical accidents have been reported in Major Accident Hazard (MAH) units during 2002-06. Ironically, close to the first anniversary of the Bhopal tragedy, on December 4, 1985, a leakage of oleum gas from the Shriram Foods and Fertilisers Plant in Delhi created widespread panic.

However, there have been a slew of legislations since. To begin with, the Factories Act, 1948, was amended in 1987. The Environmental Protection Rules of 1986 (amended in 2004), Hazardous Waste Management Rules were made in 1989. The Biowaste Management Rules in 1989. The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991 (amended in 1992). Chemical Accident Planning Preparedness and Response Rules in 1996. The National Environment Tribunal Act in 1995. The National Environmental Appellate Authority Act in 1997. Motor Vehicle Act in 1998. The National Disaster Management Authority also came up with a comprehensive set of guidelines for industrial chemical disasters in 2007.

We have come a long way. There has been a lot of improvements in regulation to strengthen the industrial safety laws for chemical industries and they have been successful. There have been chemical accidents since Bhopal, but the mortality rate in each one of them has been very low. But yes, there is a lot of scope for further improvement, says Lt Gen Dr JR Bhardwaj, member, National Disaster Management Authority. Presently, there are 1,700 MAH industries in India. All 1,700 MAH units now have on-site plans. But additionally there are large number of medium and small scale industries that are located in the thick of the population, making the latter vulnerable in the event of a chemical disaster. Next step will be to take measures to make these safe, says Bhardwaj.

Presently, there are several regulators to check on the industries right from the district collector , the chief inspectorate of factories to labour commissioners. NDMA is trying to create a mechanism for a single agency for inspection of industries. We are aiming at zero tolerance so that all industries are completely safe,? says Bhardwaj. In mock drills conducted by the Authority in 33 big chemical industries to assess their on-site safety plan, many industries were found to be lacking, especially in the private industries. The off-site plans (the plan to be followed in case of a chemical disaster to mitigate its effects) was found to be even more inadequate .

However, environmental lawyer MC Mehta feels that India has learnt no lessons from the Bhopal tragedy. What's the point of making laws if they are not enforced, he asks. He cites the landmark judgment in the oleum gas leak case which held that ?such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity for private profit can be tolerated only on condition that the enterprise engaged in such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity indemnifies all those who suffer on account of the carrying on of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity regardless of whether it is carried on carefully or not.? The court also observed that ?the measure of compensation be co-related to the magnitude and capacity of the enterprise because such compensation must have a deterrent effect. The larger and more prosperous the enterprise, the greater the amount of compensation payable by it for the harm caused on account of an accident in the carrying on of the hazardous or inherently dangerous activity by the enterprise.

Since 1984 there have been many industrial accidents in India. They have cost so many lives. Sadly, life comes really cheap in India. There is too much political interference in implementation of environmental laws. It takes very long for justice to be delivered and the court directives are carried out so slowly that their impact becomes almost negligible. Moreover, unlike in India, the Law of Torts in US is very strong. In India, the industries keep on prolonging litigation and it is difficult for an average man to afford fighting a court case and seek compensation, says Mehta.

Kushal PS Yadav, food and toxins expert, Centre for Science and Environment, also feels that ?though India has some of the best legislations in the world, enforcement is a problem. Besides, the safety gear provided to the workers is not suitable for the hot and humid conditions of India. It is very cumbersome and stuffy for the workers and they avoid using them.