Are Indians better equipped legally than they were in 1984?

At the time of the Bhopal gas tragedy, the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was the only relevant law specifying criminal liability for such incidents.

A gas leak from LG Polymers factory situated on the outskirts of Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh killed at least 11 people on Thursday. The factory was to reopen Friday after the lockdown, and the gas began leaking as workers were preparing to resume work.

The factory is located over 15 km from the city and the gas leak affected over 2,000 residents of five villages in the vicinity. While some villagers fled, many fell unconscious on the roads.

The factory, established in 1961, manufactures general-purpose polystyrene and high-impact polystyrene, expandable polystyrene, and engineering plastics compounds.

The law in India provides protection to victims of such chemical disasters. Here’s a look at some of these provisions:

At the time of the Bhopal gas tragedy, the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was the only relevant law specifying criminal liability for such incidents, reported PRS Legislative.

The CBI had initially charged the accused in the case under Section 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

The charges were later framed under Section 304A, which deals with death due to negligence and imposes a maximum punishment of two years and a fine. The charges were re-framed after a 1996 Supreme Court judgment held that there was no evidence to show that the accused had knowledge that such a gas leak would happen and kill people.

Soon after the tragedy, which had killed 2,000 people, the government passed a series of laws regulating the environment and prescribing and specifying safeguards and penalties. Some of these laws were:

1. Bhopal Gas Leak (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985, which gives powers to the central government to secure the claims arising out of or connected with the Bhopal gas tragedy. Under the provisions of this Act, such claims are dealt with speedily and equitably.

2. The Environment Protection Act, 1986, which gives powers to the central government to undertake measures for improving the environment and set standards and inspect industrial units.

3. The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991, which is an insurance meant to provide relief to persons affected by accidents that occur while handling hazardous substances.

4. The National Environment Appellate Authority Act, 1997, under which the National Environment Appellate Authority can hear appeals regarding the restriction of areas in which any industries, operations or processes or class of industries, operations or processes shall not be carried out or shall be carried out subject to certain safeguards under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

5. National Green Tribunal, Act 2010, provides for the establishment of a National Green Tribunal for effective and expeditious disposal of cases related to environmental protection and conservation of forests.

According to PRS Legislative, any incident similar to the Bhopal gas tragedy will be tried in the National Green Tribunal and most likely under the provisions of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. “…if an offence is committed by a company, every person directly in charge and responsible will be deemed guilty, unless he proves that the offence was committed without his knowledge or that he had exercised all due diligence to prevent the commission of such an offence,” PRS states.

 The state of chemical disaster risk in India

According to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), in the recent past, over 130 significant chemical accidents have been reported in the country, which have resulted in 259 deaths and caused major injuries to more than 560 people.

There are over 1861 Major Accident Hazard (MAH) units spread across 301 districts and 25 states and three Union Territories in all zones of the country. Further, there are thousands of registered and hazardous factories and unorganised sectors dealing with numerous ranges of hazardous material posing serious and complex levels of disaster risks.

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