Gas affected people taking part in a torch rally in 2016. | Photo by Mujeeb Faruqui/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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With polls next year, MP govt is concerned about political and public backlash, wants central bodies to issue tender for Bhopal Gas Tragedy waste disposal.

New Delhi: Thirty-three years after the Bhopal Gas Tragedy left behind more than 300 tonnes of toxic waste at the Union Carbide plant, the central and state governments continue to pass the buck on its disposal.

Even two years after a pilot incineration of the waste was conducted on the Supreme Court’s orders, the governments are debating over who should issue the tender to dispose of the toxic waste pile which is equal to the capacity of about six railway goods wagons.

Rounds of recent meetings and consultations held in New Delhi with all stakeholder departments have concluded that the state government should issue tenders for disposal of the waste. The central Department of Chemicals is to supervise the actual disposal, and the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) is to give all technical support and protocol.

However, the government of Madhya Pradesh, which will face assembly polls next year, is concerned about the possible political and public backlash, and wants to steer clear of the whole exercise. It has instead proposed that the CPCB issue the tender, ThePrint has learnt.

No tender has been issued so far, although a detailed technical protocol for the disposal of 332 tonnes of waste was readied in August.

SC ordered pilot test

Hearing a PIL in 2012, the Supreme Court had lambasted the central and state governments for failing to dispose of the waste, and had ordered a pilot incineration be conducted to assess its environmental and health impact.

The test was secretively conducted in August 2015 at Pithampur in Dhar district by the Ramky Group, which operates the Treatment Storage and Disposal Facility in Dhar. This drew opposition from activists and civil society on its environmental and health impact.

A report was soon submitted to the apex court, saying the emissions following the incineration were within permissible limits.

While there hasn’t been any new court order or hearing following the submission of this report, meetings between the MP government, the Union environment ministry, the Department of Chemicals, and the CPCB, have been going on over the last few months.

“The state government’s view is that since the trial incineration was conducted successfully by the CPCB, it is technically best equipped to conduct the disposal exercise considering the toxicity of the material, and the sensitivity of the matter,” Krishna Gopal Tiwari, director, Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation department of the government of Madhya Pradesh, told ThePrint.

“We have been requesting the CPCB to issue the required tender as we also do not have the expertise to evaluate such a tender. It is also not really just a state government issue, this is a national matter and CPCB is most competent to deal with it. We have conveyed that we will provide the law and order support necessary for conducting the disposal, as we had done during the pilot exercise,” he said.

However, highly-placed sources within the CPCB said the process for the disposal of the 332 tonnes of waste had been “initiated”, and the technical protocol for the same was ready, but it was for the state government to issue the tender now. The Department of Chemicals has already been allocated funds over the years for Bhopal Gas relief and remediation, and these will be used for the tendering process when the state executes it, they said.

The costs of the proposed incineration are also considerable. While the pilot test for 10 tonnes cost about Rs 15 crore, it is estimated that disposal of the entire 332 tonnes of waste could cost over Rs 500 crore, owing to the ‘cautious’ and ‘conservative’ incineration ‘feed rate’ advised by the CPCB.

It is also expected that there may be a court hearing on the matter early next year, which may push the governments to finally find the political will to act, officials closely involved with the exercise said.

All propose, no one disposes

The toxic waste has been discussed year after year, with no resolution at hand. In 2007, the Madhya Pradesh High Court had ordered its destruction at the earliest.

Under the UPA, a group of ministers headed by P. Chidambaram proposed it be airlifted to Germany for disposal by the German Society for International Co-operation (GIZ), but the proposal did not take off. Nor did bids to incinerate it in Maharashtra and Gujarat.

In March 2017, then Union environment minister Anil Dave had said: “The government has decided to take the necessary remediation measures, including the safe disposal of identified quantity of hazardous waste of the erstwhile Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL), Bhopal.”

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