The Bhopal disaster and the right to know


The chemical disaster in Bhopal jolted activist groups around the world into renewing their demands for right-to-know legislation granting them broader access to information about hazardous technologies. This article explores the obstacles to creating effective right-to-know policies when technology is transferred across national boundaries. The events leading to the Bhopal accident are first examined in order to assess how far the tragedy can be attributed to gaps in knowledge or to breakdowns in communication. Using Bhopal as a case study, the article then considers three issues that are central to the design of right-to-know policies: who has a right to receive information about hazards; who has the duty to disclose such information, and, where necessary, to produce missing information; what information should be available for disclosure? This inquiry suggests that the circles of those with a right to know and those with a duty to disclose should both be larger than under existing right-to-know laws. More systematic risk information should also be generated, including probabilistic estimates of risk and environmental impact analyses. Finally, the article asks whether such improvements in knowledge and communication would prevent disasters of the kind that occurred in Bhopal. It concludes that for knowledge to be meaningful it must be correlated with the power to act preventively. This implies, in turn, that those with a right to know have to be given an opportunity to participate in technology transfer decisions before it is too late to choose a technology that is well adapted to the technical and cultural circumstances of the importing country.

Jasanoff S1. | 1988
In: Soc Sci Med, ISSN 0277-9536. | 27 | 10 | 1113-1123
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