The tragedy in Bhopal, India, in which the accidental release of toxic gas from an American-owned insecticide plant has killed thousands and injured tens of thousands, is a grim reminder that industrial pollution is a world-wide phenomenon. But perhaps nowhere is the problem more acute and the challenge greater than in the rapidly industrializing countries of the Third World, where poverty and environmental protection compete for scarce resources. These countries are no longer exclusively agrarian -- India is the Free World's 14th ranked manufacturing power. Moreover, industry is highly concentrated, often in densely populated areas.

For reasons both obvious and subtle, such countries are especially vulnerable to industrial pollution and health and safety hazards of the workplace. Residential slums and industry have grown up cheek by jowl. Industrial siting is often chaotic, and planning is rare. Indeed, in many countries illegal settlements are a fact of life: the only way to house millions of immigrants who are in search of a job in the cities. Despite a remarkable shift in attitudes since the U.N.'s 1972 Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, environmental protection is still too often seen as a luxury of rich nations. Legislation to protect the environment is now pretty much universal, but implementation, enforcement, and monitoring are often grossly deficient.

The Bhopal disaster raises three critical and controversial questions.

1.Can developing countries afford environmental protection? The tradeoff between economic growth and environmental protection is not as stark as might first appear, even in very poor countries. Pollution abatement and materials conservation often make good business sense by recovering valuable resources. The 3M Corporation claims to have saved $200 million world-wide in the last decade with these techniques. Environmental protection of the productive resource base -- soils, forests, fisheries -- is perhaps more critical in developing countries, which are on average six times more dependent on these natural resources than industrial countries. Labor is also a productive resource, and reasonable measerally a small fraction of proate business investment. Indeed, environmental protection is becoming a requirement for sustainable development. Neglect of the environment will be costly.

Moreover, it makes no sense for developing countries to establish "pollution havens" to attract the dirty industries of the world. Studies done over the past decade uniformly show that differences in environmental control costs are not an important determinant of the overall pattern of international investment. Singapore, perhaps the most environmentally conscious country in the world, has a splendid record of attracting foreign industry and having that industry prosper.

2.What are the roles, positive and negative, of multinational corporations? Multinational corporations admittedly are part of the environmental problems of the Third World. But they can also be part of the solution. While these corporations' share of industrial production is smaller than local private and state enterprises, they retain key positions in environmentally critical sectors including chemicals and especially pesticides. There the top eight multinational corporations control 60 percent of Free World production. But there is no evidence that the environmental behavior of multinational corporations is, on average, worse than domestic firms (private or state enterprise) in developing countries. PEMEX, the Mexican oil giant, whose gas explosion in Mexico City killed hundreds, is a state monopoly.

But "not worse than" behavior is not enough. The great technical and financial resources of multinational corporations confer on them a special responsibility to their workers, joint venture partners, subcontractors, and the communities in which they operate. Legal arrangements notwithstanding, multinational corporations are guests in the Third World, and for practical political reasons must earn and continue to earn the confidence and approval of the host country. And they have a constructive role to play by transferring technical and managerial skills in pollution abatement and environmental management to developing countries.

3.How can pesticide abuse be controlled in the Third World? By their nature and purpose, pesticides are toxic and hazardous. Industrial accidents involving acute poisoning by pesticides were not unknown in the Third World before the sad events in India. But no matter how serious the industrial accidents are, chronic and acute poisoning, often of uneducated and untrained workers in agriculture, and introduction of pesticides into the food chain, pose the greater dangers. An estimated 1.5 million to 2 million persons in developing countries suffer acute pesticide poisoning annually, and pesticide-related deaths are estimated at 10,000 a year.

The lesson of pesticides is not that industrial accident control should be of low priority. On the contrary, the need for improvement is urgent. But accident prevention must be accompanied by a far stricter control of all aspects of pesticide production and use, from formulation to final disposal.

International businesses must make a stronger effort. Specific steps include setting environmental policies at the highest level with aggressive backing by top management; assessing environmental impacts and planning for emergencies; making explicit agreements with joint venture partners and subcontractors, spelling out detailed environmental responsibilities; exercising self-regulation that may exceed government requirements; and cooperating fully with local environmental, resource and health officials. Corporations must respect special conditions in developing countries -- uneducated and illiterate workers, inadequate health systems, and often a lack of regard for safety. Safety precautions that work in the United States may not work in very poor countries.

For their part, developing countries can and should demand environmental safeguards by foreign -- and domestic -- business. Equally important, they need to adopt strategies that anticipate environmental stress and accidents and improve their technical and administrative capabilities for pollution control.

The U.S. government can make an important contribution. It should establish a program to help and advise any country where a U.S.-based multinational company locates a hazardous plant. The United States can also survey existing sites that have potential for Bhopal-type accidents.

The Third World cannot reverse its industrial revolution, and the Indian industrial sector will continue to grow. But the disaster at Bhopal provides a compelling opportunity to improve industrial safety, and to demand the best efforts from governments and international businesses.