Disaster

Bhopal’s gas chamber

Print edition : February 06, 2015

December 3, 1984: The dead lying on a street in Bhopal. Photo: Prakash Hatvalne/AP

The Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, a file photograph.

Warren M. Anderson, the chairman of the UCC board at the time of the disaster, a December 1984 picture. Photo: Ron Frehm/AP

Officially, 3,828 persons lost their lives and 18,922 suffered permanent injuries in the Bhopal gas disaster. Unofficial estimates, however, put the death toll in the first few days of the disaster at 10,000, and if this is added to the deaths in the subsequent years, the toll amounts to 20,000. Updating the developments since the Bhopal gas disaster is tantamount to reviewing India’s preparedness to face similar disasters and effectiveness in ensuring justice to those whose rights stood violated as a result of the disaster. On both these counts, the record is disappointing.Under the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985, the Central government acquired the exclusive right to represent every claimant for compensation as a result of the tragedy. As it was the government that had given Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) the necessary permission to operate the Bhopal plant, and failed in its regulatory responsibility, it had lost its moral right to represent the claimants in the courts. Unmindful of this conflict of interest, the government went ahead and reached a settlement with UCC in 1989 for $470 million. The Supreme Court approved this settlement although it upheld the validity of the Act under which it was reached only a year later, in 1990. The Supreme Court did so, in order to ensure “urgency of justice” to victims, even though victims were not heard on the adequacy of compensation. That this settlement excluded the environmental pollution and groundwater contamination caused by the abandoned plant dawned on the government much later. In 2010, while filing a curative petition in the Supreme Court, the Central government placed the compensation the victims were entitled to at $1,241.38 million. The Supreme Court first granted complete immunity to UCC following the settlement. Later, in 1991, when the victims successfully invoked the Supreme Court’s review mechanism to challenge its decision to grant immunity from criminal prosecution as a result of the civil settlement, the court reinstated criminal liability on UCC and the former Chairman, Warren Anderson. In 2005, the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Bhopal, issued a notice to Dow Chemical, which had acquired UCC, to appear in the criminal case. With the vacation of the Madhya Pradesh High Court’s stay on the notice in 2012, the CJM reissued notices to Dow twice to appear in the case in vain; the next date for Dow to appear before the CJM is March 14, 2015. Meanwhile, all the seven Indian accused, who were former officials of Union Carbide India Ltd, secured bail and have managed to evade the two-year jail sentence and the paltry fine imposed by the trial court in 2010 for criminal negligence. The trial court was constrained to award this minor sentence against the accused in view of the Supreme Court’s judgment in 1996 diluting the charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder to criminal negligence. Both UCC and its successor, Dow Chemical, have refused to own responsibility to clean up the site and compensate the affected people. The claim courts in Bhopal had determined that the total number of gas victims was about 5,73,000. Most gas victims reportedly suffer from ailments affecting the eyes, the lungs, the nervous system and the gastrointestinal system. Many cases of mental illness, cancer, and genetic effects have also been reported among the victims. The changes in the legal regime after the disaster have not been encouraging. If the government failed to exercise its regulatory responsibility through regular inspection under the Factories Act before the disaster, amendments to the Act in 1987 failed to penalise non-disclosure of risk and safety-related information. Amendments proposed to the Act in 2014 aim at imposing a duty to ensure safety “so far as practicable”.

–V. Venkatesan

DECEMBER 28, 1984

RAVISHANKAR PANDEY sat up on the mat spread on the floor of the hospital in Bhopal, his body bent from stomach cramps caused by inhaling the toxic gas which had escaped from the multinational Union Carbide’s insecticide factory that had turned monster to a whole population. Nearby, his son of a year-and-slightly-more cradled in the lap of a friend, fought weakly for life, tubes running from his nose to an oxygen cylinder. “The child was nearly dead when we brought him here. Even now there’s little chance of saving him if the tubes are removed,” explained the friend.

Over the noise and frenetic activity of the hospital’s corridors—where the scent of death and near-death hung around for days on end—Ravishankar’s voice could hardly be heard as he rasped: “My son is dying and I can’t do anything, not even see him.” His wife lay on the other side, unable even to sit up. What was going on in her mind at this stage in her half-life? The floors of the wards and corridors were almost carpeted with the afflicted. Volunteers stepped continuously around them, carrying stretchers on which lay the barely living and the dead. New arrivals sat around moaning as impromptu nurses cajoled them into opening their infected eyes a little so that cold douches and ointments could be applied. Outside, the overflow flooded the hastily erected tents and shamianas as truckloads of victims were disgorged from the bowels of the city by the minute. More volunteers, several wearing dark glasses, moved in and out, the urgency of their actions a revelation that Madhya Pradesh’s capital was nowhere near recovery from its night of terror. December 2-3 brought on what is indisputably—unless new evidence surfaces about some unknown place—the worst industrial disaster in world history. Several days after, with the city limping back to a semblance of low peacetime activity, many facets stand out, demanding the attention of a forgetful national consciousness.

Colossal magnitude

Neither the State government headed by a panicky and strange-acting Arjun Singh, nor the Central government, seemed to know how to respond to this calamity which has hit a nation preoccupied with general elections after a year of unprecedented political upsets and high tragedy (see “A year of political upsets” by K.K. Katyal in the Politics section). What, for a start, were the actual numbers killed in Bhopal’s gas chamber? Consistently, the unofficial estimates which alone had credibility from the start outpaced the Congress (I) State government’s official death tally. And what about the tens and tens of thousands of people who now seem to regard themselves as the living dead? And those afflicted by asphyxiation, a shocking variety of immediate and long-term lung, heart, eye, nervous, mental and various other kinds of disorders? Those trying to cope pathetically with the unexplained symptoms and the still-evolving effects? Those who see their future—if they see at all—as dark and ruined? What about the effects wrought on pregnant women, infants, tender children and the growing-up? And who is to speak to the future genetic damage, if it turns up as the scientists fear?

A number of steps were taken, by way of relief measures and investigation, at the level of the Central and State governments. The Prime Minister [Rajiv Gandhi] came to Bhopal to survey the tragedy and to console the victims. The estimates of very much over a couple of thousands of children, women and men killed, some 100,000 more directly exposed to varying degrees of the toxic effects, and perhaps some 200,000 affected in all, such figures seem a terribly inadequate way of approximating a calamity beyond comparisons.

The calamity dragged out into the open deeply disturbing facets of socio-economic reality in this part of the country. The desperate hunt for jobs which pulls ever-growing numbers into the already crowded cities, the resultant lack of accommodation which forces people to set aside less pressing concerns in the uphill struggle for shelter, the proclivity of the authorities to yield to various pressures, to cut corners, to selectively apply the law and the rules, and above all the high-flying complacency—and the criminal negligence—of those who control the lives of others. Such irreducible facts stood exposed before a shocked nation and the world—even remote corners of it which might otherwise have barely heard of India.

Union Carbide’s shaky version

The Union Carbide corporate management—the American bosses as well as the leaders of the Indian company —face a social and legal indictment which no multinational, or national company is likely to have confronted before Bhopal. The Rs.2.8 crore Bhopal plant was established by UCIL in 1969 to manufacture a widely used insecticide marketed under the name “Sevin”. It is produced by a mixture of equal parts of methyl isocyanate (MIC), naphthol and phosgene. There were three 45-tonne tanks on the factory premises that stored these chemicals. According to the statements issued by the company spokesman, it was MIC which escaped into the atmosphere around 1 a.m. on December 3.

Safety issues: Any nexus?

It is now fairly clear that a series of safety-related incidents occurred in this Union Carbide plant over recent years; but they were (to put it bluntly) kept under wraps. The basic facts are yet to be revealed on how safety standards were implemented at a high-risk industrial establishment by the corporate and plant management and what, if any, was the role of the State government in enforcing these legally mandated standards and in safeguarding the vulnerable population’s basic liberties.

As G.K. Reddy, The Hindu’s Political Correspondent, wrote recently: “It is an odious fact of life that some of the giant foreign multinational companies, like the big Indian business houses, wield a lot of political influence and manage to get away with many such lapses. It has now been brought to light that the then Administrator of Bhopal Municipality, M.N. Buch, a dedicated IAS officer who is an authority on urban problems, objected as far back as 1975 to the location of this plant near residential areas, but he was quietly transferred to avoid embarrassment, since the Madhya Pradesh government was inclined to oblige the company.”

Company in emergency

The company’s spokesman has asserted at a Bombay press conference that “the MIC storage tanks have safety features whereby, in the event of any leakage due to pressure build-up, the gas would be automatically diverted through a vent scrubber”. The vent scrubber contains caustic soda which is meant to neutralise and render the gas harmless prior to release in the atmosphere. Its failure to function on this occasion was sought to be explained by the rapidity of the pressure build-up.

What is left unexplained is the non-functioning of the safety valves which are meant, precisely, to stop this leakage. After all, if such quantities of a highly toxic substance are being stored, the preventive measures should be commensurate. For example, it appears that the meter supposed to indicate the pressure within the tank was out of order for three days, thus obscuring knowledge of the pressure build-up. Other safety mechanisms also seem to have collapsed.

Inside the factory, when the gas exploded out of the bypass tunnel and settled as a thick white mist, alarms sounded and employees rushed for five-minute backpack breathing apparatuses which were scattered round the factory premises. Employees could also be warned precisely about the direction of the wind. As a result, most workers escaped.

Escaping into the air around 1 a.m., the gas spread in the direction of Jayaprakash Nagar, Kainchi Choola and the Railway Colony to the south-east, and then veered towards the walled city area. Passing the Idgah Hill, the toxic gas cloud moved on to the posh Professor Colony and another residential area across the “Talaiya” (the smaller of Bhopal’s two lakes).

Given the very low tolerance limits—0.02 parts per million in the case of MIC—the toxic gas gave the victims absolutely no chance. When inhaled, MIC makes the victims exhibit such symptoms as vomiting, violent coughing, eye infections (chemical conjunctivitis) and suffocation in the initial stages. Later on, people were brought to the hospital in a state of paralysis. According to medical reports, a large proportion of the victims seem to have died of cardiac failure or pulmonary disorders caused by toxic elements of the gas.

The company’s failure to prevent the escape of gas was compounded—in ways that suggest a high degree of criminal and civil liability—by the gross inadequacy of the warnings given to the public. No verbal reconstruction of what happened in Bhopal on that night can possibly get anywhere near the qualitative horror of the experience of simple, unsuspecting, totally defenceless people. The residents of the affected slums and crowded walled city areas, woken from their sleep by the suffocation and moans of their children, ran into the white blindness, not knowing where to go. In the prevailing panic, the only thought was to run away as far from the factory as possible. What they did not realise was that the wind was pushing the gas in the same direction. In that frenzied mad flight, family members lost track of one another and the very young and the old, with the lowest resistance levels and the least chances of escaping the outdoor gas chamber, were the worst victims.

Unable to breathe, exhausted by stomach cramps and violent retching, many just slumped and died. Nearly a third of the city’s population around 800,000 filled the streets, groping their way through hooded eyes in the light which had dimmed to the brightness of candles.

As the gas dissipated after four hours, the people were presented with the sight of habitations and families devastated by chemical warfare. Bodies lay along the roads like milestones on a desperately personalised social journey. Here and there, among the human corpses were scattered the carcasses of goat and cattle, stiffened limbs pointing to the sky.

Those who could struggled up to the city’s hospitals. But many more had to give up, their suffering preventing movement as public means of transportation failed them in a city where civic amenities have clearly not been any kind of priority. The government’s relief measures got under way much later in the day. For hours there was nobody to attend to those who could not move from their homes. Only in the evening did the hastily assembled medical teams start making the rounds.

Even as Ravishankar Pandey’s friends rushed him and his family from hospital to hospital to save his son, Bholeynath writhed in agony on his cot in Jayaprakash Nagar, his dead wife waiting patiently on the floor for cremation. In a moving gesture typical of the humanity and spontaneous decency of ordinary people, her sister-in-law was trying to adorn her cold hands with bangles. Crowds gathered on the pavements to help the dead on to the buses and trucks that had eventually been pressed into service by the State government.

“That is Gopal’s father, his mother died yesterday,” said a group of residents pointing to a corpse. Gopal sat nearby, retching his gut out.

The city’s medical fraternity and social service organisations—given their limited resources—responded quite heroically to the emergency. Doctors, nurses and medical students worked non-stop and many associations came forward to provide medicine, food, shelter, clothing. Young volunteers administered what aid they could to the victims.

Two young Muslims bearing a body out of a Hindu house, four women in burqa sitting inside an Arya Samaj temple—are images etched unforgettably on the democratic mind. Petty distinctions were forgotten as the community of very ordinary people faced the calamity together.

Waking out of its shock and stupor, the State government announced the immediate closure of the factory and the arrest of managerial personnel who were judged, prima facie, to be culpable. The State government announced a compensatory grant for the victims and money was sanctioned from the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund.

Sleuths from the CBI began questioning the victims and a high-level inter-Ministerial team flew into Bhopal to study the environmental fall-out as well as the technical aspects. Teams of scientists were farmed out to study the causes of the calamity and what, if anything, could be done to limit and reverse the alarming after-effects. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi announced a decision to “reconsider” the policy of allowing factories producing such dangerous substances to be located near densely populated areas. The Madhya Pradesh government has undertaken a compensation suit against the American company and lawyers in both the United States and India have taken up the cause. In a tragedy of this magnitude, exaggeration—like the tamasha of “arresting and releasing” in Bhopal Union Carbide’s No. 1 official, Warren Anderson—would be an insult to the victims.

No coherent crisis management

But it would certainly be no exaggeration to say that the company’s, the State government’s and the Centre’s responses have not added up to any coherent crisis management strategy.

The weak post-facto measures do not explain the failure of the government, State and Union, to take effective action in time, after some safety-related incidents had come to light. The Central government which issues the licences for collaboration agreements appears (to put it very mildly) to have been taken in by the American company’s stand that it had applied state-of- the-art safety measures. The State government is the authority supposed to supervise the application of safety standards. When the question of leakages was raised in the Assembly after the leakage in 1982, the Minister for Industry is reported to have responded: “It’s not a stone which can easily be removed.”

Prosecuting the company and all its accountable officials and full and just compensation for the victims —that must surely mean the equivalent of several billions of dollars and crores of rupees from the American and Indian company managements combined—is going to present a real challenge to officialdom, especially the Government of India.

As the people in power ponder the political outcome and some of those aspiring for it seek to exploit the issue, the gut reaction seems to come from Babulal Tewari, an auto-rickshaw driver: “Does anyone know how we spent those hours? I’m a working man, otherwise...” His voice choked, although there was no gas cloud now.

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