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25 June, 2010

Bhopal: Trivializing the Tragedy


Swaminathan S Ankalesaria Aiyar crudely trivialized Bhopal showing it as a minor killer than the Mumbai rail system. Quipping in his column in the Times of India of 13 June he rightly noted that we shout at the sensational but take many other things for granted. However, as the seasoned free-market columnist, he has not left his point unmade that the outpour of the anger against the Union Carbide was misplaced, that it was just a negligent act of some operative in a shutdown plant, that the people like Anderson or Keshub Mahindra are no more responsible for it than president Pratibha Patil is for some railway accident, and such others. His exposure of pervasive callousness and unaccountability of the Indian polity then are just an alibi, as it sells well with the middle classes; his core point was to make out Bhopal as an ordinary accident which was not worth raising a hue and cry about.

The facts of Bhopal are so outrageous that this world’s worst industrial disaster will also be the biggest trade of the dead and dying by the tricksters in history. The foreclosed judgement treating it just as a ‘road accident’, and shameful release of the culprits on Rs. 25000 bail was so grievous that it should have set the entire country afire. Instead, it unleashed all kinds of debates, mainly mediated by media that has been further trivializing the major tragedy of the last century.

Deaths by Design

Bhopal was not an accident; it was the design killer of Union Carbide (India) (UCI). In the din over Anderson’s extradition, its deficiency galore in design got completely overlooked. Many experts have attributed them to UCI’s zeal to cut capital expenditure. For instance, water curtains meant to contain lethal methyl isocyanate (MIC) leak could reach only a height of 10-15 meters whereas the MIC vents were at 33 meters high. The vent scrubbers meant for neutralizing MIC were underprovided by a factor of six. The safety system in such a highly hazardous industry should be self-switching but in Bhopal it was manual. The low level of instrumentation did not have any redundancy (if one fails other takes over). Considering the consequences, there should have been additional safety system as in Bayer plants, where MIC vented into a nearby area capable of flooding with water. An additional provision for flaring MIC form the top of the vent scrubber should also have been provided. But all these were deliberately ignored in the design just for the sake of profits.

Many of the design lacunae can be overcome by robust operational and maintenance system. But in the UCI plant, the design lacunae were rather amplified by poor operational and maintenance system. A US team that visited Bhopal in 1982 had pointed out number of safety deficiencies in the plant, but no corrective measures were taken by the UCI management. Some of the major lacunae identified in relation with MIC were manual control for filling of the MIC tank with no instrumentation backup, which created a possibility of accidental overfilling; there was no fixed water spray system for fire protection or vapour dispersion in the MIC operation area; there were several conditions in the operation of the unit that presented a serious potential for sizable releases of toxic materials; filter cleaning operations of the MIC pipes were performed without slip binding of process lines, which could create serious exposures due to leaking valves; long pressure gauge inlet lines, without vents, could result in the release of MIC when the gauge were replaced, due to the inability to evacuate them safely.

After the plant was commissioned, many new safety devices/systems (new monitoring system comprising sensors for pressure, temperature, volume, flow, gas detection) became available but the management on cost cutting spree never considered them. Automatic warning system that triggered by the rapid rise of pressures in the MIC tank, an automatic switching mechanism for the scrubbers, a safety interlock arrangement to prevent the operation of the plant if the scrubber and/or refrigeration unit were disconnected, an automatic water spraying system linked to gas detection, etc. could have been easily installed to overcome initial design deficiency. Surprisingly, the UCI plant did not have even a gas detection system and enough breathing masks. Other operational processes such as regular inspection of critical components, detailed safety analysis exercises, etc. were conspicuous with there absence. Would Aiyar still call it just an accident?

Accomplices in the Crime

The Government that approved setting up the plant without vetting technology, carrying out hazard and operability analyses, environment impact assessment, examining pollution aspects is certainly accomplice in the crime. The plant was built very close to the highly populated areas. Contrary to Aiyar’s contention, the railway station, the bus station, the old secretariat, hospitals and even the lake that supplies drinking water to Bhopal city are all close to the plant. During 1971-81 Bhopal’s population grew by almost 75 per cent. Like any similar city, squatter settlements developed in the vicinity of the UCI plant. The government did not do anything to prevent it and rather legalized them in 1983. After the plant became operational in 1969 the regulatory machinery of the government could have easily noticed many of the wrongs noted above but it did not. UCI had cut corners even in training of manpower and even reduced it in numbers. There was a move to shift the plant in 1976 but the chief minister Arjun Singh had stalled it saying that there was no risk. UCI was given permission to expand its capacity in 1979. The spate of accidents in the plant, number of press reports in October 1982 and June 1984, creating alarm about the impending risk could shake the government out of its slumber but it was not to be.

When the tragedy struck, the government’s ineptitude came to limelight. Even after 5000 people dropped dead within few hours it failed to have its emergency meeting until the next day. It did little in evacuating people, in providing treatment. As a matter of fact nobody knew the line of treatment for several days because the UCC and UCI had allegedly kept it secret not to reveal the risk of their operations. The Anderson episode has too shamefully revealed the sale out of our governments, both state as well as the centre, to hide. Then followed a series of intrigues and treacheries. Bringing the case from the US court to India, government assuming representation of the victims in the legal case, Supreme Court bench headed by the then chief justice A.H. Ahmadi mysteriously deciding that the world’s worst industrial accident was nothing more than ‘a road accident’ when the lower court in Bhopal was to hear the case, the inexplicable settlement at a paltry 480 million dollars as against government’s own claim of 3.3 billion dollars on behalf of the victims, dragging the almost open and shut case for a quarter of a century, and so on. At every stage the tragedy was trivialized and the victims betrayed.

When in the wake of such political deceits and judicial disasters, the court verdict came on – June 2010, although sans surprise, it provoked nationwide outrage. The media sensationalized the issue around Anderson and successfully sidetracked the roles of scores of our own people who facilitated his ilk to play havoc on in our country. Who is guiltier? Anderson, who with a sense of some responsibility had come all the way from the US to the accident site or our own rulers, who after arresting him treated him like a VIP and provided their own plane to escape from the country?

GoM Cover Up

When all leads began pointing to Rajiv Gandhi as responsible for Anderson’s escape, the government constituted the Group of Ministers (GoM) to thwart the political build up against itself. Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, who lobbied, along with Kamal Nath, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Ronen Sen, on behalf of Dow Chemicals, the company that bought Carbide, for absolving them from latter’s liabilities. Jairam Ramesh, the big mouth minister of environment, who recently blurted out in Bhopal, “I held the toxic waste in my hand. I am still alive and not coughing”, is also a member of the GoM. Every member of this GoM has some history of betraying the interests of the Bhopal victims. The government always resorts to throwing crumbs to people to stave off its crisis, which is what the GoM is expected to do. As per media reports, it has come out with a recommendation for huge financial package for compensation, site remediation, and rehabilitation and to make fresh attempt for extradition of Anderson and a curative petition in the Supreme Court against dilution of charges against the accused in the case. All this just to say that Anderson’s escape was a ‘system failure’ and had nothing to do with Rajiv Gandhi! As for the Bhopal victims, they know from experience that nothing would come out of it, excepting for confusing the issues further.

Whether it benefits the victims or not, the GoM package would expend public funds to pay for private sins as per the neoliberal code of public-private partnership. This may facilitate the passage of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, which seeks to put a cap of Rs. 500 crores on liabilities of nuclear plant operators, the rest to be borne by the public. Instead of taking lessons from Bhopal tragedy, our neoliberalist rulers have used it to reassure global capitalists that they can take away all profits leaving losses to be borne by poor Indians.

If the government has any shame, it would possibly enact a special law to expeditiously try all the guilty of Bhopal and rehabilitate all victims with human dignity and with a sense of recompense for its wrong doing for 25 years. The guilty of Bhopal are not only Andersons, Mahindras and Gokhales, but also include hundreds of its own bureaucrats and ministers who have variously contributed to this tragedy. There is no question of Indian people bearing any liability; it should recover every penny from the criminals. Anything else, GoM show included, amounts to trivializing this grave tragedy and insulting its victims!

Dr. Anand Teltumbde, writer and civil rights activist with CPDR, Mumbai, can be reached at

1 comment:

Colin said...

Brilliant piece and very well researched regarding the technical shortcomings of the Bhopal plant.

But please don't forget that, technical shortcomings aside, the refrigeration system to the MIC tanks- which on its own would have prevented the disaster- was installed, and was working correctly, but was SWITCHED OFF. I forget the figure but it saved literally just a few measly dollars a day...