We are deeply saddened to report that Rajkumar Keswani, an acclaimed journalist who issued warnings about irregularities at the Union Carbide factory for several years before the Bhopal gas disaster in 1984, died of post Covid-19 complications on Friday, May 21st. He was 72 years old and is survived by his wife and son.
Keswani first took interest in the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal in 1981 when a friend of his who worked there, Mohammad Ashraf, tipped him off about the possibility of a leak of MIC gas due to low maintenance and safety standards at the site. In December that year, Mohammad died in an accident at the plant after inhaling phosgene gas. Devastated by the loss of his friend and concerned by his warnings, Keswani took it upon himself to research the nature of MIC gas. He discovered that MIC contained a number of other highly toxic gases, including phosgene. He also learned that it was heavier than air, meaning that in the event of a leak it was likely to remain near ground level rather than rising and dispersing in the atmosphere.
Determined to write a piece about it, Keswani recruited the help of two former employees who had been fired from the factory. Taking nearly 9 months to research and write, Keswani published a warning about his findings in a short article in a small Bhopal news publication, Rapat, on 26th September 1982, and was concerned enough to repeat the warning in subsequent issues on October 1st and October 8th. His report was even picked up and shared by national paper the Indian Express, and he repeated his warnings in several more published pieces in 1983 and 1984. Unfortunately, his repeated warnings went unheeded by both Union Carbide management and the state government of Madhya Pradesh, who failed to launch any inquiry or investigation into safety standards at the plant.
On December 2nd 1984, just over 2 years after Keswani published his first trio of warnings, his predictions proved correct. A chemical reaction in one of the three plants at the factory caused it to start leaking tonnes of MIC gas into the air, which remained near ground level and was blown in huge clouds across the city of Bhopal, killing thousands and injuring over half a million more.
Awarded the B. D. Goenka Award for Excellence in Journalism in 1985, Keswani lamented the fact that his warnings had fallen upon deaf ears, saying he might be the first to receive the award for ‘such a spectacular journalistic failure’. Despite the fact he had done all he could and that his warnings had been ignored by those responsible, Keswani was badly affected by the disaster. He knew that if his warnings had been successful this terrible tragedy may have been averted. Despite this, Keswani went on to have a long and successful career in journalism, also receiving the Prem Bhatia Award for Outstanding Environmental Reporting in 2010.
Due to his extensive research, Keswani was one of the people who knew the most about the UCC plant, the technical specifications at the site, and the details surrounding the leak. A lifelong Bhopali, he remained a long time friend to the survivor organisations in Bhopal, as well as the BMA. He will be sorely missed.