The Bhopal Marathon: Under the Volcano

1984 Bhopal gas disaster Animal's people

UNDER THE VOLCANO by Indra Sinha

Indra Sinha, author of “Animal’s People” tells the story of local journalist, Raj Keswani, who has the dubious honour of being the man that loudly predicted the Bhopal Gas Disaster and found himself not being listened to.

The first part of the story describes some of the incredible risks that Union Carbide was prepared to take with the safety of the Bhopal plant…

UNDER THE VOLCANO (Part 1.)

‘Wake up people of Bhopal, you are on the edge of a volcano!’

In September 1982, Bhopali journalist Raj Keswani wrote a terrifying story for the city’s Jansatta daily. Bhopal was about to be annihilated. ‘It will take just an hour, at most an hour-and-a-half, for every one of us to die.’ Keswani’s information came from worried staff at the Union Carbide factory, where a worker, Ashraf Khan, had just been killed in a phosgene spill. The World War I gas was used in the production of MIC (methyl-isocyanate), a substance 500 times deadlier than hydrogen cyanide, and so volatile that unless kept in spotless conditions, refrigerated to 0°C, it can even react explosively with itself. Cooling it slows reactions, buys time, but MIC is so dangerous that chemical engineers recommend not storing it at all unless absolutely necessary and then only in the tiniest quantities. In Bhopal it was kept in a huge tank, the size of a steam locomotive.

Far from the shining cathedral of science depicted in Union Carbide adverts, the Bhopal factory more closely resembled a farmyard. Built in the seventies to make pesticides for India’s ‘green revolution’, a series of bad monsoons and crop failures had left it haemorrhaging money. Union Carbide bosses hoped to dismantle and ship the plant to Indonesia or Brazil, but finding no buyers, went instead on a cost-cutting spree.

Between 1980-84 the workforce was halved. The crew of the MIC unit was cut from twelve to six, its maintenance staff from six to two. In the control room a single operator had to monitor seventy-odd panels, indicators and controllers, all old and faulty. Safety training was reduced from six months to two weeks – reduced in effect to slogans – but as the slogans were in English the workers couldn’t understand them.

By the time Keswani began his articles, the huge, highly dangerous plant was being operated by men who had next to no training, who spoke no English, but were expected to use English manuals. Morale was low but safety fears were ignored by management. Minor accidents happened routinely but were covered up. There were so many small leaks that the alarm siren was turned off to avoid inconveniencing the neighbours. A Union Carbide memo boasts of having saved $1.25 million, but says that ‘future savings would not be so easy.’ There was nothing left to cut. Then bosses remembered the huge tank of MIC. They turned off its refrigeration to save freon gas worth $37 a day.

A 1982 safety audit by US engineers had noted the filthy, neglected condition(1) of the plant, identified 61 hazards, 30 critical, of which 11 were in the dangerous MIC/ phosgene units. The audit warned of the danger of a major toxic release. Safety was duly improved at Carbide’s MIC plant in West Virginia. In Bhopal, where six serious accidents had occurred, one fatal, and three involving gas leaks, nothing was done.

If safety was ignored inside the plant, Union Carbide had no plan at all for the surrounding densely-packed neighbourhoods. As the situation worsened, factory staff, fearing for their own lives and those living nearby, put up posters warning of a terrible danger. Keswani wrote begging the Chief Minister to investigate the factory before Bhopal ‘turns into Hitler’s gas chamber.’ Its sensational style, perhaps, caused him to be ignored. His final article, ‘We are all about to be annihilated,’ appeared just weeks before the gas disaster.

As night fell on December 2, 1984, none of the factory’s safety systems were working. The vent gas scrubber lay in pieces. The flare tower was undersized. The siren stayed silent. Years later – too late for the thousands who would now die in unimaginably hideous ways – a prosecuting attorney would say that Union Carbide had demonstrated a ‘depraved indifference to human life.’

REFERENCES, please see The Bhopal Marathon by following the link below.

You can read the complete Bhopal Marathon publication online here

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We believe Dow & DuPont must finally accept responsibility for Bhopal. Until then, The Bhopal Medical Appeal funds two award-winning clinics in the city. Both offer free, first-class care to victims of the gas disaster or the ongoing water contamination. The survivors have nowhere else left to turn – please help if you can.