The inhabitants of Bhopal became victims of the world’s worst industrial disaster when on the night of 02/03 December 1984 a huge toxic plume engulfed about two-thirds of the city for over two hours before dissipating. The highly poisonous gases had leaked due to exothermic reactions that took place in an underground storage tank, which contained nearly 41 tonnes of methyl-isocyanate (MIC), an extremely volatile and noxious chemical. The said storage tank had been installed at the pesticide plant of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), a subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) – a U.S. multinational company, which then held 50.9 per cent of shares of UCIL. The immediate human death toll, according to official figures, was around 2500 while the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) after a preliminary survey subsequently declared that residents of 36 of the 56 municipal wards of Bhopal, i.e., approximately about 600,000 of the nearly 900,000 people of the city, may have suffered injuries in varying degree. It is estimated that the death toll has since gone above 20,000. The impact of the disaster on flora and fauna in the affected area was equally staggering.
On 03.12.1984, the SHO, Hanumangunj Police Station, Bhopal, who observed people dying around the UCIL plant due to escape of some poisonous gases from the factory, registered a case suo moto under section 304-A (causing death by negligence) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). He arrested five officers of the plant – presently accused Nos.5 to 9 – including J.Mukund, the Works Manager and S.P.Choudhary, the production Manager. On 05.12.1984, the Government of India (GOI) set up a scientific committee headed by Dr.S.Varadarajan, the then Director General of Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), to study the scientific and technical aspects of the disaster and to prepare a report. On 06.12.1984, the Madhya Pradesh (MP) Government instituted a probe through a judicial commission known as the ‘Bhopal Poisonous Gas Leakage (1984) Inquiry Commission’ headed by Justice N.K.Singh – a then sitting judge of the MP High Court.
On 07.12.1984, Warren Anderson (Chairman – UCC), Keshub Mahindra (Chairman – UCIL), and V.P.Gokhale (Managing Director – UCIL) – presently accused Nos. 1, 2 and 3 respectively – were arrested on arrival at Bhopal. Several cases were registered against them under sections 304 Part-II (culpable homicide not amounting to murder), 304-A, 426 (causing mischief), 429 (causing mischief by killing or maiming animals), 278 (making atmosphere noxious to health), 284 (negligent conduct with respect to poisonous substance), and 120-B (criminal conspiracy) of IPC. However, after detaining him at the posh Union Carbide Guest House for barely six hours, Anderson, was released on bail of Rs.25,000. He was immediately flown to Delhi by a State Government aircraft and allowed to leave the country supposedly on condition that he would appear in court whenever summoned. Subsequently, accused Nos. 2 and 3 were granted bail by the MP High Court on 13.12.1984. Accused Nos. 5 to 9 were also granted bail by Sessions Court of Bhopal on 15.12.1984. (All the accused have been out on bail ever since.)
In January 1985, the ICMR undertook the task of identifying the toxic gaseous products and of studying their effects on human health. For coordinating some twenty-odd medical research projects, the ICMR also established the Bhopal Gas Disaster Research Centre (BGDRC) at Bhopal. During January/February 1985, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, in collaboration with the MP Government and several schools of social work from neighbouring states (with over 500 volunteers), undertook the task of carrying out a comprehensive house-to-house survey in the 36-gas affected municipal wards of Bhopal to identify the victims and to collate necessary data. Furthermore, on 08.08.1985, the GOI set up the “Scientific Commission for Continuing Studies On Effects of Bhopal Gas Leakage On Life Systems” headed by Dr.C.R.Krishna Murti, the former Director of the Indian Institute of Toxicological Research (IITR), for conducting studies on the toxic effects of the Bhopal disaster on life systems.
Immediately after the disaster, scores of organizations and individuals from across the country arrived in Bhopal out of concern for the fate of the victims and for offering assistance in the relief and rehabilitation work; a team from the Delhi Science Forum (DSF) was among them. DSF was also the first organisation to bring out a report on the disaster. According to its findings, there was little doubt that the U.S. multinational company had installed obsolete and unreliable safety systems for its Bhopal plant. What was most shocking was that much prior to the disaster even the sub-standard safety systems at the plant had been shut off for reasons of economy or for maintenance. The Report pointed out that economy measures were also responsible for a manning policy, which depleted the plant’s experienced and trained personnel, and led to stationing of untrained personnel in critical areas of the plant. Moreover, unlike UCC’s parent plant at Institute, West Virginia, USA, computerized monitoring and control systems had not been provided at the Bhopal plant. All these discrepancies persisted despite the fact that the MIC unit at Bhopal began its operation in 1980, while the MIC unit at Institute had been in operation since 1966.
What has subsequently become evident is that even if all the safety systems were in working order, a major disaster may not have been averted because the safety systems in place at the Bhopal plant were under-designed in relation to the amount of highly toxic material (MIC) stored there. That is, unlike those in its parent plant at Institute, the safety systems that had been installed at Bhopal were not designed for total containment. Moreover, unlike the Bhopal plant, the Institute plant not only had a computerised automatic warning and alarm system in place but also had an emergency evacuation plan for the population of the town. These facts point to the adoption of double safety standards on the part of the UCC management, who had designed and set-up the Bhopal plant.
Image: The Morning After
Raghu Rai by kind permission
Part 1 of a serialised article by N. D. Jayaprakash