Management’s Gross Indifference
The rising sense of insecurity forced Shahnawaz Khan, a Bhopal-based lawyer, to serve a legal notice on the UCIL management on 04.03.1983 complaining about the danger, which the UCIL plant posed to the lives of the workers at the plant, to the population living in the nearby areas and to the environment. In his written reply to the notice sent by Shahnawaz Khan, UCIL’s Works Manager, J.Mukund, on 29.03.1983 stated the following:
“The various allegations made in your notice are baseless and have been made by you out of ignorance of our factory operations. Our pesticide complex at Bhopal like any such complex in the world is equipped with sophisticated devises for handling various types of chemicals in our manufacturing process or any hazardous incident in the course of manufacturing operations and all precautions are taken for safety of persons working in the factory as also those living in the vicinity…. In fact, we have taken appropriate precautions with a view to ensure that no pollution is caused by our pesticide complex and your allegation that the persons living in the various colonies near to the industrial area remain under constant threat and danger is absolutely baseless.”
UCIL’s Works Manager, J.Mukund had made tall claims: (1) that “all precautions are taken for safety of persons working in the factory as also those living in the vicinity”; and (2) that “your allegation that the persons living in the various colonies near to the industrial area remain under constant threat and danger, is absolutely baseless”. Despite making such self-righteous assertions, Mukund, who is currently accused No.5, had the temerity to shut off all the three critical safety systems of the MIC unit at Bhopal with or without the apparent knowledge of UCE (Hong Kong) and/or of UCC (USA). He had shut off the refrigeration system as a cost-cutting measure in June 1984 at the peak of summer when the MIC unit was continuing to produce MIC. He had shut off the VGS in October 1984 soon after the MIC unit had stopped production after 85 tonnes of highly toxic MIC were stored in the MIC storage tanks. He then dismantled the flare tower for repairs. These highly callous and criminally irresponsible steps were taken in deliberate violation of all prescribed safety norms for handling MIC.
That was not all. On 16.06.1984, Raajkumar Keshwani again tried to warn the people of Bhopal about the impending danger from the UCIL plant through a lengthy article in ‘Jansatta’, a leading Hindi national daily, which too went unheeded. On 24.08.1984, another workers’ union leader, R.K.Yadav, made a written complaint to the Works Manager, UCIL, regarding air pollution and noise levels inside the undertaking. The union leader, in his complaint, stated the following:
“We have complained so many times against the rising pollution of air and noise in different departments of our factory…it is increasing day by day in uncontrolled manner…. It is known to you very well that some chemicals in our factory are so dangerous and helpful [sic] to develop chronic disease, if we work in such atmosphere for longer time and few chemicals can kill any person while taking minor exposure…. We request your good office to look into the subject matter and take appropriate steps…”
In his written reply to the above complaint, which was sent on the same day, the Works Manager, J.Mukund, stated the following:
“We are surprised to receive your letter dated 24.8.84 on the above subject…. As you must be aware, all our units are regularly monitored and the air quality at all places is within the internationally accepted standards laid down for the chemicals that we handle. The only exceptions may be of a temporary nature when there is a mechanical breakdown or some other abnormal situation…. It is the policy of this company to provide a safe and healthy working environment for all our employees. Chronic exposure to chemicals is prevented by proper engineering and personal protective equipment is provided to take care of abnormal situations…. You are, therefore, requested to refrain from making vague and general complaints which have no basis.”
The Works Manager, J.Mukund, does not seem to have any compunction in making false claims with a straight face. After shutting off the crucial refrigeration system of the MIC unit in June 1984, Mukund continues to claim that: “It is the policy of this company to provide a safe and healthy working environment for all our employees”! Moreover, despite being fully aware that the safety systems that were installed at the MIC Unit were under-designed in relation to its production and storage capacity as well as in comparison to the safety systems that had been installed at UCC’s parent plant at Institute, USA, Mukund was still claiming that: “Chronic exposure to chemicals is prevented by proper engineering”! Instead, he warned the workers’ union leader “to refrain from making vague and general complaints which have no basis”!
On 11.09.1984, the report of the safety survey carried out from 09 to 13 July 1984 at UCC’s premier plant at Institute, West Virginia, USA, was submitted to the UCC management. The UCC’s team of experts who conducted the survey pointed out in their confidential report a particularly grave danger: that water might contaminate the MIC in the unit storage tanks and start a runaway reaction. They stated in their report that:
“There is a concern that a runaway reaction could occur in one of the MIC unit storage tanks and that response to such a situation would not be timely or effective enough to prevent catastrophic failure of the tank. This stems from a combination of situations and possibilities, including: a) Block operation of the MIC II unit can result in the unit storage tanks being used for relatively long term storage, as opposed to the rather transient operation when the unit is running. One consequence of this is that the tanks tend to get less attention and be sampled less frequently than they do while being used exclusively as make tanks, with the resulting higher probability of a contamination going undetected for a relatively long period of time….”
The grave danger that lay ahead at the Institute plant, about which UCC’s team of expert had forewarned the UCC management, was exactly the same danger that ultimately led to the disaster at Bhopal. The problem had been precisely identified by the UCC survey team; according to them when MIC unit storage tanks are “used for relatively long term storage…. the tanks tend to get less attention” and are “sampled less frequently…. resulting in higher probability of a contamination going undetected for a relatively long period of time….” While remedial work was carried out within a month at the Institute plant, the Bhopal plant was left to its fate.
Image: Alex Masi
Part 6 of a serialised article by N. D. Jayaprakash