Looking Back

‘Bhopal’: Continuing Tragedy

Sagar Dhara

On 2 December 1984, Bhopal's unsuspecting population was hit in the stealth of the night by methyl isocyanate (MIC), a killer gas that leaked from the Union Carbide plant located on the northern edge of the city. The official immediate death toll was 2,259, though journalists estimated it to be thrice that number. Government of India now admits that the cumulative number of deaths is more than 20,000.

At first glance, the event looks like an engineering accident. Wash water seeped through a closed valve, got into MIC Tank 610 and triggered a runaway reaction that ruptured it and spilt 42 tonnes of MIC. Low wind speeds made the heavier-than-air gas cloud hug the ground at high concentrations as it drifted towards nearby slums. The highly corrosive gas caused massive edema in the lungs.

The cause for the accident can be traced to low product sales that made the company disinvest in safety and environmental systems. Prior to 1980, Carbide formulated Sevin, a carbamate group pesticide, with imported chemicals at their Mumbai plant. Because of Sevin's popularity, Carbide built a new plant in Bhopal to manufacture it. By then phorates and synthetic pyrethroids, the next generation pesticides, started pushing carbamates out of the Indian market. Consequently, the Bhopal plant never produced more than 50% of its installed capacity and its financial returns were unhappy.

Carbide's management resorted to penny pinching by switching off the MIC tanks' refrigeration system during  winter months to save Rs 1,000/day, allowing the MIC to be at a more-reactive 17°C temperature instead of the recommended 5°C. The pilot flame on the flare tower meant to burn leaked MIC was put off to save LPG gas. One of the two alarms that malfunctioned before the accident was never replaced.

As Carbide's profits dropped, the best technicians and engineers left the company and the new staff was under-trained. By 1984, 70% of the plant operators did not have requisite training levels. Had trained staff been retained, precious lives could have been saved on the accident night by pumping MIC from the leaking tank into two adjacent half empty tanks, and by directing fleeing victims to run crosswind, the quickest way out of gas cloud, with a wet cloth over their face, and not downwind which kept them in the gas cloud.

The Bhopal plant was designed to make and store MIC, then use it later to make Sevin. Other plants eliminated the risk of MIC storage by using MIC in-situ. Carbide chose the former process to reduce plant construction cost.

Events that panned out after the accident—government apathy, poor health and tardy economic rehabilitation, no spill cleanup, Carbide's double speak and liability dodging—tantamount to denial of care and justice for the accident victims.

The foremost task after the disaster was to restore people's health to nearest to normal. This did not happen for a variety of reasons. With Carbide revealing almost nothing about the leak constituents, doctors could not develop a proper line of treatment. The Indian Council for Medical Research tracked the victims' health status for six years after the accident, then abruptly stopped without explanation. With no proper health documentation, treatment was symptomatic rather than systemic. For relief, victims switched doctors only to discover that they spent money but their health remained shattered.

Because of impaired health, most gas victims could not work as before. Immediate relief was provided after the accident. But long-term economic rehabilitation was not done. Of the estimated 50,000 ailing persons who needed jobs, less than 100 found them in various government schemes.

After plant closed, toxic chemicals stored in the plant leached into the soil and groundwater, contaminating tubewells around the plant. There is an urgent need to cleanup contaminated soil and water around the plant site.

Court battles for compensation and to hold Carbide responsible for the accident have taken every possible twist, but provided the victims little relief. After compensation petitions filed in US courts were dismissed, the Supreme Court of India brokered an agreement between Carbide and the Government of India in 1989 for a $470 million in compensation. The average amount awarded per person for personal injury was Rs 25,000, and for death Rs 62,000. Fifteen years ago, WR Grace, a US company, paid an average settlement of a $1,000,000 to each of eight leukemia patients because it had dumped trichloroethylene into drinking water of Woburn, a small town near Boston, i.e., 2,400 times more than that paid to the Bhopal victims.

In 2010, 26 years after the accident, eight former Carbide employees, all Indians, were convicted by a Bhopal Court for causing death by negligence, and awarded a two year sentence, the same as in a road accident. Activists denounced the verdict as "too little too late." The appeal against the conviction will run for several years. Carbide's Chairman in 1984, Warren Anderson, was arrested in Bhopal for culpable homicide but was bailed out immediately. He was not extradited to India as he was in "hiding" in New York State, where journalists and activists found him living in luxury. Anderson died recently at the age of 92.

The gas victims got a raw deal because both India and the US are low value-of-life societies that show little care for such victims. Value-of-life is the extent to which life of every individual is nurtured. High value-of-life societies invest in people by providing quality health care, education, environment, social justice and rule of law and minimize risks they face from ill health, violence, pestilence, natural and man-made hazards, hunger.

India has not made the requisite investment in its people to become a high value-of-life society. Widespread hunger and malnutrition, female feticide, social violence, farmer suicides, high road and shopfloor injury rates are examples of a low value-of-little life.

The US too is a low value-of-life society. Examples of this are, discrimination against minorities, disregard for human rights in Afghanistan, Iraq, prisoner torture in Guantanamo Bay, not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol to curb carbon emissions to protect "the US way of life" despite knowing that sea rise due to anthropogenic emissions will submerge many small island nations and make their citizens climate refugees, disregard for the Bhopal accident victims, rampant gun culture.

The US is however a high price-of-life society. The high compensation and punitive damages awarded for causing wrongful injury and death acts as a partial deterrence against them. India is a low price-of-life country where compensation for wrongful injury or death is low; e.g., compensation for a shopfloor death is as low as Rs 1.5 lakhs. Carbide used this difference in price-of-life between the US and India to its advantage by arguing that the compensation lawsuit should be heard by courts in India and not the US.

Sweden and Cuba are good examples of high value-of-life societies. Even though Cuba is not a developed country, it chose to invest in its people by giving them a high quality of life. The Cuban health care system is as good as the best in the world. New York fire fighters who fell sick after exposure to the 9/11 fires got more relief after being treated in Cuba than in the US.

India is capable of emulating Cuba. For that India must shift its goals from high growth to "high quality of life for all" by setting up a high value-of-life bar for all its citizens. Only then will events like the recent sterilization deaths, cataract operation blindings, and the many stillborn children after the Bhopal accident in the slums close to the Carbide plant become a rarity. The parents of Bhopal's stillborn children hoped to nurture life; but got death instead, for no fault of theirs.
[source : Kafila, 5 January, 2015]

Vol. 47, No. 33, Feb 22 - 28, 2015