December 3, 1984, early morning hours; streets of Bhopal were littered with human corpses and carcasses of cows, buffaloes, cows and birds. Estimates suggested that approximately 10,000 people might have died and another 30,000 to 50,000 returned to jobs terminally ill. Local hospitals were soon flooded with the injured, sick and dead. Situation was furthermore compounded with lack of knowledge about the kind of gas that leaked and what its effects were. It became one of the worst chemical disasters of the history, with Bhopal becoming synonymous with industrial disaster.
The nightmare- caused by a poisonous grey cloud- 40 tons of toxic gas from the Union Carbide India Limited’s (UCIL’s- subsidiary of the US based Union Carbide Corporation) pesticide plant at Bhopal, which spread across the city overnight. Water carrying catalytic material had entered Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) storage tank No. 610. With no alarms, no emergency or evacuation plan, death was certain. Smell of burning chilly peppers filled the air.
The company tried to dissociate itself from the immediate legal responsibility, eventually reaching a settlement with the Indian Government through mediation of the Supreme Court. It accepted moral responsibility and paid $470 million as compensation (without consultation with the victims) – thus the cost of widespread morbidity and long-term health consequences.
In 1970’s, the GoI initiated policies encouraging foreign companies to invest in local businesses. UCC was invited to build a plant to manufacture Sevin, a pesticide ordinarily used across Asia. The UCIL plant was situated in central Bhopal, for perennial transport connectivity, in an area where 120,000 people lived; a plant to which the Government of India was a 22 per cent partner.
Thirty years post the disaster the question which still looms heavy that whether it was an accident or plain ignorance. The catastrophe raised many ethical issues. The pesticide factory was built in a midst of a densely populated settlement. Here, UCIL choose to store and produce MIC, a deadly chemical (permitted exposure levels in USA and Britain are 0.02 parts per million). When the uncontrolled reaction started the MIC was flowing through the scrubber (to neutralize MIC emissions) at about 200 times its designed capacity, with MIC in the tank filled to 87% when the permissible limit was only 50%. MIC was not stored at zero degree as prescribed, and the refrigeration systems in place were shut down five months before the accident, as UCC’s global economy drive. Vital gauges and indicators in the MIC tank were defective. The flare tower meant to burn MIC emissions was under repair and the scrubber contained no caustic soda.
Looking back, one day before the disaster, India has had rapid industrialization, with some positive changes in government policies and behavior of a few companies. Major threats to environment from rapid and unregulated industrial growth still remain a challenge.
The issue of disposal was the most important fallout of the tragedy. This issue still remains un-resolved, which has led to 350 tons of solid waste lying inside the Union Carbide Factory. The waste still continues to pollute the land and water in the area.
The Union government did take some steps over the last 30 years to avoid another Bhopal. Four years after the tragedy, the Factories Act 1948 was amended and a new chapter – Chapter IVA that relates to hazardous processes – was added to the legislation, which clearly spelt out the responsibilities of every occupier of an industrial premise, including the need to draw up an ‘On-site Emergency Plan’ and detailed disaster control measures for his factory with the approval of the Chief Inspector of Factories. But nothing accounts for the sheer ignorance that caused lives in Bhopal.
For years the world has remained negligent to bring out the fret occurrence. Ravi Kumar’s, ‘Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain’, is a first time effort to bring to the canvas the agony, corruption, corporate greed and governance negligence, on the 30th anniversary of the tragic incident.
Ensuring Industrial safety shall be a crucial factor in making Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream of ‘Make in India’ a reality.
By – Rahul Jain
Manager – Communication & Training – Fiinovation