The Other Side of the Bhopal Gas Disaster

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By Philip Mudartha, Qatar
Bellevision Media Network

Doha, 10 July 2010: We awoke from deep slumber after nearly twenty-six years when a junior court in Bhopal in the state of Madhya Pradesh convicted seven Indian managers of erstwhile Union Carbide India Limited of ’criminal negligence’ and sentenced them to two years simple imprisonment. The general public and Bhopal Campaigners immediately condemned the verdict as ’insulting’ and a ’mockery of justice’. Most campaigners called for a ‘culpable homicide not amounting to murder’ verdict that carries up to ten years rigorous imprisonment. The strident among the victims and their sympathizers called for the head of Warren Anderson. He was the CEO of the Union Carbide, a US major in Chemicals Business. When tonnes of Methyl Isocyanides (MIC) leaked and the Bhopal Gas Disaster occurred, Union Carbide owned majority shares in the Union Carbide India Limited.



The Union Carbide India Limited entered into the business of Pesticides manufacturing in 1969. It produced Sevin using Methyl Isocyanides as a raw material. Everyone knew that MIC was a deadly poison, including the owners, the managers, the employees, and government authorities involved in licensing, annually inspecting and renewing the ’consent to operate’ certificate.



When it was set up, uninhabited barren and hilly forest land was chosen as site, miles away from the city. Remember Panamboor in 1969? Miles away from Kodialbail. But what happens when a factory is set up in India? Rural unemployed flock to set up tents and tenements around the compound wall. Large slums mushroom, small and medium auxiliary business units spring up, catering to industrial and civic needs. Does anyone notice? Yes, we see, but not take notice of it. Under these circumstances everyone made money including the police, land mafia, the public servants, squatters, garbage pickers,
pimps...Everyone was happy.


This situation continued till the London Bridge fell down or Humpty Dumpty..came tumbling down and broke his crown... and all hell broke loose. ‘Arrest Anderson’. ‘Arrest Directors. Arrest Managers. Arrest, hang, imprison, punish...’ By all means justice requires that wrongdoers are brought to book. But are they alone who are the wrongdoers?



This may sound as a pathetic attempt to promote the interests of big business, like Union Carbide (a subsidiary of Dow Chemicals now) and Union Carbide India Limited (owned by Eveready Industries now). It may sound anti-poor and anti-oppressed. It may seem heartless. It may seem insensitive to the sufferings of the slum dwellers and the residents of housing colonies that surrounded the ’dangerous’ factory.




But life is ruthless. Those in my age group certainly remember the hard near starvation days, when the ’green revolution’ was in its infancy. In our villages, including at our high school vegetables garden, we used pesticides, liberally. Remember DDT? We were silently poisoned and saturated with it and some other kinds that we sprayed on our paddy and jasmine saplings. We were either ignorant of the dangers or took the risk in order to benefit from the increased food production that we badly needed. At best, we evaluated the risk was worth taking. At worst, we did not think anything but of food for survival.


That is the story of poor nations wanting to improve their incomes and ’develop’ like those industrial nations from whom we seek the technological knowhow, plant equipment and machinery, and investment. We take great risks in search of greater rewards, negotiate from the position of weakness in order to attain future strength, and enact laws to protect or indemnify our benefactors against criminal and civil liabilities for unintended and unforeseen consequences of their activities. Without any pain, there is no gain.



Pain comes, not necessarily every day, but surely at times. We must do more than ducking and laying ’blame’ at the doors of our ’benefactor of yesterday’. We must introspect. The Bhopal gas disaster would not have happened if the factory was permitted to shutdown when its owners wanted to do so. It ran with losses for years. We through our trade unions and our government do not want to lose jobs. We can’t fire people even if the business is not making money. Bhopal Gas Disaster would have resulted in fewer deaths if unauthorized slums were razed to ground as they sprang up, if the housing colonies were not permitted within a specified area, if the zoning concepts were developed and enforced, and if disaster and recovery procedures were rehearsed by administrators and its agencies, and if the ignorant but arrogant Collector had permitted the scientists to take charge of the disaster.


Our nation is debating Nuclear Liability Bill now. It is obvious that we need nuclear technology, reactors and fuel from western nations. Certainly, the bill will become law, and the reactors will be built. And in all probabilities, we cannot rule out a future nuclear incident like radiation leak or accident like an explosion. But then, such risks cannot be passed entirely to western nations. These risks have to be managed by ourselves. We must be creative in our decisions now and in future. We should set up such plants in sparsely populated areas, and should not let people to settle within the danger zone.


There is no use crying wolf after our failures and mistakes. We must pay for them ourselves. No two ways about it. Think about it.



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Comments on this Article
Ronald Sabi, Moodubelle Thu, July-22-2010, 3:54
It is a fantastic analysis by Philip, much better than those appear on national and international publications. You have touched the probable root causes. Combination of factors like lack of respect for safety, illegal encroachment and dwelling, labor unions caused this disaster. After so many years politicians are fighting over scapegoats like CEO s!? I really liked your example of Panamboor of 1969 and now. It is worse now with worst possible narrow roads(NH17) and too many industries and establishments around, everyone has to cross it between Mangalore and Udupi without any free bi-pass road or proper long over bridge. In case of any disaster recipe for too many casualties without any physical escape root!
Jitu, Jamshedpur Wed, July-21-2010, 12:59
I agree whole-heartedly with the author of this post. Before we use scape goats... We need to work on enforcing the rules at all levels. Developed nations are not developed simply because of their nuke power or their GDP. It s the basic attitude that separates them from the undeveloped or the so called developing nations. Law makers make laws to protect thier resources, human and otherwise... and law enforcers work on ensuring that the laws are abided by. Their avg poor man nation is as needy as ours. But the developed nations do no allow their needy to simply stand in the middle the road to beg. They beg... but away from the traffic. The poor set up temporary shafts even in developed nations... but not under the blasting mines or beside a poisonous factory... and definitely not without a statutory warning at least. The warnings are a loop hole for the bigwigs and the culprits to get away in case of a mishap. But even the the loop-holes... are customized. Which means... the law-enforcers ensure that at-least the basic regulations are enforced. And those basic rules and regulation enforced and followed... go a long way in making these developed nations developed.
Victor DSouza, Moodubelle / Doha Tue, July-20-2010, 4:50
The point of view is food for thought. Health Safety and Environment policies are there, but while implementing them the authorities compromise and this is the result. Keep writing Philip.
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