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Bhopal’s Deadliest Night – A Case Study


Bhopal’s Deadliest Night – A Case Study

(K.S. Dhillon)*

Finally it became a political story that focused on varied interpretations of the societal role of multinational corporations and crucial differences between Eastern and Western cultures”

Jackson B. Browning

Former Vice-President, Health, Safety

And Environmental Programs,

Union Carbide Corporation (1993)

All activity in Bhopal, the capital city of the central Indian State of Madhya Pradesh, comes to a standstill on the third of March each year, with all government and public establishments closed. The occasion is marked by angry demonstration, rallies processions and shouting of slogans in memory of the world’s worst industrial disaster. A somber city recalls an event when, in a matter of a few hours, hundreds of the city’s residents perished, thousands more contracted physical and psychological injuries of a lasting nature and approximately 200,000 scared citizens fled the city in panic, one cold December night seventeen years ago. Large parts of the old town were plunged in chaos and its inhabitants felled by a trail of death and destruction. The catastrophe was caused not by nature’s fury-an earthquake, a hurricane or a flood – but by massive leakage of a deadly gas Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) from a plant owned and run by Union Carbide India Limited (U.C.I.L.) an Indian subsidiary of the American multinational Union Carbide Corporation (U.C.C.). Among other products, the U.C.I. also manufactured crop pesticides, which had, not long ago, played a major role in bringing about India’s famed greed revolution. Significantly, most organised demonstrations of protest and anger are directed exclusively against the U.C.C. and its then chairman Warren Anderson. Their effigies are publicly beaten with shoes, spat upon, abused and trampled upon and set aflame in a show of much anger and noisy protests– traditional Indian modes of dishonoring bitter enemies. Perhaps the protests are entirely justified and understandable. However, the calculated demonisation of the UCC and Anderson year after year to the total exculpation of the then Indian executives of the company and the state authorities, who could hardly be absolved of their share in the blame for the mishap, points to a shrewd political management of the event. Mass anger and resentment have been cleverly diverted against those who are no longer in the picture, having symbolically washed off their guilt by depositing a large sum as a token of final settlement of compensatory claims, with the Indian government in an out-of-court settlement under the supervision of India’s Supreme Court. It is another matter that the process of verification of victims’ claims still awaits final disposal, in a painfully slow system.

The magnitude of the disaster, which was sought to be underplayed in the initial stages, both by the U.C.C. and the Indian authorities, each for different reasons, was truly stupendous. Estimates of deaths and injuries – physical disablement and psychological impairment – caused by the gas leakage vary widely. The following table1 would be of interest:

Deaths          Injuries             Source of Data

Indian Government              1754             200,000      Law suits filed in New York

Indian Newspapers               2500            200,000                             Times of India,

300,000                               India Today

US Newspapers          Over 2000              200,000                          New York Times

Washington Post


Organisations              3000 to 10,000   300,000

Delhi Science                    5000                        250,000                       Social Scientist


Eye-witness             6000 to 15,000   300,000  Personal interviews by author  estimates

Such wide variations in the estimates of casualties, projected by the government and other agencies, are not unknown in India. Just to cite one instance, in the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in the wake of Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s assassination in late October 1984, the government put the figure at 2000 deaths while press reports and public interest groups estimated that between 8000 to 10,000 Sikhs were killed. The customary under-reporting of casualties by governments in India and elsewhere is understandable. They have to routinely project their legitimacy as a competent and sincere custodian of public safety while at the same time pre-empting possible criticism of their failures and shortcomings. Non-official agencies are not alone in questioning official statistics; even government sources privately admit gross underestimates. A close examination of all the various estimates would suggest that the death toll was more likely to be between 2500 to 3000, a figure which makes Bhopal by far the century’s worst industrial disaster. The closest any other mishap comes to this is the 1921 Oppau (Germany) explosion in a fertilizer factory involving 561 deaths and the 1947 explosion in a ship with a cargo of 1750 tons of ammonium nitrate in Texas City (U.S.A.) in which 532 persons died.

The fate of thousands of other victims who survived the nightmarish experience was even worse. Whole families lost their ability to earn their daily bread. Permanently enfeebled, insecure and disabled breadwinners became depressed and listless and fully dependent on the government for sustenance. The latter took an inordinately long time to get its act together. An apathetic bureaucracy and a politically insecure government (general elections being less than a month away) failed to organise urgent and effective relief and rescue measures, until several voluntary agencies, many of them from outside Bhopal, forced the issue. Although physical complications in victims which were not immediately detectable, would take some time to appear (these included lung damage, ophthalmologic problems, cancer, skin and blood ailments), symptoms of emotional and psychological problems were already in evidence. Among these were anxiety, insecurity, sleeplessness, nightmares, loss of libido, guilt projection, increased domestic violence and diminished learning abilities in children. Those who had the physical strength to put their lives together had no motivation to do so. Mass fear gripped the people; almost 200,000 residents had fled immediately after the dreadful event. Later, between 16 and 19 December of the same year when the left-over Methyl isocyanate (M.I.C.), the chemical which set off the complex reactions causing the accident, was being neutralized in the widely-publicised ‘Operation Faith’, nearly 400,000 Bhopalites fled in panic, fearing another accident. They had no faith in government assurances of the process being failsafe. Women of child bearing age and young mothers were the worst sufferers of psychological strain. Complex gynecological abnormalities left them confused and distressed. Many of them suffered from irregular and shortened menstrual cycles, lactation deficiencies, miscarriages and stillbirths. One estimate based on a study conducted by a team from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), put the number of miscarriages at 400 and stillbirths at 52 out of 2700 pregnancies. Of the rest, 132 babies survived only a short time and 30 were born malformed2. These problems caused deep psychological trauma to, and social stigmatisation of, these women even within their own families. According to the UCC, their offer to neutralise the residual MIC was accepted by the Indian authorities after a great deal of resistance, resulting in avoidable delay in the operation.

Damage to plant and animal life was no less devastating. Over 2000 animals (cows, buffaloes, goats, dogs, cats and birds) perished. It would take many days before the carcasses of heavy animals could be cleared away. Trees in the affected areas withered and crops and vegetation was destroyed. Other environmental damage was immeasurable; characteristically the government spokesmen continued to assure the people that everything was in order, without producing any reliable scientific or analytical evidence to convince them.

Deep and painful as the physical and psychological injuries to the victims and the unprecedented loss of life were the economic and social disruption caused by the catastrophe was no less disastrous. The closure of shops, business establishments, commercial and government offices, schools and colleges for several weeks after the accident, two mass evacuations from the city and labour scarcity, resulting from death and injury, severely disrupted essential services and civil supplies, sapping community morale to a considerable extent. Estimates of business losses varied from 8 million to 65 million American dollars. The closing down of the UCIL plant alone led to the abolition of 650 permanent jobs and a large number of temporary jobs. These jobs were particularly important to the local community because the company paid high wages. The plant shutdown also dismantled a 25 million-dollar investment in the city, which had provided secondary employment to some 2500 persons. The huge loss in tax amounts to the state and local governments could not be computed in exact terms. The city, the country and, in a way, the entire developing world suffered a loss of business potential because the accident grievously spoilt their business image3. Relief efforts after the accident distorted price structure and seriously affected the availability of goods. Later, when the question of monetary compensation to victim-claimants got inextricably bogged down in law courts, a monthly interim relief of Rs. 200/- (roughly 20 dollars at the then exchange rate) per individual claim was sanctioned. Since most claimants had large families of 10 to 15 members, the total relief money per family unit was considerably more than what was required for their spartan needs. The excess money was pumped into the consumer goods market, making Bhopal one of the costliest towns in the country. The rising consumerist culture soon led many families into debt incurred at exorbitant rates of interest, sometimes as high as 200 to 400 percent. Family life and social equations in the city were greatly disrupted, as wives and children with no preparation for life outside the home were forced to go to work and manage the family’s financial affairs. In one sense, the Bhopal disaster was simply an industrial accident – a failure of technology management. But the century’s worst industrial crisis was, in several respects, indicative of a much deeper cause-and-effect phenomenon and a complex interplay of various factors – human, organisational, technological and cultural. Excellent research work has already been done in the first three factors and considerable literature is in existence. This paper will focus primarily on the cultural, ethical and administrative aspects of the professed goals of globalisation especially transfer of technology from the developed to developing countries, in the backdrop of the worst industrial catastrophe of the century in December 1984 in Bhopal and its handling by the Indian authorities.

Globalisation as a concept and as an instrument of industrialisation in the worlds less developed nations has become a major feature of scholarly comment on contemporary social life in most post-colonial societies. Global issues, institutions and events increasingly dominate discussions and writings in social, political and administrative spheres Industry, business and commerce too are no less concerned with global opportunities and challenges. National and international issues frequently impinge upon decision-making by governments all over the world. If we listen carefully to what can only be termed the new ‘globe-speech’, the message that comes through loud and clear is that our lives are profoundly influenced in every aspect by supra-national institutions and the processes of change in most parts of the world are determined at their behest. The global economy, characterised by massive transnational transfers of capital, skills, technology and labour and more or less fully dominated by gigantic multi-national companies (M.N.C.s) assumes a distinctly autonomous identity. In the process, the M.N.C.’s operate in their host countries virtually free of control by the local governments, often flouting restrictive laws and practices meant to ensure safety of local life and environment. Occasionally when the financial resources and budgets of M.N.C.’s far exceed those of the small impoverished nations in which they operate, they assume an almost neo-colonialist role, materially influencing the domestic and foreign policies of the hosts. The ever-expanding patterns of global communication, marked by instantaneous connections through electronic technology, have revolutionised transmission of information and cash-less financial transactions across national boundaries. This development has, in a major way, rendered limitations of territorial sovereignty of nation-states largely non-operational in the economic sense. This process, along with large-scale transnational migrations of people in the last few decades, has inevitably obliterated cultural boundaries and has spawned the concept of a global culture, in which identities are increasingly being determined by supranational rather than national concerns and compulsions.

Globalisation, thus, is a process of internationalisation of goods and services, demand and supply and a coordinated organisational and technological activity to promote and accelerate economic development in order to maximise profits and assets. It seeks to identify economic, political, social and cultural interests across national borders with a view to enhancing the prospects of an integrated world community. In a way, it is also a historical process with multiple economic and social ramifications. Basically, however, it represents the triumph of capitalist world economy, bound together by a global division of labour. The capitalist system is historically dependent on the logic of capital accumulation. Nations and regions occupy specific positions in a hierarchical organisation of power and space, subdivided between the core economies of the Western world; the poorest exploited peripheral segments of the developing world and a semi-peripheral group in between. Unfortunately most definitions of globalisation fail to take note of the existence and reality of manifold diversities in all walks of life around the globe, recognising only its homogenisational capacities. Some sociologists hold that globalisation is a process through which the peoples of the world are incorporated into a single world society, a society in which humanity becomes, for the first time, a collective actor. It needs to be mentioned, however, that globalisation is not restricted to the concept of humanity as a collective actor, as perceived by them. Rather it comprehends each and every aspect of life, operating both within the boundaries of indigenous and unique local cultural areas and beyond them. An alternative approach to globalisation is put forward by several other commentators who use the term to refer both to the compression of the world order and to the intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole. One strong current of opinion looks at globalisation in a triumphalist light as the penetration of capitalism into every nook and corner of the world, bringing with it the possibility for the entire world’s population to partake of the fruits of international division of labour and market economy. In a somewhat different context, transnational developments leading to the creation of the United Nations and social activist movements like the Amnesty International and Greenpeace, which have become powerful vehicles for political and environmental articulation and mobilisation at the international level, are also manifestations of globalisation. They seek to protect humanity from conflict, exploitation and environmental degradation.

Despite the basic philosophy underlying the initial enthusiasm for MNC’s as instruments for rapid development of third world countries till recently under colonial rule, the core relationships between the poor South and the wealthy North did not change. Though now enjoying national sovereignty, the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa were severely handicapped in claiming [and achieving] economic equality with the developed world. The stark poverty of their peoples and gross mismanagement of resources put paid to any such ambitions on their part. Globalisation in fact became another name for Westernisation in more senses than one. Soon it assumed a neo-colonialist role, substituting the 19th century gunboats with corporate raiders. The new mode of domination was more refined, suffused with sundry sugarcoated schemes like “partnership-in-progress”etc. That is how U.C.C. initially commenced its expansionist plans. In a way it was a means of perpetuating the colonial inequalities. This darker face of globalisation was notably more evident in Africa than Asia. Congo, Angola and numerous Central African countries were victims of something more than mere economic domination. Cheap labour and infrastructure costs attracted the transnational corporations to umpteen poor societies, ostensibly to industrialise them but in reality for exploitation of their rich raw materials and for dumping their own substandard products. An interesting term used for such consumerist globalisation is coca-colonisation, which graphically describes the total incorporation of the third world societies into the global capitalist economy as passive participants in promoting standardised Western products. Coca-Cola, blue jeans, chewing gum and low-level American TV programs and movies are more than mere products of American consumer industry; they signify an insidious form of cultural imperialism.

Perhaps the threat of cultural invasions is more real and sinister than the economic domination promoted by MNC’s. The world-wide presence of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, and popularity of TV serials like Baywatch, Santa Barbara, the Bold and Beautiful etc across the world underscores how widespread is the sweep of an alien culture in lands far removed from the depicted life styles. In the field of films also, Western presence throughout the world is immense. American film studios have thousands of old films in stock. TV studios have literally hundreds of thousands of soaps and other episodes. The sheer size of these collections overwhelms those of most third world countries. Even a highly developed country like France often feels threatened enough to initiate several counter-measures. There is similar dominance when it comes to TV news coverage. BBC and CNN can be watched all over the globe and for all the 24 hours, every day of the year. Recently the gulf-based Arabic TV channel Al Jazeera has shown that enterprising and resourceful third world countries and individuals could emulate CNN and BBC. At some point, the US authorities were forced to ban Al Jazeera telecasts, a case of reverse colonialism, as it were. Being rich in resources and expertise, the news and views projected by the Western channels command high credibility. This is specially so, when a crisis situation erupts in some part of the world. Their newscasts and comments are universally believed to be prime and vital sources of information. Any government seeking to block off BBC or CNN is readily accused of trying to censor and control free-flow of information. And yet their depiction of events in newscasts and documentaries projects an essentially Western view of happenings. Hours and hours of CNN coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair or the interminable BBC telecasts of Diana’s funeral leave a strangely uncomfortable feeling in the third world populations about the special importance of Monica Lewinsky and Princess Diana while the collectivity of the poorer countries are on the periphery. The free flow of ideas and information across borders would be something to be happy about if they flowed both ways rather than from the U.S. and Europe to the rest of the world. It would also be something to celebrate if what crossed national boundaries most easily was the best of each culture and not the worst. In some ways the effects of free trade in images and information are more far-reaching than those of trade in tangible objects, for here we are talking about forces that mould minds, tastes and values. Faced with the inevitability of a high degree of globalisation, it is necessary not to lose sight of the ideal of a better kind of globalisation, an exchange among equals in which cultures borrow from each other judiciously and selectively, and where what crosses borders most easily are not brand names but good ideas4.

India with its distinct and firmly defined heritage of multi-cultural identities, as some would like to view them, had for a fairly long time displayed a persistent resilience to Western interventions in this area. Many Indian languages have rich and unbroken literary traditions for thousands of years. Many ancient classics are available in translations all over the world. Its film industry, the second largest in the world, is a flourishing enterprise and some of its products compare very well with the best in the world. However even India is now firmly in the grip of what can only be called ‘cultural globalisation’. The contemporary Indian cinema and television are deeply coloured by Western ideas, life-styles, musical scores and modes of expression. The younger generation of Indians has no use for what are termed as ‘Indian values’. Subjects like pre-marital sex, teen-age pregnancies, failed marriages, consumerist values etc. are now freely aired in TV discussions and form the themes of numerous movies. The accents and speech-patterns are largely and distinctly American. And the pace of such alienation from tradition and history, a rich cultural heritage and eternal civilizational values, accelerated by globalised communication advances, gains momentum by the day. In the event, an essentially multi-faceted cultural heritage is constantly under attack in the name of modernisation. The young Indians’ love for material goods and pleasurable excitement is not born out of tradition and history. It is promoted day in and day out by Western media by means of a complex process which Ivan Illich calls “the invention of needs”. Answers to vital questions like whether a youngster feels the need for a Pepsi more than a healthy meal or whether the country should allocate more resources for production of mobile phones than on ensuring the supply of safe drinking water to the mass of its people, are determined by global advertising and consumerist industries. And the signals for these are transmitted through TV channels and movies. The choices are not entirely in the hands of national governments though it is incumbent on them to safeguard their cultural autonomy to the same extent as their territorial integrity.

In a country of India’s size and diversity, recent Western acculturation in the wake of globalisation has also had the effect of virtually bifurcating its people into two unequal segments. There is the urban, rich, elitist and thoroughly westernised minority of influential Indians who have access to the best quality of life and wield immense power in business, industry, government and other important spheres. This class also includes the potential entrants through reservation quotas who throng the political arena. Then there are the masses – poor, deprived, illiterate, living on the fringes and looking longingly at provocative advertisements and movie posters of half-clad women. They constitute the below-the-poverty-line majority. Religion and ancient Indian belief systems teach them the virtues of contentment and forbearance. Intensely religious, and totally pre-occupied in earning their daily bread, they have no time to engage in polemics about industrialisation, globalisation, cultural invasions or even the innumerable and execrable corruption scandals involving their rulers. These two thoroughly alienated classes in contemporary India have little in common with each other except their Indian-ness. The decision-makers belong to the elite minority and though they constantly profess to serve the poor through their decisions, their actions often proclaim otherwise. It is this vast cultural and intellectual gap between the two sections, which radically influences the processes of policy formulation and its implementation. India does not have an industrial culture, much less, an appropriate aptitude to manage technological change in a smooth manner. This paradigm is broadly true of all countries of the Indian sub-continent. Union Carbide plant in Bhopal was able to violate even the most elementary industrial safety laws and procedures, even those contained in their own operating manuals because they had meticulously cultivated the politicians and bureaucrats in positions of power. Neither the latter nor the U.C.C. management was overly concerned with the poor people living in the shantytowns and slums around the factory. One of the professed aims of globalisation, especially in the less developed countries, is to assist their people to escape from the innate violence of poverty, unemployment, shortages and inflationary pressures. By adroitly addressing these economic miseries, the process hopes to upgrade the physical quality of life of even the poorest people. In his detailed report on the causes and circumstances of the Bhopal disaster of 1984, published in 1993, Jackson B. Browning, a former vice-president of UCC, goes to great length to assert that such a mission did, indeed, form the corner-stone of their activities. However, empirical evidence from the micro-level in most Asian and African countries that have fully adopted the globalisation model does not support the assertion that the stated goals are any closer to achievement. It is no longer possible to overlook the uncomfortable conclusion that globalised modes of development have only been an officially sponsored triage5. In actual terms and on the ground they are no shining models of success. It needs also to be pointed out that India has still to develop an appropriate industrial culture. Perhaps it also lacks the necessary aptitude to manage high technology infusion in a smooth and optimum manner.

India’s first brush with some sort of globalisation was its experience with the British East India Company a few centuries ago. The company soon rose to rule the country it had originally entered to do business with. The systematic exploitation of Indian resources to enrich British economy resulting in progressive impoverishment of the Indian people was most likely uppermost in the minds of Indian leaders when they decided soon after independence in 1947 to strive to achieve self sufficiency. It helped that India was a comparatively well developed country at the time of independence. It had an experienced and dedicated political leadership, an integrated system of administration and several other features of modernity. It continued to resist for decades the blandishments routinely thrown in its way by the M.N.C.’s. Since India had opted for a planned economy and a controlled model of development, it looked for M.N.C.’s that would fit into its overall framework of development. Union Carbide (UCC) which, in fact, had a presence in India since the beginning of this century, continued to concentrate on developing its primary product-dry batteries. Its advent into the pesticide manufacture was a fall-out of India’s green revolution, which among other things had been facilitated by the vastly increased inputs of fertilizers and pesticides. The Bhopal plant of the U.C.C. was licensed to produce pesticides under its Agricultural Products Division in the late 1960’s. Initially the company was importing the chemical intermediary M.I.C. (Methyl Isocyanate); a few years later, however, it started manufacturing it in Bhopal itself, probably finding it a more economical option. What is more, the MIC so formulated was stored in bulk in huge tanks in quantities and under conditions, which were in themselves highly risky and an open invitation to disaster.

Lately globalism, or globalisation in a different context, has been the focus of much attention by social scientists and political thinkers. Its study has become more compelling and urgent, especially after the occurrence of the Bhopal and other similar though less lethal accidents involving M.N.C.’s and causing substantial environmental degradation and other long-term ill effects. Many developing counties have started viewing the over all performance of most multinational corporations with some skepticism. Talking to the World Future Society in Chicago recently JO Moller, the Danish ambassador to Singapore, spoke on the growing resistance to globalism. He observed that though the second half of the twentieth century had been dominated by the idea that nations should work together to promote economic development and prosperity in order to manage affairs of common concern, a growing threat in the opposite direction has emerged, threatening to disrupt world peace and international relations. The result could be a clash between the elite minorities and the majorities composed of ordinary citizens. Kofi Annan, the U.N. Secretary General, while supporting Moller’s assessment in another forum, argued that globalism was a scapegoat for problems that more likely resulted from inept domestic leadership and economic systems. He went on to identify the three major factors likely to nullify the benefits of international economic cooperation as nationalism that {1} exploits old hatreds; (2) calls for simplistic solutions and (3 talks of populist protectionism. Moller and Annan are obviously echoing the views of the prosperous North; the perspective from the South may not necessarily be the same. Another view credits some transnational corporations with beginning to realise their responsibility to ordinary people and to the future. Social responsibility is purportedly becoming increasingly linked with profitability, forcing companies to change the way they do business and redefining the mission and purpose of their enterprise. Some futurologists predict that the phase-transition from powerful lobbying to actually conducting the affairs of government by the M.N.C.’s is a short one which will become more manifest as commerce in the next century acquires more intimidatory power and clout, nationally and internationally. Thereafter, a time will come when MNC’s, by default and positioning, automatically assume the governance of nations they are enterprising in, because any threat to world peace and international relations could be fatal to their profitability and existence. Looking into the not too distant future, it is clear that the change over from market-driven economies as they are at present to a full-fledged business-ruled polity will soon become a reality- giving a fresh interpretation to the term industrialised nation6.

It is these prognostications which, even more than the so-called cultural imperialism, pose a threat to national sovereignties across the third world. The process of global integration of economies, a sound and rational choice though somewhat unrealistic, has to rest on equal and shared partnership between nations large and small, developed and under-developed, to be mutually beneficial. That idealistic international détente and altruistic equations between M.N.C.’s and states is highly unlikely to happen. Sadly even the elite power-wielding minorities in third-world societies commonly favour the rich, resourceful and patronage – dispensing M.N.C.’s as against their own ordinary compatriots, Union Carbide disaster amply bore that out. A more concerned ruling class would have ensured that hazardous situations did not erupt that the U.C.C. observed and abided by the local laws and safety procedures and that the people especially those living in the close vicinity were kept fully in the picture. An informed public would surely have been better prepared to face the disaster in a more controlled manner. An aware and alert public might even have prevented the location of the potentially lethal plant in a populated neighbourhood. Probably such a plant with its hazardous production practices and lasting ill effects on environmental well being could not have been allowed in the U.S. or in Germany. Environmentalists would probably have had enough political power to prevent its construction and operation. This political strategy and result, however, is possible only in societies characterized by a free flow of information to citizens, societies where environment and human rights groups have been able to organise well enough to influence political decision-making. Obviously very little was done either by the U.C.C. or the government to disseminate information to the public about the environmental impact and threats to human life, which the highly toxic chemicals posed to the citizens.

A thumbnail sketch of the disaster at Bhopal, describing briefly the unfolding chain of events as they followed each other in quick succession on the night between 2nd and 3rd December 1984 can now be drawn up. It will highlight graphically all the flaws and shortcomings – human technological and organisational-which contributed to this unparalleled human tragedy. It also pinpoints the negligence, indifference, unconcern and an extreme form of cynicism on the part of Indian authorities and plant management towards the life and property of ordinary citizens.

Anatomy of a Disaster

2nd of December 1984 was a routine day at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. Among the many chemical intermediaries being manufactured at the factory was Methyl Isocyanate (M.I.C.), a highly toxic substance used for making carbary, the active agent of the pesticide trade- marked as Sevin. This substance is highly unstable and needs to be stored at very low temperatures. M.I.C. was manufactured in batches with out interruption and stored in three large underground tanks until needed for processing. Two tanks stored MIC that had fulfilled the specifications while the third was used to store M.I.C. that had failed to meet the specifications and needed reprocessing. On the night of the accident tank E610 contained about 42 tons of MIC and tank E611 about 20 tons. The M.I.C. production unit had been shut down for about two months before the accident and parts of the plant dismantled for maintenance. This included a corroded pipe of the flare tower, which needed replacement. Part of the maintenance drill was a thorough washing of the pipelines leading out of the MIC storage tanks under strictly controlled conditions and under the supervision of the shift supervisor. On 2nd December the necessary precautions were not taken, when the washing commenced at 0830 p.m.

Stage I (0930 p.m. to 1100 p.m.)

Between 1030 p.m. and 1100 p.m. workers engaged in washing the pipelines smelt a leak, which appeared to be MIC in gaseous form. However such minor leaks had occurred in the past too, so they ignored it and continued with their work. Casual attempts to close the leak did not succeed.

Stage II (1100 p.m. to 1230 p.m.)

The leak persisted. The workers soon felt strong stinging sensation in the eyes. At 1145 p.m., the shift supervisor was informed. He told the workers he would attend to the problem after teabreak between 1215 am and 1230 am. Mean while another leak developed in tank E610, the same as the earlier one. Also the pressure in the tank E610 had shot up to 30 per square inch (psi) and within a few minutes to 55 psi (which incidentally was the maximum the gauge could read). The temperature too had risen to 200C and was still rising. Sensing that the pressure was rising far above the maximum the gauge could read (it had actually crossed 180 p.s.i.), an operator ran to investigate tank E610. He heard heavy rumbling sounds from within the tank and saw the concrete platform cracking. Just before 1230 am, the relief valve of the tank gave way; huge quantities of gaseous substances burst past the vent gas scrubber into the atmosphere and enveloped the neighbouring areas in the form of a poisonous cloud. The exact composition of the deadly gases, which killed all those who fell in its way, was never conclusively ascertained. The findings of various scientific and medical teams varied between Cyanide and Phosgene.

Stage III (1230 am to 0100 am)

Realising the seriousness of the situation and the probability of a massive disaster, the operators tried to activate the three safety devices provided for such emergencies. The supervisors notified the plant superintendent who on arrival ordered that toxic gas alarm be sounded. The alarm was sounded but inexplicably shut down after a short time.

The three prescribed safety procedures were now considered.

(a)     Turning on the flare tower to burn off the toxic gas (but a piece of pipeline leading to the tower had been removed for maintenance).

(b)     Using the vent gas scrubber considered as the main line of defense (it was not in operational condition).

(c)     Dumping the MIC into a spare tank (but the gauge of the spare tank indicated that the tank already contained something. That the gauge was wrong was discovered later).

When all the three safety procedures failed, they attempted a last resort i.e. to douse the leak with water spray. Unfortunately when they tried to do this it was found that the water spray could only reach a height of 100 ft. from the ground while the leak was at 120 ft. above the ground. By this time, a large volume of deadly gases had already escaped into the atmosphere.

At 01.00 AM, realising that nothing could be done to stop the leak, the workers at the plant fled in panic in a direction against the wind.

Stage IV (0100 am to 0400 am)

At about 0105 am some policemen stationed near the factory rang up the Superintendent of Police at his residence. He was in his office by 01.30 am. On reaching the office, the SP called the Carbide Plant several times, but the call remained unanswered. At about 0145 am the Additional District Magistrate was able to reach the Works Manager of the Plant at his residence on the phone. The Works Manager was residing about 12 kms away from the factory. The District Collector received information through a special messenger from the Police Control Room (his telephone was out of order) at about 0130 am. He then left his residence but instead of going to the city, he landed up at Bairagarh, a city suburb about 9 km. away in the opposite direction. (He says he found it impossible to proceed to the town as the road was jam-packed with fleeing crowds. He therefore decided to operate from the police station at Bairagarh. His version could be true, though many people thought otherwise Interestingly; the Collector found the only motor vehicle at the police station non-functional. Reason? No fuel!).

At about 0100 am thousands of people living around the plant were awakened by the suffocating, burning effects of the gases. The plant was surrounded on three sides by slums and shanty settlements. The wails of their neighbours and the howls of dying animals awakened many residents. There were some people who did not wake up at all. They died instantaneously; they were not even able to cry for help.One person living near the plant in a slum-hut said “I sleep with my mouth open, and so I was the first to awaken around 0100 am. I was coughing badly and my eyes were burning. I ran outside to see what was happening. And I found people were running in all directions, all at once. I woke up my wife and we just ran away, wherever we could go”.Some people thought that the burning sensation was caused by roasting chillies, a familiar practice in that run-down settlement. A few thought it was a fire in the Union Carbide plant and rushed to it for help. No one had been forewarned about the deadly chemicals being manufactured or stored at the factory. And no one was given any guidance in coping with such situations. There were no government officials to help.

There were two types of alarms in the factory – one for the workers (mild), and the other for the public (loud public siren). It appears that at about 0100 am the mild alarm was sounded for a short time, while the public alarm was only started at 0230 am. By 0200 am a stream of people could be seen rushing out of the town through the many highways that connected Bhopal to nearby towns. The rush in the main through fares of the city resulted in stampedes and injuries. About 200,000 persons had fled Bhopal to the suburbs and satellite towns by 0330 am.

The gas cloud dissipated around 0300 a.m.

Stage V (0400 a.m. onwards)

By 0400 am hospitals were crowded with thousands of injured and panicky patients. Frightened and severely injured persons and their relatives crowded the halls and verandahs, lying on the floors and in the lawns, crying and weeping. The hospital had no place to accommodate the corpses; neither an adequate stock of medicines, nor enough doctors and other staff to attend to the patients. No one had the ghost of an idea which gas had caused the damage, what was its effect on the human body and what was the antidote. When contacted the Union Carbide’s Chief Medical Officer, is alleged to have casually informed the doctors that MIC was a non-toxic gas. These vital questions, in fact, remained unanswered for weeks and were the cause of much unpleasantness and serious differences between groups of senior doctors in the months of come.

At 0430 am, the first newspaper- man reached the factory. There were scores of dead bodies lying in the slum colonies in the vicinity of the factory. Many more were found in the streets leading out of the old town. Human beings, animals, birds, even trees and plants had suffered devastation never seen before. Some were wandering around dazedly looking for their missing relatives, some of whom were unlikely to be found alive.

In addition to the three safety measures mentioned above which failed, there was the refrigeration plant meant to bring down tank temperatures in case they shot above safe limits. This crucial safety precaution was provided, as the M.I.C. was much less reactive at low temperatures. It would also slow down reactions in the event of contamination, giving operators more time to take corrective action. But as an economy measure, the refrigeration unit had been shut down for over five months. A number of essential jobs had not been filled up, large-scale retrenchment of workers had been resorted to and instead of employing three supervisors, one each for a shift of eight hours, only one was in place. Drastic cuts had also been made in other areas; all to offset the losses the Company was incurring for the last few years. Even the death of a worker in an accident a few years earlier and dire warnings of the impending catastrophe by a local journalist, Raja Kumar Chessman, in its wake, had failed to alert the management about the virtual death trap of a plant they were holding in a most unsafe form. The local government was even less concerned as according to many authentic reports, the Company took good care to keep the establishment happy and satisfied. They offered lucrative employment to several high officials after retirement, which included a former Inspector General of Police, as also their offspring and close relatives. At least two senior government doctors were in receipt of retainer fees from the Company. The latter also entertained lavishly at the well-appointed guesthouse situated atop a beautiful hill overlooking the famous Bhopal Lake, and invitations to such parties were highly prized. The company was also known to make huge monetary contributions to causes close to the heart of powerful politicians. In the eyes of the government, the company could do no wrong. Compared to the sophisticated instrumentation at chemical processing plants in U.S.A. to monitor operations and detect leaks and other dangerous developments, in Bhopal the workers were themselves the leak detectors. “If odour or eye irritation is not detected”, the M.I.C. unit’s operating manual read, “the M.I.C. is not present”. All the controls on key safety systems were manually operated obviously a tall order for practically illiterate hands to do so in the middle of the night and amidst clouds of poisonous gases. The only computer on the premises was used in payrolls and accounts section.

One could argue that since the M.N.C.’s primary aim was to enhance the profitability potential of their enterprises, they could not be expected to be too altruistic in their operations, but what about the Union and state governments in India? Why couldn’t they ensure that the transnational companies, which operated here, did not fail to provide designs, procedures and instrumentation comparable to those in the developed world? Basically, the excessive dependence on the MNC’s is due to the enormous need for external finance and technology that can be provided only by the world’s rich corporate bodies. Rules are often bent or altered to attract foreign investments. Madhya Pradesh was one of the poorest and most backward states in the country and it would do anything to rapidly industrialise. The zoning laws as well as the risks involved in allowing production of hazardous products in a populous area were overlooked. All the dire warnings by alert public men were ignored and earlier accidents swept under the carpet. The enforcement staff was woefully inadequate in numbers as well as in equipment and transport. In 1984, in Madhya Pradesh each factory inspector was expected to look after about 200 factories on an average and required to carry out 400 inspections in 200 working days, obviously an impossible target. For testing sophisticated equipment and safety of procedures and substances, he had to largely depend on the factory staff. Apart of from lacking in requisite qualifications, the inspectors were also totally dependent on the plant for transport and conveyance. The technological gap between the U.C.C. plant and most of the regulatory agencies of the state was further widened by the awe in which the officials of the industries department held the Union Carbide because of the very close rapport between high government functionaries and the factory management. It can be safely assumed that the position remains materially unchanged even now in many comparable cases. The state government’s overall attitude to the U.C.C. in Bhopal was very well brought out by a statement that the state labour minister made on 21st December 1982 in the legislature, while rounding up a debate set off by the alarming reports in a local newspaper about the dangers posed by the plant to the people of Bhopal. He said “Mr. Speaker, this plant was established here in 1969 with an investment of 25 crore rupees. It is not a small piece of stone that I can shift from one place to another. This factory has nationwide links”. He also assured the legislators that he had visited the factory three times, and “there is no danger to the city, nor do I find any symptoms of it”. He further went on to claim that. “Safety measures have been taken at the factory with full responsibility. In the event of a gas leak, the siren would immediately blow and the water sprayers situated all around begin functioning at full speed. There is no report that suggests that the poisonous gas have any adverse effect on the workers”7. The debate in the state legislature, it may be further elaborated, was precipitated by some very frightening headlines in a Bhopal weekly ‘Rapat’ in its issues of September and October 1982. Raaj Kumar Keswani, the editor and publisher of ‘Rapat’ who had investigated the death of a factory worker Ashraf Khan on 24 December 1981 from phosgene poisoning, summed up his conclusions thus in his reports” Bhopal sitting on the Brink of a Volcano”, “Sage, please Save This city’, and “If you don’t understand, All Will Perish”. Needless to say copies of the newspaper containing these reports were pointedly sent to all the responsible officials as well as the Chief Minister and his colleagues. So much for the kind of concern these popularly elected political leaders had for their people in the world’s largest democracy! The perception of the common man with regard to the ruling classes was aptly summed up in that simple utterance of Ramesh Sen, a load carrier who had lived in Bhopal for 13 years “Our country is a slave country”, he said, “And our government officials are simply purchased”.

Even after the occurrence of a disaster of such horrendous magnitude, the Indian authorities were not willing to unreservedly blame the Union Carbide for all their acts of omission and commission. Much later, though, intense public pressure would force them to resort to some palpably demonstrative cosmetic exercises, one of which was the arrest of UCC Chairman Warren Anderson, Keshab Mahindra and Gokhale, Chairman of UCIL and its managing director respectively. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who visited Bhopal on 4 December 1984, refused to blame the U.C.C. for the tragedy. On the other hand he impliedly blamed India saying that it was a “cruel reminder” that Indian environmental regulations were faulty and that hazardous situations were really the result of over-crowding in cities due to rural migration. Perhaps he was not correctly and fully briefed about the real situation by the local authorities, for obvious reasons. The Bhopal disaster made no dent in the government’s tacit acceptance of the less-than-satisfactory safety records of M.N.C.’s operating in the developing countries. It continued to expand its commitments to foreign investments through M.N.C.’s. It also deliberately kept its reaction to the Bhopal disaster in low key, enough to dissipate public outrage but not to disrupt its links with foreign capital. All efforts were directed to contain the likely damage to India’s reputation as an attractive destination for foreign investment. The pubic sense of dismay and outrage were to be managed as best as possible but any erosion of industrial relations with the American Companies was not to be permitted. In the event, although the Bhopal plant had to be closed down, the Indian government’s willingness to encourage M.N.C.’s to invest in India did not abate nor did its habit of casually overlooking their obsolete procedures, outdated designs and unsafe practices. However, due to the intensity of public outrage and seething mass anger in Bhopal and other pats of the country, a politically volatile situation had arisen. As the general elections were less than a month away, a degree of nationalistic posturing became unavoidable for the governments in Delhi and Bhopal as also for the ruling Congress party. Apart from the usual platitudes mouthed at public meetings by politicians of all hues and complexions and supply of free rations and medicines, the state government, now undertook two maneuvers of considerable dramatic value but of dubious intent. The manipulative genius of the then state Chief Minister was unmistakably behind the moves. While the unfortunate and traumatized residents of the benighted city were living in an environment of chaos, panic, anxiety and insecurity, he was hatching ingenious plans to off-set the likely damage to his famed political and administrative acumen, the full expose of his government’s share in the disaster was sure to cause.

Almost everyone in Bhopal remained under intense fear for several years after the event–the fear of a slow and agonising death from which they could never escape. And the fear bred despair of a most debilitating scale. The degree and depth of despair experienced by Bhopal residents, in the wake of the disaster, could be compared in many ways to that of the residents of Gomel, the typical provincial town now in Belarus, just north of Chenobyl, which was the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster a few years later. Like the people of Bhopal, the frightened residents of Gomel too lived for years with the barely concealed fear that an unseen hand of death was forever up and about, ready to clutch at their throats any time, corroding their bodies and minds. But there was one vital difference; Chernobyl was the product of indigenous technology, no M.N.C. was to blame. The havoc in Bhopal was wrought by an avaricious foreign enterprise, hand in glove with the local political and bureaucratic power elite, to maximise their profits at the expense of the ordinary Indians. But let us resume our description of the cleverly devised moves of the state administration to strive to distance itself from the Union Carbide top brass.

Anderson had decided to pay a visit to the Bhopal factory and personally take stock of the post-disaster situation and also to consider compensation sums. Accompanied by Keshab Mahindra and Vijay Gokhale, Chairman and Managing Director of UCIL respectively, a weary Anderson arrived in Bhopal on the morning of 7th December only to be accosted by a large police contingent led by the District Superintendent of Police himself. Anderson and his companions were escorted to the Company’s imposing guesthouse overlooking the Chief Ministerial bungalow. As the small convoy of cars drove in, the high steel gates of the guest house were resolutely shut to bar the entry of a horde of news reporters and camera crews, national and international. Before the company executives could unpack their bags, the District Magistrate arrived on the scene. He brusquely told them. “You are under arrest”, charged with criminal negligence and conspiracy.  The decision to arrest Anderson was evidently taken by the Chief Minister, though it is uncertain whether he had obtained the Union government’s clearance. In any case it served his immediate political purpose, though the diplomatic rumpus it created took time to be resolved. Seven charges were framed against Anderson and others; criminal conspiracy and culpable homicide not amounting to murder, causing death by negligence, mischief in the killing of livestock, making the atmosphere noxious to health and negligent conduct in respect of poisonous substances etc. A statement issued on behalf of the Chief Minister and read out to the media by his spokesman grandly affirmed that Anderson and others had been arrested for “constructive and criminal liability for the events that have led to the great tragedy”. Further, that the government “cannot remain a helpless spectator… and knows its duty towards thousands of innocent citizens whose lives had been so rudely and traumatically affected”. Simultaneously, a different scenario was being played out inside the guesthouse. Chief Minister’s office had quietly told the district officials that Anderson was to be released. Legal niceties were now conveniently ignored and Anderson promptly released on bail amount of a paltry Rs.20, 000 on condition that he leave India post-haste, which eminently suited the American. It needs to be pointed out that the main charges against Anderson were non-bailable under Indian law and no one except the trying judge could allow bail. Also the accused person must execute a bond that he would appear in court as and when summoned. This was not done; on the other hand Mr. Anderson was to promise to leave India at once. It was all that he wanted. He was never to set foot again on Indian soil. The criminal cases against him and his Company would drag on for years in a desultory fashion in the District court at Bhopal. Having bent the judicial procedures to suit political priorities in more ways than one, Anderson was rushed to the airport through an old disused side entrance and put aboard a state government aircraft to catch a flight home in a company plane the next day from Delhi. This whole episode so cleverly devised to cover up the government’s long history of an extremely soft approach towards the U.C.C. plant and to assuage public anger, in fact, further confirmed its continued collaboration with the perpetrators of the tragedy and its duplicitous conduct.

The second part of the shadow play, an art in which politicians all over the world, but specially those in the Indian sub-continent, are exceedingly adept, was enacted about ten days later. This revolved around the question as to how to neutralize the residual quantities of MIC still left in the storage tanks. A high level team from the Indian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research deliberated over the problem for days, examined various possibilities and consulted the plant officials, now in custody. A decision was finally taken to convert the remaining M.I.C. into the pesticide Sevin in the plant itself. But this could not be done without the help of factory hands. So in an unprecedented move, the factory manager and his colleagues were released on bail to help guide the operation, code-named ‘Operation Faith’. Elaborate and overly demonstrative precautions were taken to avoid public fear and panic. On 16th December, the day of commencement of the operation, choppers hummed overhead and crop-duster planes cruised around the factory, letting loose a fine spray of water as a safeguard against leaks. Wet tarpaulins covered the tower near the scrubber to neutralize any accidental leaks. Water soaked sacking on bamboo poles was put up on the factory walls adjoining thickly populated slums. Abundant quantities of water were also poured onto streets and pavements. Medical teams were in readiness to move at short notice. The state’s top brass, led by the Chief Minister himself, appropriately clothed and sporting hard hats were present in strength, as were the top scientists. The operation, which went on smoothly for a week, converted about 24 tons of M.I.C. to Sevin without any hurdle. It is another matter, that the people of Bhopal displayed no faith in the repeated assurances of the government in respect of Operation Faith; an estimated 300,000 residents fled the city. They did not wish to be gassed a second time. Understandably so.

The arrest of Anderson and the charade of ‘Operation Faith’ were heavily suffused with political skullduggery. Whether they carried conviction with the people of Bhopal or not is not quite clear, but the Chief Minister, Mr. Arjun Singh did lead the Congress party to an absolute majority in the ensuing elections and took over as the State Chief Minister again. Less than three months later, however, he was eased out from the state. Although U.C.C. chairman was taken into custody for his ‘constructive’ responsibility for the disaster, the practice of owning such responsibility, moral or constructive, in the Indian political community has been conspicuously absent. No political or bureaucratic heads rolled for negligence or collaborative proximity to the Union Carbide in Bhopal. Only lowly placed officials were dealt with, that also not too harshly. The casual manner in which we treat even major tragedies like Bhopal and fail to learn any lessons from them is also evident from the fact that large stocks of M.I.C. are reportedly still lying in stock at the locked and partly dismantled factory. The authorities have not been able to decide as to what to do with the killer gas all these years. The Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, Hyderabad was consulted. They advised incineration. An appropriate incinerator is still to be fabricated. If and when it is ready, further steps might be taken. For now, the chemical lies neglected, raising rumours and scares from time to time. A recent newspaper report (Times of India-New Delhi, 23rd June 1999) cites a letter written by a prominent social activist to the state Chief Minister warning the government about the continued danger posed by the hundreds of tons of toxic waste still lying in the Union Carbide premises and the likelihood of the state capital being confronted with a 1984-like tragedy once again. Further that spot inquiries conducted by a four-member committee on 3rd June 99 had revealed that a drum of the pesticide Sevin had corroded and its contents had spilled all around. Also lying scattered were sizeable quantities of mercury. More than 50 tons of napthol and other chemicals were still stored in the abandoned factory. Three acres of land at the eastern end of the carbide factory were littered with solid waste, obviously the factory management had been using the area as a waste dump. The letter further points out that security workers at the factory gates had reported that on 3rd march, 26th April and again on 1st June, 1999, major incidents of break out of fire had taken place at night when the panicky residents had fled and spent many anxious hours at the nearby railway tracks. As many as 20 fire engines were pressed into service to fight the flames. Sevin residues were stated to be inflammable and their smoke was harmful to health. It was further alleged that the state Pollution Control Board had taken over the factory premises without forcing the management to safely dispose of the lethal chemicals and arrange for scientific and safe cleansing of the soil. The state government’s response is not known. A report in the Times of India, New Delhi dated 30-11-99 citing the Bhopal Legacy Report by Greenpeace at appendix 1 may also be seen.

Such leisurely pace of decision-making in areas, which do not closely concern the interests of politicians or government officialdom is not unknown or surprising in a country still dominated by a colonial mindset with most regulatory and other procedures and rules dating back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. The citizen is still the supplicant and the post-independence powerstructure as callous and distant from the common man as during the colonial period. A thousand years of slavery have sapped the self-respect and confidence of the peoples of the sub-continent. They are excessively tolerant of governmental apathy and unconcern towards the problems of poverty and deprivation. They bear with rectitude the oppression, high-handedness and venality of state officials. Even then, they continue to look to the government to find solutions to the unending problems they face daily. The predominant sub-continental culture is of acceptance and forbearance. It can be expressed in a three-word epigram; common to both Hindi and Urdu languages, so both Indians and Pakistanis can understand it. The phrase is sab chalta hai. Its exact import would be lost in translation but an approximate English equivalent could be ‘anything goes’, an attitude and an approach to life and its many adverse events, from road accidents to cinema fires to flood devastation, even the horrors of the Bhopal disaster. It is so deeply ingrained that we frequently fail to notice its powerful omnipresence. It is casually muttered in offices, on roads and even in homes. It is an attitudinal tilt with official recognition. The poor and oppressed masses of the Indian sub-continent are constantly being lulled into acceptance of injustice and inequality by the repeated recitation of the sab chalta hai mantra (shob cholbe in Bangladesh) by their tormentors till they themselves come to believe in it. The sab chalta hai dictum rings ominously true of the whole gamut of events connected with Union Carbide’s Bhopal enterprise and its final product of the deadly mix of poisonous substances, which felled over three thousand of the city’s inhabitants and incapacitated several thousand more. The manner in which relief and rehabilitation measures were handled by the state medical establishment under the directions of the government in the wake of the tragedy, as also in the years to come and which further traumatized an already agonised people, was also an affirmation of the same attitude. Such apathy and lassitude were not peculiar to the manner of handling the Bhopal disaster alone. A few years ago, 59 families lost their dear ones in the Uphaar cinema holocaust in Delhi; 28 families lost their tiny tots when a bus carrying school children skidded off a bridge into a river, also in Delhi. The cases are still pending in courts. Every year, thousands perish in accidental fires, motor accidents and of other causes due to non-observance of elementary precautions and safety regulations.

Confusion, callousness and inefficiency marked the initial response of the state medical establishment to the gruesome injuries inflicted on the victims by the deadly chemical. Evidently, the grossly inadequate health care facilities even in normal times could not be expected to cope with a grave emergency of the kind that arose in Bhopal. Out of 20,000 who needed to be hospitalised, 10,000 were admitted in Hamidia, the largest government hospital in Bhopal, equipped with only 700 beds. The availability of drugs, equipment and personnel was no better though the junior doctors and interns strove valiantly to plug shortages. Lines of treatment could not be precisely chalked out because no one knew the exact nature of the chemical that caused the injuries. The U.C.C. doctors repeatedly asserted that M.I.C. was an irritant but non-lethal. It was a non-toxic, relatively harmless gas and that the mild irritation and breathlessness caused by it would pass off by them. So only symptomatic treatment with the help of eye-drops and steroids was given although autopsies had by now clearly detected cyanide poisoning. The Director of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology at the Gandhi Medical College Bhopal, who headed the team for the purpose, recommended the use of sodium thiosulphate, the sole antidote to such poisoning. One Dr Max Daunderer, a German toxicologist, also confirmed this and arrived in Bhopal with 50,000 ampoules of the medicine as gift, 500 of which were promptly made available for administration to Bhopal’s political and bureaucratic elite who were gas-affected. Strangely, however, the Director of Health Services forbade the use of sodium thiosulphate through an official circular letter dated 13th December to Bhopal doctors. It stated that”under no circumstances shall sodium thiosulphate be given unless it is correctly and conclusively proved in the laboratory that it is cyanide poisoning.” This was virtually banning the use of the drug since no facilities were available in Bhopal for obtaining such proof. Even after the Indian Council of medical Research (ICMR) sent a telegram to Bhopal’s medical authorities on 14th December explaining how to administer the medicine, there was no change in the government stand. The ICMR telegram was not made public till three weeks later. It was not till the first week of February that thiosulphate treatment became common, by then, of course, much damage had already been done. What ulterior motive was served by discouraging the use of the only effective antidote, and on whose behalf was the state’s medical establishment acting, remained shrouded in mystery, though there were insinuations galore. It is not uncommon in India for politicians in power to act through pliant bureaucrats in pursuance of some hidden objectives. The imbroglio over the use of thiosulphate was not resolved for quite some time; not till the ICMR and the Union Ministry of Health strongly intervened. In a way, this episode also vividly illustrates the lackadaisical attitude of the establishment towards the common people’s miseries, even when faced with the gravest emergency situation of the century.

The indescribable misery and suffering of the victims, in fact, generated a wide-ranging debate on the value to be placed on Indian lives for the purpose of computation of compensation. The Indian government, who routinely sanctioned paltry amounts not exceeding a few thousand rupees to victims of railway accidents and policemen killed while on duty, now sought to approach courts in U.S.A. in the hope of securing compensatory sums in terms of American standards. In the process, they implicitly showed a woeful lack of faith in their own country’s judicial system and the rate of disposal of such cases. Failing to sue the Union Carbide for punitive retribution, the Indian government did not even show the requisite degree of righteous indignation at the catastrophe. The original claim of 2.6 billion dollars (39 billion rupees at the then exchange rate} filed in a U.S. court having been rejected on grounds of jurisdiction, the case finally ended in an out-of-court settlement at the instance of India’s Supreme Court in February 1989. India accepted a sum of 470 million dollars, less than one fifth of the original claim, in full and final settlement of all its claims binding itself and all the other possible claimants not to advance any further claims in eternity. The noted Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan thought that the government had capitulated to Union Carbide for reasons, which had nothing to do with justice or the plight of victims, and the court allowed itself to be used for the purpose. Obviously the government had thought it fit to favour the interests of U.C.C. at the expense of the victims. In their submissions before the U.S. court against filing of claims in U.S.A. the U.C.C. stated “Indeed, the practical impossibility for American courts and juries, imbued with U.S. cultural values, living standards and expectations, to determine damages for people living in the slums or hutments, surrounding the UCIL plant in India, by itself confirms that the Indian Forum is overwhelmingly the most appropriate. Such abject poverty and vastly different values, standards and expectations, which accompany it, are common place in India and the third world. They are incomprehensible to American living in the United States8. How ‘cheap’ an Indian life could be in comparison to an American life was also cheerfully computed in a Wall Street Journal column, which stated that “an American’s life is worth about 500, 00 dollars. But setting monetary value on the damage inflicted (in Bhopal), U.S. courts will take into account the differences between U.S. and Indian costs and standards of living. Indian per capita gross national product is only about 1.7% of the U.S. figure. Thus a court might award only 8500 dollars for an Indian’s death”9. There you are; everything cut and dried! The debate occasionally took an almost indecent turn.

The authorities took an inordinately long time to organise relief and rehabilitation measures on a firm footing. By mid-June 1985 for instance, only 946 severely affected people had received an average of 118 dollars each: 13,906 moderately affected persons had received an average of 16 dollars each and 4,472 families with incomes below 500 dollars received an ex gratia payment of 125 dollars each. By the end of May 1985, the total relief expenditure, including compensation and free food, came to 13.75 million dollars, an average of 38 cents per day per gas victim10. A report published in the Washington Post of 20th March 1994 revealed that “so far only 26,000 claims of the 639,000 pending have been settled, most of them in the better off of the 36 city wards affected by the gas. Activists calculate it will take decades before everyone gets compensation at the present rate of settling claims”. The procedure prescribed for verification of claims was so complicated that the severely depressed and disabled victims found it too hard to successfully negotiate the virtual obstacle course by themselves. In a system deeply permeated with venal practices, a new tribe of middlemen and fixers soon sprang up to exploit the victims’ helplessness. The applications for compensation had to be accompanied by a medical certificate placing the claimant into six separate categories. A for no damage; B for those who recovered fully after treatment; C for permanent damage despite treatment; D for temporary partial disablement; E for permanent partial disablement and F for permanent total disablement. The application was then submitted in a claims-court where a band of lawyers, doctors and government officials joined together to fleece the poor, illiterate claimants. They would readily offer to take the whole matter in their hands – for a consideration, usually 10% of the claim – and see it through. Any one, who hoped to secure his rightful claim on his own, may have to wait endlessly while chasing the case file in various offices and courts. Some middlemen even offered a package deal for a comprehensive fee. Politicians continued to shout from housetops how concerned they were with the plight of the victims but did nothing to improve, or simplify, the procedures. In a game of one-upmanship, both the principal political parties active in the state’s politics would try to upstage each other by periodically demanding that the whole city of Bhopal be declared as gas – affected though everyone knew that spreading the available compensation money too thin would only harm the interests of the genuine sufferers. The pain and suffering of a quarter million people of Bhopal have become a staple diet of politicians, professional classes and government officials to satisfy their hunger for votes and sleaze money. But for the intervention of the country’s Supreme Court and the pressure exerted by many social activist groups and non-governmental organisations, the process of claims settlement would have most likely continued to drag on for decades. The eminently pragmatic and pointed directions issued by the apex court from time to time did infuse some sense of urgency in the decision-making apparatus of the government and the relief and rehabilitation processes have picked up recently. The Supreme Court continues to closely monitor the progress of various measures being taken to help the victims overcome the trauma of the catastrophe in physical, social and economic aspects.

A five year action plan {1992-97) prepared by the government of India and to be fully funded by them focussed on the following four areas:

  1. Medical relief;
  2. Economic rehabilitation;
  3. Social restoration and
  4. Environmental protection

The plan which expired in the end of March 97, was extended by a year. Characteristically it failed to achieve most of its targets even in its extended tenure, especially and more importantly in the health care sector. Since the cost of all relief measures has to be borne by the federal government, the state government recommended a further extension. A cash-starved but extravagant government of Madhya Pradesh is reluctant to earmark a yearly sum of fifty crore (1 crore = ten million) rupees for health and other rehabilitation measures. As a result, gas affected cancer patients have had to be refused free treatment in the state controlled Jawaharlal Nehru Cancer Hospital in mid-1999 in the absence of budgetary provisions. According to the plan, a number of dispensaries were set up initially, to be followed by 6 large and small hospitals in addition to a 500 bed ultra modern super-specialty hospital, to be funded entirely by the Union Carbide as also a similar 540 bed women’s hospital. Only one of the larger hospitals, namely Jawaharlal Nehru Cancer Hospital, with 125 beds is fully functional in addition to the smaller hospitals. Of the two proposed super-specialty hospitals, in one case even building plans had not been finalised while the other was said to be nearing completion, though no staff seemed to have been sanctioned.  This was the position in September 1999. One super-specialty hospital namely Bhopal Memorial Hospital is now fully functional. The only new women’s hospital –Indira Gandhi – was catering only to outdoor patients till January 1999. By end 1999, 50 out of 150 proposed beds had been made available for indoor patients. The annual administration report of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation department mentions an amount of Rs.3.50 crores as being spent on supply of medicines per year while 4000 out door patient’s daily and 12000 indoor patients in a year are being provided medical care. The report also claims that scientific and epidemiological studies to investigate long term effects of M.I.C. etc. on human beings are in progress. A study into a related topic taken up by the ICMR was, however, abandoned by them in 1992-93 probably due to lack of funds. The state government had asked the Gandhi Medical College, Bhopal to take up four studies. These are reported to be only in elementary stages.

In the area of economic and social rehabilitation, the government set up workshops in affected areas, spent about 7. 60 crore rupees to build 152 work-sheds in a special industrial centre. By end of March 99, however, only 85 sheds had been allotted, of which 40 were actually being used. 2443 gas victims are reported to be employed there. 500 women were provided employment in garments and jute-fabrication units. A sum of Rs. 19.20 crores has been loaned out to gas victims for self-employment schemes. A few more schemes are also in operation, though they are hardly adequate to take care of even a fraction of those affected. 1015 widows were sanctioned a stipend of Rs. 200 per month till 1994-95, after which the scheme was discontinued. A few orphan children were also sanctioned small sums of money. A number of primary schools were set up in the affected areas to provide elementary education to children. A sum of Rs. 25.31 crores  was sanctioned for building 3000 housing units, of these 2486 are said to have been completed and 2293 allotted to the earmarked categories of gas victims. In the name of environmental restoration, several schemes were formulated but very few of them fructified till 31.3.99.

All the above figures are gleaned from an official publication placed before the state legislature. In the context of the overall magnitude of the tragedy, the relief and rehabilitation effort seems to be tardy and paltry. Indian bureaucracy, as in most third world countries, tends to utilize every such occasion to swell its ranks. In keeping with tradition, a huge department of Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation was created to further add to an already bloated state structure. As on 31.3.99; a majority of the 6,18,659 old compensation claims were reported to have been settled, involving payments of 960 83 crore rupees while only 1,17,711 of the 4, 10,856 new claims have been settled, involving a payment of 35.35 crores. The pace appears certainly to have picked up of late under the constant goading of the Supreme Court. Whether the relief and rehabilitation efforts adequately address the catastrophic disruption and stupendous ruination and misery experienced by the people of this unfortunate city remains an open question. Social activists like Abdul Jabbar and others continue to vehemently refute the tall claims made by the authorities. A video report telecast by the BBC World on 20 June 1999 depicted a depressing and deeply disturbing scenario, especially in respect of women victims.

And finally what about the role played by the local authorities at the district level in maintenance of law and order, helping the victims in fast and safe evacuation, ensuring supply of essential commodities, timely organisation of medical help and supply of medicines, clearing away hundreds of corpses and carcasses, educating the masses about health-safety etc? There were scores of functions of an immediate nature thrown up by one of the gravest calamities in post-independence India, which the district administration was called upon to perform, with skill, initiative and dynamism, born out of long experience, a deep professional commitment and concern for people’s welfare. The two most important functionaries at the district level in India, as indeed in all South Asian countries, are the District Collector (also called Deputy Commissioner or District Magistrate in some states) and the District Superintendent of Police (D.S.P., S.S.P. or S.P.). The district set-up was devised by the British colonial power primarily to preserve their hold on their Indian Empire, which arrangement remains firmly in place despite vast social and political changes after independence in 1947. The District Collector, who had acquired a pre-eminent position in the British Indian administration and exercised supervisory control both over the district police and the magistracy, continues to dominate the district administration even after independence with District Superintendent of Police as an important but junior member of the duumvirate. The British Indian government posted only very senior and most efficient of their administrators to the districts and considered them as central to their scheme of governance. That practice materially changed soon after independence when economic development and social change, not regulatory administration, acquired high priority with the post independence political leadership, intent upon rapid industrialisation through a process of planned development. Also, successive governments sought to centralise more powers and functions in the state and Union secretariats. Comparatively junior officers enjoying lower status and salary scales were now posted to the districts and the senior ones called to man the largely clerical staff jobs in Delhi and the state capitals. The thrill of presiding over the destinies of large populations in the districts as Collectors was now lost and few officers were willing to take on the challenges of a district job, which had progressively become less autonomous, thanks to the frequent interventions and pressures from a multiplicity of extraneous sources and, strangely, vastly improved communication facilities. In a few decades, well-paid and cozy positions in the secretariats proliferated, implying that more than two thirds of the All India Service cadres would never go back to a district posting after serving there for a couple of years in the beginning. Also postings were now decided not on merit but on political proximity and partisan factors. By the mid-1970’s, Indian bureaucracy had become highly politicised. But the functional inventory of the district officers, especially that of the Collector and SP remained unchanged though the requisite qualities of supreme self-confidence, initiative, dynamism and decisiveness were simply not available in ample measure in the new appointees. The new administrative environment just did not allow sufficient space for the officers to grow to their full potential. That is perhaps the single most important cause of failure of district officers in recent times to adequately cope with problematic situations that arise in their districts year after year, whether due to natural calamities or otherwise.

In Bhopal, the appointments of the Collector and the SP had to meet the tacit approval of the Chief Minister. Placed quite low in the hierarchy at the state capital, compared to a large contingent of political and bureaucratic functionaries, the two district officers enjoyed even less autonomy than their counterparts in other districts. They had to constantly look over the shoulder to make sure that their actions did not displease the Chief Minister or other important persons. In a strange travesty of administrative logic, characteristic of post-colonial societies, power and accountability rarely go together. Whereas responsibility rests with field officers who are called upon to account for defaults and shortcomings, their area of discretion and autonomy of decision-making is severely hamstrung by factors beyond their control. At the time of the Bhopal gas disaster, Bhopal district was under the charge of a Collector who had risen from the ranks while the Superintendent of Police (SP), a former army man, was a direct recruit to the Indian Police Service (I.P.S.). The two men were markedly dissimilar in temperament, functional styles and social connections. Of the two, the SP appeared to enjoy the Chief Minister’s confidence to a greater degree than the more plain Collector. They, each in his own way, tried to cope with the catastrophic events of that horrendous night in December 1984 and their aftermath. And not surprisingly, each had a different version of how the other went about discharging his assigned functions in the wake of the disaster. It is clear that in the initial stages there was little coordinated activity between the two. While the Collector was operating from a suburban town, 9 kilometers away from the sit of the accident, the SP was swiftly moving around in the city. These officers did evidently not adhere to the age-old prescriptions of handling crisis situations jointly. The resultant discordance and diversity of approach added to the confusion.

It is hardly possible to trace the whole gamut of actions, which the police must take in hand in managing a crisis of such a magnitude. One of the most important duties cast upon the Collector – SP duo is to prepare emergency schemes to cope with all possible crisis situations in their jurisdiction, periodically update them and occasionally also hold rehearsals in which all the subordinate formations are required to participate. Crisis situations like riots, floods, fires, accidents, epidemics etc are all catered for. The hazards posed by the Union Carbide factory with its deadly stock of poisonous chemicals and its location is a thickly populated area of the city could not (should not) have escaped the notice of an alert and seasoned district administration, even though most upper echelons of the government were known to be soft towards the giant multinational corporation. The district administration does not appear to have prepared for such an emergency, nor did the state government forewarn and insist on it. In the event, everyone was caught unawares when the lethal M.I.C. gas struck and felled a large segment of Bhopal’s population. In the melee that followed, no organised administrative action was possible. Total confusion, mayhem and breakdown of normal administrative control marked the initial twelve to fourteen hours after the gas leakage. A few individuals and organisations did try to provide succour and guidance to the affected people and showed extraordinary initiative in saving hundreds of lives. One such shining example is that of H.S. Bhurve, the Bhopal railway station superintendent who, sensing the hazard, rushed out and waved on an incoming train – its windows shuttered against the winter cold – out of the zone of danger. He also called several neighbouring stations on railway telephones to stop trains from coming to Bhopal. Sadly, he himself was later found dead in his office.

Most Indian states have no separate civil defence establishments. Such functions are usually assigned to the Home Guards organisations in addition to their other duties. Madhya Pradesh also follows the same practice and the Commandant – General Home Guards also holds the position of Director, Civil Defence. However, except in the event of war or serious natural calamities, civil defence personnel are never mobilised for drills or preparedness calls. Since the possibility of leakage of MIC at such a massive scale had never been seriously contemplated, no coping action had ever been formulated. The earlier accidents even when they caused death and serious injury were generally soft-pedaled by the authorities who did not want to offend the factory top brass, for reasons already pointed out. In one accident where a worker had died of phosgene poisoning and several others injured, the case remained pending police investigation for more than a year. It was alleged that a former top police officer, now an employee of the U.C.C. and a very senior government doctor did their utmost to influence the course of inquiry. The cases were finally sent up for prosecution because the SP took a firm stand. This later proved a boon as the government cited this as proof that requisite action was always taken when so warranted. Bhopal had a Divisional level office of the Home Guards, who were fully deployed on guard duties at the houses of Ministers and senior officers as also on stand-by duties for law and order functions. Most of them had either not undergone civil defence training or had been through a course long back. Naturally their capabilities in this area could not be fully tapped, though individually both the officers and men of the MP Home Guards gave a good account of themselves. Moreover, the bulk of the force comprised of volunteers.

As in the case of the dramatic arrest of Warren Anderson, already narrated in an earlier paragraph, the police and magistracy were primarily acting to safeguard and sustain the stand taken by the government (which was understandably dictated by the Chief Minister) in the whole affair. One important stand of government policy appeared to be to uphold the continued denial by the Union Carbide of any possibility of cyanide poisoning for several months after the event. For any such admission would readily generate controversies of a much more serious nature and also make the U.C.C. liable to greatly enhanced claims for compensation. After considerable resistance in the initial stages to the administration of sodium thiosulphate (NaTs) to victims, the M.P. government finally announced on 6th April 85 its decision to organise mass detoxification with the help of NaTs and supplied the ampoules to a few government hospitals. Finding the process far to slow and tardy (according to one estimate, it would have taken nine years to be completed), some private medical doctors and voluntary organisations came together to form a People’s Health Clinic (Jan Swasthya Samiti or J.S.) on U.C.C. land with the declared purpose of providing scientific Medicare, putting mass detoxification as the top priority. Technical assistance and medical personnel poured in from far and near. J.S. now started the NaTs therapy in right earnest under the guidelines prescribed by ICMR and with the drug and disposable syringes provided by the state government. As the detoxification therapy gained momentum and demands for opening more clinics were voiced, the district police “suddenly broke into the clinic on the midnight of 24th June, manhandled and arrested the doctors, health workers and all Morcha workers. A public campaign was mounted under official patronage against the doctors and health workers branding them as agents of CIA and U.C.11. Later the volunteers reorganised themselves but the government refused to release the ampoules till the Supreme Court of India directed the state government to hand over all the confiscated material and resume the supply of NaTs ampoules. However, it was not till 21st October that the process of detoxification was fully restored. Valuable time was lost in the bargain. According to contemporary reports, “The presence of a strong invisible influence operating within the government machinery to thwart and sabotage the mass detoxification programme was very much palpable12.

The deep-seated feelings of the gas affected masses were graphically articulated through a ‘foundation stone’ laid on 3rd June 1985 in a moving ceremony in land belonging to the U.C. by 12 year old Sunil Kumar Rajput, who had lost eight members of his family. It also symbolised the resurgent community spirit and prevailing resentment against the government and the medical establishment. Engraved on the stone in Hindi was the following script: the police later removed the ‘foundation stone’)

June 3, 1985

Six months after the Bhopal gas episode

“In protest against the heinous crime of Union Carbide, the protection to it by the government and the continuing neglect of the gas victims, today declaring this place a liberated zone through people’s struggle on the initiative and demands of the people, the foundation stone of a hospital was laid for the scientific and humanitarian treatment of lakhs of gas affected victims”.

The main agitation for medical relief was spearheaded by an organisation called the Zahrili Gas Kand Sangathan Morcha (Poisonous Gas Episode Organisation Front), which was viewed by the authorities as their principal adversary and the persistent police Samiti action was obviously directed at bringing it to heel. Since the Jan Swasthya (People’s Health} Clinic was set up initially by the ZGKS Morcha, it came under constant pressure till it dissolved itself. Ironically the government too have had under consideration a grandiloquent plan to build an expensive memorial, somewhat on the lines of the one in Hiroshima, to commemorate the catastrophe. Little comfort to the thousands of the gas-affected people of Bhopal, who became victims of endless controversies, confusion and political – bureaucratic incompetence and suffered untold miseries! Police action against the ZGKS Morcha and the rallies organised by them continued for a considerable time, including a lathi-charge on 25th June 1985 when the Chief Minister refused to meet them in order to receive a charter of demands.

Lest this account appear one-sided, this writer must place on record the consistently watchful and victim-friendly approach adopted by India’s Supreme Court, without whose firm guidance, the gas victims would still have been shuttling between one government office and another for relief and compensation and would have found it impossible to pick up the threads of existence once again. India’s civil services, once considered at par with the best in the world, have over the years lost their elan, versatility and objectivity under heavy doses of politicisation and a massive expansion in numbers. Still functioning under an antiquated colonial enactment – the Indian Police Act of 1861 – the Indian police are unable to secure the trust and confidence of the people who look upon the law-enforcement agencies with suspicion and hostility. The substantive laws of crimes, evidence and procedure, which also date from mid-nineteenth century, deny the police adequate autonomy and discretion to act in defence of community interests. The Indian police are in law and in fact accountable to the government of the day and not to the community, despite several articles in the Indian Constitution stressing citizen rights and the state’s duty to safeguard them. The part played by the Bhopal district administration and the police in the wake of the gas disaster was determined by the existing legal framework and shaped by the bureaucratic culture of indifference and apathy to the problems of the common man, so long as the powers that be are kept happy and satisfied.

Globalisation, culture and ethics are interactive process. The absorption of advanced technology by less developed societies with inadequate infrastructure facilities has to be carefully monitored. The hazards to the community are greatly multiplied when governments in developing countries themselves become accessories to the cost-cutting policies of greedy M.N.C.’s, either by design or negligence. The flouting of industrial safety provisions is winked at, accidents, even fatalities, are improperly investigated and an unholy alliance allowed to develop between the high government functionaries and the M.N.C. management at the cost of plant safety, creating multiple hazards for the mass of the people, apart from the workers. “In India, responsible people talked about the plant’s safety, inefficiency and lack of maintenance, but only after the accident. They seemed, to be almost boasting of the company’s and hence government’s, indifference to safety. Yet no one raised his voice, or so far as we know; tried to bring the problem to the attention of responsible officials”13.

That the people were not unaware of the long-standing implicit understanding, amounting almost to collusion, between the U.C.C. and the Indian authorities was unambiguously highlighted through the slogans and epigrams they used in their demonstrations. Some are reproduced below:

“Carbide Ne Kya Kiya?

Hazaron Ko Mar Diya,

Sarkar Ne Kya Kiya,

Hathyaron Ka Saath Diya

An English rendering would be

“What did Carbide do?

It killed thousands,

What did the government do?

It aided the Killers”

Targeting U.S.A., the processionists would intone;

“It was the conspiracy of the dollar

That mixed poisons in Bhopal

Made the poison in America

And dumped it in Bhopal”.

Those affected seriously in the tragedy thought they had been deceived by the very people who offered to help but committed a breach of trust, as the following couplet poignantly points out:

What did doctors do?

They did not give us milk

What did lawyers do?

They used us as pawns



  1. Shrivastava Paul, Bhopal – Anatomy, of A Crisis, Ballinger Publishing Company Cambridge, Massachusetts, p. 65
  2. Gas Disaster Results in 400 Abortions”, M.P. Chronicle, 4th October 1985.
  3. S. Diamond, The Disaster in Bhopal: Lessons for the Future, New York Times, 3rd February 1985.
  4. Adam Hochschild, Globalisation and Culture, Economic and Political Weekly, 23rd May 1998, Bombay.
  5. Claude Alvares, The Violence of Development, Frontier, April 1994, pp. 6-9.
  6. Futuristics, Times of India, New Delhi, 10th June 1999.
  7. Government’s False Promises, Free Press Journal, 16th December 1984.
  8. Larry Everest, Behind the Poison Cloud: Union Carbide’s Bhopal massacre, Hyderabad 1987, p. 155.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid. p. 152
  11. Economic and Political Weekly, 14th December 1985 Bombay, p. 2193.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Sufrin, Sidney C., Bhopal – Its Setting; Responsibility and Challenge; Ajanta Publications, Delhi 1985, p. 34.

Appendix I

Bhopal Carbide factory tops toxic ‘hotspots’ list

Greenpeace has in its Bhopal Legacy Report called for a more “detailed and extensive survey” of the soil around the former Union Carbide premises here to determine the full extent of the continuing contamination since the occurrence of the gas tragedy on 2nd December 1984.

Releasing the report on the occasion of the disaster’s 15th anniversary, Greenpeace coordinator Matt Ruchal told newspersons on Monday that their findings were based on a survey undertaken in May 1999 to check the toxic “hotspots” the work over. The Carbide factory in Bhopal topped the list. Seven soil and sediment and 12 groundwater samples were sent to the Greenpeace Research Laboratories in the University of Exeter (UK) for analysis. The samples on examination were found to have a complex mixture of organic formulations. The mercury content in the soil, he informed, was between “20,000 to 60 lakh times” the permissible limit. Particularly worrisome, said Ruchal, was the inordinately heavy presence of hexachlorocyclohexane (HCH), a chemical which stays in the environment for decades and affects the functioning of the central nervous system, kidneys, and intentines.

Ruchal said the waste on the ground too contained poisonous chemicals like lead, nickel, copper, chromium, and chlorobenzenes. Though seven of the 12 groundwater samples were free f any pollutants, those picked up from the northern side were contaminated 1700 times the parameters set by WHO. Especially heavy was the presence of carbon tetrachloride.

To stop the residents living on the factory fringe from coming in harm’s way, the Greenpeace report says the short-term priority must be to provide clean water to the communities, and prevent access to contaminated wells. Also necessary is the proper storage of contaminated material from the factory site for future treatment and destruction in a closed loop system.

The report calls upon the MP government to initiate “independence action and extensive scientific inquiry” into the contamination and ensure the supply of safe drinking water.

Since the courts are still struggling to fix responsibility for the 1984 disaster, it is time a decision was taken on the liability for onsite contamination.

* (Author is a former Director General Police, Punjab and former Vice Chancellor Barkatullah university, Bhopal. He is a fellow of Indian Institute of Advance Study, Shimla)

The paper was presented at a seminar organised in New Delhi in 2001 by the Deptt. of Administrative Ethics of the Australian National University.

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