Monday, December 14, 2009

Bhopal Revisited !

First of all, my apologies for keeping away for such a long time but believe me, I have been really preoccupied with certain academic obligations at college.

Anyway, this particular post is dedicated to a case on unarguably the most horrifying humanitarian (corporate/industrial) disaster better known to us as the "Bhopal Gas Tragedy" and let me tell you at the very outset, TRAGEDY would definitely have to be an understatement which I am pretty sure not many would disagree with once they have read through the post.

For the detailed case, kindly refer to the book "Environmental Management" by Dr. Bala Krishnamoorthy (Page Nos. 208-212, Case 2: Bhopal Revisited); the Google link to the book is (Kindly go to page no 208). I have tried to analyse the case to the best of my ability. This post is an endeavor to bring to your knowledge the details of the case and seeks your sincere attention, in general. Read On !

Facts of the case

  • §    On December 2nd and 3rd, 1984, a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, began leaking 27 tonnes of deadly methyl isocyanate gas
  • §    On the portentous night of December 2nd, 1984, when an employee was flushing a corroded pipe, multiple stopcocks failed and allowed water to flow freely into the largest tank of MIC (methyl isocyanate) the exposure of which led to an uncontrolled reaction; the tank blasted and spewed a deadly cloud of MIC, hydrogen cyanide, monomethyl amine and other chemicals. Mother Nature did no mercy either and blown by the prevailing winds, the ominous cloud blanketed over the city of Bhopal and soon thereafter, incessant death counts started.
  • §    Casualties: actual figures unknown; approximation of Municipal Workers – 15,000
  • §     As many as 20,000 people have died to date as a result of the deadly exposure and more than 1,20,000 people still suffer from ailments caused by the accident and the subsequent pollution at the plant site
  • §    Nearby water bodies heavily contaminated with mercury, lead, and other heavy metals in addition to harmful organochlorides
  • §    Every safety system that had been installed to prevent a leak of MIC (methyl isocyanate) – at least six in all – ultimately proved inoperative
  • §    In 2001, Michigan-based chemical corporation Dow Chemical purchased Union Carbide, thereby acquiring its assets and liabilities
  • §    Mr. Warren Anderson, Union Carbide’s CEO at the time of disaster, has never stood trial before an Indian court and on top of that, has evaded even an international arrest warrant and a summons to appear before a US court
  • §    The Union Carbide Corporation, charged with culpable homicide (a criminal charge with no upper limit on the penalty associated with it), has also refused to appear before an Indian court

Consequences of the disaster

The havoc that the gas leakage unleashed in Bhopal should be appreciated in the light of the long term effects/consequences it had and the immediate effects should not be considered alone.

  • §    Immediate casualties in thousands and the effects of the disaster felt even today in the form of an epidemic of cancers, menstrual disorders, ‘monstrous births’, and other ailments
  • §    The gas affected people continue to succumb to injuries sustained during the disaster, dying at the rate of one each day
  • §    Dow Chemicals has consistently and stringently maintained it isn’t liable for the Bhopal accident although by corporate law, it is the acquirer of both the assets as well as the liabilities of Union Carbide
  • §    Treatment protocols are hampered by the company’s (Union Carbide’s as well as Dow Chemical’s ) continuous refusal to share information it holds on the toxic effects of MIC claiming the data is a “trade secret”
  • §    Local groundwater and well water near the site of accident revealed mercury at levels between 20,000 to 6 million times than those expected
  • §    Cancer and brain-damage and birth-defect-causing chemicals were found in the water; trichloro-ethene, a chemical shown to impair fetal development, was found at levels 50 times higher than EPA safety limits
  • §    Testing has revealed presence of poisons such as 1,3,5 trichlorobenzene, dichloromethane, chloroform, lead, and mercury in the breast milk of nursing women
  • §    The children of gas-affected women are subject to a frightening array of debilitating illness, including retardation, gruesome birth defects, and reproductive disorders
  • §    In 1989, Union Carbide, in partial settlement with the Indian government, agreed to pay out some $470 million in compensation; the victims were not consulted in the settlement discussions, and many felt cheated by the compensation -- $300 - $500 – or about five years’ worth of medical expenses

Concluding Remarks

Bhopal Gas Tragedy provides for an acute case of “corporate negligence” on the part of first, the Union Carbide Corporation, and then by its owner, Dow Chemical. The following points shall conclude my understanding of the case:

  • §    The Union Carbide factory was in shackles right from the outset because the sales never met company’s expectations owing to the incapacity of the Indian farmers to buy Union Carbide’s pesticides. The plant never reached its full capacity and ceased active production in the early 1980s
  • §    However, three tanks continued to hold over 60 tonnes of MIC and to add to the already existing negligence, the safety systems installed to avoid the leakage of the poisonous (and deadly) MIC were allowed to fall into disrepair which ultimately proved inoperative
  • §    The maintenance was so bad that on that unfortunate night, multiple stopcocks failed allowing water to flow freely into the largest tank containing MIC. The exposure of water thus led to an uncontrolled reaction blasting the tank and spewing a deadly cloud of MIC, hydrogen cyanide, monomethyl amine, and other chemicals all over the city of Bhopal causing immediate casualties

Had there been timely and proper maintenance and audit of the plant and the site, the disaster could have been avoided, for sure.

It has already been mentioned that no party, neither the Union Carbide Corporation nor Dow Chemical seem to be accepting their mistakes or accepting any liabilities. This is clearly reflected by the fact that the site itself has never been cleaned up, and a new generation is being poisoned by the chemicals that Union Carbide left behind.

The role of the government and the judiciary is far from satisfactory in this case. Neither of the two parties has been stringent enough to bring the perpetrators of the crime (of negligence and thereafter not taking responsibility) to the court of law. Our failure to bring Mr. Warren Anderson, the then CEO of Union Carbide before the court of law is evidence enough to show our lack of authority and seriousness in the matter.

Merely shelling out money as compensation shall not do justice to the case on the whole. It is worth mentioning in this context that the victims were not consulted and a sort of unilateral decision as regards to the amount of compensation was taken.

There is a lot that needs to be done for the victims (including survivors) of this horrifying humanitarian disaster. Issues like cleaning up of the site, adequate compensation, adequate health measures, etc. should be very strictly dealt with. Besides, the state (in collaboration with the Central Government) government should take some stern action through the protocols prescribed in the Indian Judicial System and bring those responsible in any way whatsoever, to the court of law and punish them as severely as possible considering the extent of destruction (of life and property) and the catastrophe (psychological) brought to all those people who were affected, in some way or the other, that unfortunate night.

However, inspite of all the analyses and discussions, there is no way one can comprehend what happened that fateful night or feel what went through people's minds while running randomly for their lives on that night of ominous significance. The following statement from Rashida Bi, a survivor who lost five gas-exposed family members to cancers sums it all :

"Those who escaped with their lives are the "unlucky ones"; the lucky ones are those who died on that night."

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