Friday, December 4, 2009

Should we move beyond Bhopal?

Beware of Fatal Accidents

Lives of thousands of workers and citizens in danger because of poisonous gas. Spurt of accidents in the factory, safey measures deficient.

This was the text [translated from Hindi] of a poster put up by Workers Union of the Union Carbide Plant in Bhopal in October 1982, 2 years before the gruesome Bhopal Gas tragedy of Decemeber 1984.

Why such a warning was given by the workers?

A series of accidents were happening in Union Carbide factory in Bhopal.
In December 1981 a phosgene leak injured three workers; one of the workers died the next day. Two weeks later in January 1982, 24 workers were overcome by another phosgene leak. In February 1982 an MIC leak affected 18 people. In August 1982 a chemical engineer came into contact with liquid MIC resulting in burns over 30% of his body. And in October 1982 a combined MIC, hydrochloric acid and chloroform leak injured three workers in the plant and affected a number of residents of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Since 1976 the two unions representing Bhopal workers had frequently complained to Union Carbide management and the Madhya Pradesh authorities, including the Factory Inspectorate, about safety and health hazards in the plant.

In an April 13, 1982, letter to the Minister of Labour of Madhya Pradesh, the Union wrote:

Our unit is going to celebrate the safety week from the 14th of April, 1982. But the workers would like to inform you that this function is merely a window-display... we would also like point out that our unit is manufacturing dangerous chemicals like phosgene , carbon monoxide, methyl iscocyanate, BHC, naphtha and temik.

How effective was the safety systems in Bhopal factory at the time of the disaster?
The Bhopal plant had four major safety systems designed to prevent or neutralize an uncontrolled MIC reaction:

(1) A 30 ton refrigeration unit to cool stored MIC, in order to prevent it from vaporizing or reacting;
The 30 ton refrigeration unit had been shut down since June 1984. There were no mechanical problems with the system; it was taken out of service to save money. The Freon refrigerant had been drained out for use elsewhere in the plant . The shutdown was in violation of established operating procedures

(2) A vent gas scrubber (VGS) to neutralize toxic gases with caustic soda in the event of a release;
The vent gas scrubber (VGS) was turned off in October, 1984, apparently because someone thought it was not necessary when MIC was only being stored and not produced. In addition, the caustic flow indicator was malfunctioning, so it would have been difficult to verify whether the unit was operating or not

(3) A flare tower to burn vented gases from the MIC storage tanks and other equipment; and
The flare had also been out of service since mid-October. A section of corroded pipe leading to it had been removed even though replacement pipe was not ready.the company had compromised the reliability of the flare tower even before it was disconnected. The tower was originally built with a backup set to fuel gas cylinders to ensure that the pilot light stayed on. However, the backup system was discontinued to save money.

(4) A water spray system to knock down escaping vapors.
The water spray system which was activated the night of the accident did not reach the level of the gas release, and was therefore useless. In 1982, Union Carbide Corporation, after inspecting the Bhopal facility, had recommended a new, larger water spray system, but it was never installed.

At the time of the accident  three of these systems were not operating. Only the water spray worked though ineffectively.

 Under staffed to cut Costs
At the time of the accident, the Bhopal plant, including the MIC facility, was operating with reduced manpower.  The plant had been losing money, and in 1983 and 1984 there were more personnel reductions in order to cut costs. Some worker were laid off and 150 permanent worker were pooled and assigned to jobs as needed. The employees were often assigned to jobs they were not qualified to do.
In the MIC facility the production crew had been cut from 12 (11 operators, 1 supervisor) to 6 (5 operators.1 supervisor), and the maintenance crew reduced from 6 to 2. According to the workers, the maintenance supervisor position on the second and third shifts had been cut on November 26, less than a week before accident. With reference to maintenance work and giving instructions for the job, the workers indicated that it would have been the responsibility of the maintenance supervisor to prepare the pipe which was being flushed with water the night of December 2, 1984, including to prevent the entry of water into the pipes leading to tank 610.Entry of water used for flushing of pipes into MIC storage tank 610 was the primary reason for the tragedy.

Why Bhopal disaster?

The Bhopal disaster was caused by a combination of factors, including the long term storage of MIC in the plant, the potentially undersized vent gas scrubber, the shutdown of the MIC refrigeration units, the use of the backup tank to store contaminated MIC, the company's failure to repair the flare tower, leaking valves, broken gauges, and cuts in manning levels, crew sizes, workers training, and skilled supervision. The accident might have been prevented if UCC had done more to follow up its 1982 safety inspection, or of UCIL or the government had heeded the complaints of unions representing Bhopal workers. The effects of the accident were exacerbated by the company's failure to provide adequate information to its subsidiary, authorities and community residents, the siting of the plant close to residential areas, and UCIL'S lack of disaster planning.

Many especially in the Corporate World and Government feel that it is time to move beyond Bhopal. But can we really move beyond the World's worst Industrial tragedy?

The chilling statistics of a continuing tragedy [from]

More than 8,000 people killed due to exposure to the lethal gasses in the immediate aftermath of the disaster

 More than 500,000 people exposed to the poison gasses left to suffer a lifetime of ill health and mental trauma
The death toll has since risen to more than 20,000 people
 Nearly 30 people continue to die from exposure-related illnesses every month
At least 1,50,000 people, including children born to gas-exposed parents, suffer debilitating exposure-related health effects

Tons of poisonous pesticides and other hazardous wastes lying scattered and abandoned in the DOW-Carbide factory premises, insidiously poisoning the ground water and contaminating the land

A meagre life time compensation of 25000 Rs awarded to survivors and many still to get it 25 years after the tragedy.

 The specific items which caused the tragedy and the specific way they came together on the night of December 2, 1984, were unique. But the underlying causes are not unique:

Corporate greed,undercutting on safety to cut losses or increase profit,lack of Government monitoring of safety requirements, lack of  disaster management plans etc etc are not unique to Bhopal. It is there everywhere in present day India.

India has not learnt much from Bhopal. Our environmental and occupational safety regulations are still very lax. Corporates rule our Parliament,media and Governments.  Our Legal system is far behind in punishing Corporate crimes and ensuring accountability.We lag very much in our ability to cope with such grave emergencies.We are still very pathetic in rehabilitating the victims of such disaster

Unless better  regulations are written and strictly monitored by management  as well as by local. regional, and national Governments, the next Industrial disaster or a similar crime due to Corporate greed is just around the corner.

Industrial Development should promote human survival,not death.

Sources and links
the guardian


  1. bhopal tragedy is the most shameful happening in independent india. an MNC was allowed to operate ignoring safety regulations and the MD of the company was allowed go scot free. anderson lives in a plush bunglow in the US and is accesible to media and anyone who wishes to see him but not to the US govt and the Indian! even out legal heavy weights who talk so emphatically on timely dispensation of justice on TV have complicity in making a safe passage for Anderson from india , and also in protecting him from the arm of law.

    if this had happened in UC's factory in virginia, Andrson would still be doing RI in some prison in the US.But the lives of the people in the third world is worthless. why blame the US when the govt of India and MP are soft pedalling the issue of bringing the white skin to book.

    i was sickened by Lapierre's words to NDTV. When asked about bringign the culprits to book, he brashly said that that issue did not interest him. it's only the welfare of the victims that was his concern.

    what a shame!

  2. Moving beyond Bhopal, but where to?

    As KPJ told, the lives in a III World Country come easy, go easy. Who bothers? Unless it is their father, their wiffe, their kid, they never feel the pinch. The Anderson guy roams scott free, thanks to our this lax attitude. That child weilding a cricket bat is one among the thousands of souls who still pay for the criminal corporate negligance by an MNc, but as they say, lets move on...

  3. KPJ,Scorpiogenius, Yes I agree.

    The Indian Corporates and the Government want to forgive and forget but for those who suffered and continue to suffer it will be impossible.

  4. hi doc

    came here from google n have read ur posts from july to december :D was searching for a good site to gather some general knowledge for my SNAP exam :D and found this really informative considering I never read the newspaper in my entire life :D Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart :)

    Hooked to your blog since 2 days. Some body get me out of here!!!!

  5. Luckydivs,
    Welcome to my blog and thank you for the nice words.

  6. A timely post.

    And a very good one too!

    Like Kochuthressiamma said, "if this had happened in UC's factory in virginia, Andrson would still be doing RI in some prison in the US!"

  7. 25 years and still counting...on what, for what ?? - I cannot believe that there is such an audacious statement made public ! The settlement page is a joke, even if everything they claim is true, it is a pittance compared to the compensations that would have been offered had the incident happened in the US ! The FAQ is a farce !! I want to take an objective view but reading this information just makes me want to strangle someone !

  8. Jayan, welcome to this blog. Yes the World is still very unjust

  9. SG, welcome here. Yes the 'compensation' was meagre to say the least.

  10. a timely and informative post.. Thank you...

    nd we are here now waiting for the nuclear installations.. nd they say that due to the US involvement the necessary precautions will be put in.. but if we as a country is least bothered should we expect them to be cautious for our sake? And specially if it can be cheaper too…

    "The official explanation of a “disgruntled” employee causing “mischief” raises more questions than it answers.
    Firstly, if some “insiders” are so callous as to indulge in an attempt to cause serious bodily harm to random fellow workers, does it not say something on the process of recruitment itself and also on the level of employee job satisfaction within the nuclear power corporation? What is to prevent more “disgruntled” elements from sabotaging vital reactor safety systems and putting the public and surrounding countryside at grave risk?

  11. Good point Happy Kitten. In Bhopal Gas Tragedy also the management tried to hide behind false accusation of a sabotage by an employee. But the truth was the workers were the first to raise the red flag about safety measures.
    In India life of not so rich or powerful is expendable.

  12. There's a book called Animal's People .. about a boy like the one in the picture...

  13. IHM, 'Animal's People' ? will try to get a copy and read it.


Comments are welcome especially if you do not think like me. But anonymous comments behind masks and those not relevant to the post are not encouraged.