Thursday, December 3, 2009


Today is the 25th anniversary of the most horrific industrial disaster in human history: the release of tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) from a Union Carbide factory in Bhopal India.
"Wake up people of Bhopal, you are on the edge of a volcano!"

In September 1982, Bhopali journalist Raj Keswani wrote a terrifying story, the first of a series of articles, for the city's Jansatta daily. Bhopal was about to be annihilated. "It will take just an hour, at most an hour-and-a-half, for every one of us to die."

Keswani's information came from worried staff at the Union Carbide factory, where a worker, Ashraf Khan, had just been killed in a phosgene spill.
I have been reading and marking articles for several days preparing to put this post together; it has been more heartbreaking and disgusting than I was expecting... and I was expecting it to be bad. The above quote is from a truly disturbing article in The Guardian, and the lead picture is from The Big Picture's Monday photo gallery commemorating the event. This photo made my eyes watery... here's the caption: "In this Friday, Nov. 20, 2009 photograph, a physiotherapist holds the leg of a seven year old child at a clinic run by a non-governmental organization to cater to victims of the gas tragedy in Bhopal, India." That is the leg. Of. A. Seven-year old. Child. Born 18 years after the disaster.

A bit more than two years after the "edge of a volcano" quote above, some tens of tons of MIC were released when a storage tank ruptured. I had not seen a statement of the quantity; that turns out to be for the very reasons I expected: Union Carbide's refusal to discuss anything having to do with the "accident." According to WiseGeek, "The volume of gas released in the Bhopal Disaster is a topic of dispute, with estimates ranging from 20 to 40 tons" (A real "wisegeek" would know that "tons" is not a measure of volume. Units are important, people)

According to an extensive, and apparently well-documented article at Wikipedia,
The government of Madhya Pradesh has confirmed a total of 3787 deaths related to the gas release. Another source says that a few days later the death toll had doubled. Over the next few years, the lingering effects of the poison nearly doubled the toll again, to about 15,000, according to government estimates. Local activists say the real numbers are almost twice that. Others estimate 8000 to 10,000 died within 72 hours and 25,000 have since died from gas-related diseases.
But as the lead picture shows, the impact is still profound, a quarter century later. Children not yet born, not yet conceived, are doomed to lives of pain and disability. According to The Guardian article,
Union Carbide bosses hoped to dismantle and ship the plant to Indonesia or Brazil, but finding no buyers, went instead on a cost-cutting spree.

Between 1980 and 1984 the workforce was halved. The crew of the MIC unit was cut from 12 to six, its maintenance staff from six to two. In the control room a single operator had to monitor 70-odd panels, indicators and controls, all old and faulty. Safety training was reduced from six months to two weeks – reduced in effect to slogans – but as the slogans were in English, the workers couldn't understand them.

By the time Keswani began his articles, the huge, highly dangerous plant was being operated by men who had next to no training, who spoke no English, but were expected to use English manuals. Morale was low but safety fears were ignored by management. Minor accidents happened routinely but were covered up. There were so many small leaks that the alarm siren was turned off to avoid inconveniencing the neighbours. A Union Carbide memo boasted of having saved $1.25m, but said that "future savings would not be so easy". There was nothing left to cut. Then bosses remembered the huge tank of MIC. They turned off its refrigeration to save freon gas worth $37 a day.
If safety was ignored inside the plant, Union Carbide had no plan at all for the surrounding densely packed neighbourhoods. As the situation worsened, factory staff, fearing for their own lives and those living nearby, put up posters warning of a terrible danger. Keswani wrote begging the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh to investigate the factory before Bhopal "turns into Hitler's gas chamber". His sensational style, perhaps, caused him to be ignored. His final article, "We are all about to be annihilated", appeared just weeks before the gas disaster.

As night fell on 2 December 1984, none of the factory's safety systems was working. The vent gas scrubber lay in pieces. The flare tower was undersized. The siren stayed silent. Years later – too late for the thousands who would now die in unimaginably hideous ways – a prosecuting attorney would say that Union Carbide had demonstrated a "depraved indifference to human life"
Many other sources are recognizing this anniversary, but the article I have emphasized here is the one that finally had me quietly weeping in the corner.
A Cloud Still Hangs Over Bhopal- NYT
India: Bhopal disaster lingers, 25 years later- CS Monitor
India's "death factory" leaves toxic legacy 25 years on- Reuters, via Scientific American
In Pictures: Bhopal, 25 Years On- BBC
Bhopal survivors fight for justice- BBC

Of course, it's only fair that I admit that Union Carbide and Dow's corporate profits look safe. And that's the important thing.

Followup, 6:12 PM: I realized there was no mention of the Indian journalist, Raj Keswani, spotlighted in the Guardian article, in the aftermath of the disaster and feared that he, too, had perished. Happily, he's still working.
After the tragedy he challenged the government sell-out to Union Carbide - the Indian government sued the company for $3bn but settled for 15% of the amount - and Mr Keswani became a mythic hero of sorts: Dominique Lapierre, for example, mentioned him in great detail without once talking to him while writing another best-seller. "He wrote that I used to go around in a car with a bagful of CDs because I was a music lover. Those days, as a struggling journalist, I had an old scooter and CDs hadn't even come to India," Mr Keswani laughs. This is one of my favourite Bhopal stories - it tells you how fact and fiction blur in the chaos of India.


Minnesotastan said...

Well written.


Lockwood said...

Thanks Stan! It turned out to be more difficult than I expected.

lydia said...

Thank you for writing about this. I heard about it the other night on the BBC, but couldn't understand the name of the city when anyone on the report said it.
It's another one of those events I'm just now hearing about... maybe because I was a year old when it happened, but really, I feel like this should be more easily known about than that.
Thank you again.