The notorious Bhopal Gas Leak tragedy is said to be one of the worst industrial disasters of the world. This tragic incident took place in the Union Carbide subsidiary pesticide plant in the city of Bhopal, when the deadly Methyl Iso-Cyanate (MIC) leaked in the dead of night due to a faulty valve and affected thousands of people across the city.
Lets have a look at what happened:
The incident took place on the night of 2-3rd December, 1984, when tonnes of toxic MIC was released from the plant accidentally, exposing more than 6,00,000 people to the toxic gases. It claimed around 25,000 lives out of which more than 3,500 people died immediately after the incident. The worst sufferers of this accident were the people from the slum areas near Union Carbide India Ltd. (UCIL) plant. The suffering and after effects still continues even after 30 years of this disaster. The children are born with birth effects, many are suffering from physical and mental disability. Several civil and criminal cases are pending against UCIL and its then CEO Warren Anderson in the District Court of Bhopal, but no justice has been given to the victims who either succumbed to their injuries or are still fighting for survival.
Incidentally it was not the first time leakages had taken place in the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, there were earlier ones too. Trade unions had complained about pollution in Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, way back in 1976 itself. American experts who visited Union Carbide in 1981, warned of a runaway reaction in MIC tank. There was a “phosgene” leak in Jan 1982, in which around 24 workers were affected and another 18 workers in Feb 82. The Bhopal disaster was something waiting to happen from long, too many leaks earlier had happened yet safety standards was lax.
The deadly MIC gas, that wreaked havoc on Bhopal, was stored in large tanks beyond the required level. The slack maintenance and substandard safety systems led to MIC tank refrigeration system switch off. Also the plant was located in a densely populated area surrounded by slums. The MIC tank pressure gauge, which leaked, was malfunctioning, no efforts to repair it. The refrigeration system was kept idle, all in the name of cost cutting. This was simply criminal.
The deadly leak occurred when water entered the tank E610 containing 42 tons of MIC. The reaction in the MIC tank, increased the temperature, forced the emergency vents to release the toxic gases. 30 metric tonnes of MIC escaped into the atmosphere in around 45 to 60 minutes spreading all over. The cloud of gas coming out from Bhopal, had gases denser than the air, and stayed closer to ground. At around 1 a.m in the morning people woke up with suffocation and burning sensation in their lungs. A huge panic was created and people were rushing out which even lead to stampede. There was no warning given to general public during this time, and even the emergency alarms in the factory started at around 2:30 a.m. By early morning, more than a 1000 people lay dead, Bhopal was like a graveyard.
Passengers travelling through Bhopal, had accounts of many desperately trying to catch any train, to escape. Hospitals were full with around 150,000 people admitted for various infections in couple of days. There was a huge rise in the incidents of children either being still born or dying within a week of birth. Trees around the Union Carbide plant became barren, animal carcasses were found all over. Out of the estimated 6 lakhs affected, around 200,000 were below 15 years of age, a whole generation lost.
On 7 June 2010 seven former employees of the UCIL, all Indian nationals and many in their 70s, were convicted of causing death by negligence and each sentenced to two years imprisonment and fined Rs.1 lakh (US$2,124). All were released on bail shortly after the verdict.
The Chairman and CEO of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, had been arrested by CM Arjun Singh’s Congress Govt., and released on bail on December 7, 1984. The arrest which took place at the airport, assured Anderson would meet no harm by the Bhopal community. Anderson was taken to Union Carbide’s house after which he was released six hours later on bail. This was probably Rajiv Gandhi’s other worst crime. In my opinion worse than his “Big tree falls, earth shakes” thing. Where Warren Anderson should have been prosecuted, shameless Rajiv Gandhi got him released on bail, and also flew him out on a Govt plane. Disgusting !! In 1987, trying to make amends, when Govt wanted Warren Anderson for prosecution, Union Carbide showed the middle, finger simply saying: “it is not under Indian jurisdiction”.
This tragedy is not history, it still is around us, our factories and industries continue to be as unsafe as ever. All the factors that contributed to Bhopal Gas Disaster are still thriving in most Indian industries, that is a hard fact. While I conclude this sad reminder, I urge that the “Make in India” movement does not overlook the best practices of safety standards.