Saturday, July 24, 2010

This 1984

On the night of December 2nd 1984, I was traveling from Jorhat to Guwahati, in Assam, more than 2,000 miles away from Bhopal. I, a medical representative, was in an overnight bus for the 250-mile journey.
I had to take this bus ride every month for my cycle meeting. I liked this journey immensely, as the bus passed through the Kajiranga forests, and I stayed awake in anticipation of spotting a rhinoceros. I had no luck on this night, and I recall telling this to my co-passenger, Jinoo, who sold baby food and prickly heat powder.
In the cold morning of December, bleary eyed, I knocked at Subrato’s door. I stayed with him to save on the hotel bill, which we spent on booze. The radio news was all over. We all understood something terrible had just happened.
On the night of 2nd December, while I was trying hard to get a glimpse of a rhinoceros, 42,000 kg of lethal gas had leaked out of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL)’s pesticide plant in Bhopal. By the time I pressed my friend’s doorbell, about 4,000 people were already dead.
Our cycle meeting started sharp at nine a.m. Mr. Ghatak from Calcutta had come to conduct the meeting. After the sales review, we had a tea break. He told us about methyl isocyanate (MIC). He also told us that our colleagues in Bhopal were in great danger.
Today, 2010, we know that more than 500,000 people have been affected by the Bhopal gas leak, and this is still not all the aftermath. Now, as you read this, 400 tons of chemicals that lie in the UCIL plant still trickle down into the groundwater resources of Bhopal.
“Business Decisions”
We know about the “business decision” at UCIL to use methyl isocyanate (MIC) instead of less hazardous (but more expensive) material to make Carbaryl, the product UCIL made. We also know of a “business decision” at UCIL that shut down the MIC tank cooling system, with the sole intent to save money — for the shareholders, of course — and, one could argue, to improve the performance of the management.
The most important “business decision,” of course, was to completely ignore the 1982 safety audit of the Bhopal plant, which had identified 30 major problem areas that could cause a hazard. Choosing not to correct these problems would not have saved a lot of money for the company. These problems, however, were fixed at the company’s identical plant in the U.S.
Was the Bhopal gas leak a disaster? It was going to happen eventually. UCIL’s management team knew about the safety violations. But possibly they wouldn’t have imagined the effects would be this enormous.
“D” People
Why do intelligent people at responsible positions tend to make such “business decisions”? These kind (they are of a kind, I have no doubt; let us call them the “D” people) have a priority of immense self interest, and they take huge risks on other people to save their own face. You will find this kind of people at the centre of all disasters. For example, we know of such people having an important role in the 2008 economic meltdown.
We should all be concerned that many such “D” people would be manning important positions in our society right now. “D” people cause disasters, given sufficient time. “D” people can also develop into dictators if the ground they walk on is fertile enough. Don’t we have such “D” people near the BP oil leak? Think of them, the ones who chose the cheaper designs.
Can we have a sieving system to identify and prevent such people from reaching responsible positions in our society? Maybe at the school, the university, and definitely at management institutes. Or, is it that human beings cease to be so when they are saddled with a certain kind of responsibility? Or, for some people, is looking good all that matters in life?
There are another set of people who are “oh, so true to their profession” but not to their evolution as humans. The lawyers argued in the courts of the USA that the compensation case of the native Indians be conducted in India. The laws in the US were far too in favor of the victims “and the company might go bankrupt
In addition to UCIL management and Lawyers, there have been hundreds of people — the police, the judiciary, and politicians of all inclinations — who worked hard 24×7 to ensure that the court case of UCIL would take only 26 years.
That is time enough for genetic defects to show up. Perhaps it is time for another court case — on behalf of the children born of survivors.
Of Standards — Poor and Double
Every day when I travel in crowded buses and local trains, I go through the classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde syndrome. On the platform I am Dr. Jekyll, just eager to enter the train. The moment I am in, I turn into Mr. Hyde and do my best to prevent others from entering the train. I hate crowds, you see, though I am seldom alone.
The Mr. Hydes at Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) reportedly never shared any research reports of over a dozen studies on methyl isocyanate (MIC) with the medical fraternity. Either the reports were/are very damaging, in which case MIC should never have been used — or, the reports were not so damaging, in which case, antidotes to MIC would have been ready in 1984.
Today we know that injections of sodium thiosulphide would have saved thousands of lives on the night of 2nd December 1984 at Bhopal. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) was then doing a double-blind trial on effectiveness of this drug as a de-toxifier, but the report came 22 years too late.
The gas cloud on that night was denser than air and stayed close to the ground, affecting children and shorter people and those who never woke up. In the area declared as “gas affected,” there were 200,000 children of age less than 15 yrs and 3,000 pregnant women.
On the morning of 3rd December 1984, almost all the trees in the “gas-affected” area had shed all their leaves and developed burn patches. The Xerophytes suffered more because these plants keep their stomata (nose) open at night. Chromosomal abnormalities have since been found in eggplant, tomato, radish, and other shrubs.

Time magazine called Bhopal "India's Disaster." Photo: Courtesy Dipak Kumar
The bank of the Narmada River was a horrific site of innumerable mass cremations of men, women, children, and cattle. Those who ran that night inhaled more poison than the few who had a ride. Of the 154 people studied between 1986 and 1988, more than 20 percent had at least two chromosomal abnormalities, the more common type being translocation in chromosomes 13 and 21. MIC was found to have changed ovarian epithelial cell production, leading to permanent damage and carcinogenesis.
Dow Chemicals USA purchased UCIL in 2001. Although it denies any responsibility for damages caused by UCIL in Bhopal, Dow fights more than 75,000 asbestos-related lawsuits for Union Carbide in the USA. Twenty-six years later, contamination at the site has still not been cleaned up.
On its cover following the Bhopal gas leak, TIME magazine wrote, “INDIA’S DISASTER.” To me, the Bhopal gas leak is as much India’s disaster as was slave trade Africa’s disaster or Hiroshima Japan’s disaster. It is a human disaster.
I guess we are waiting for some sensible evolution to occur in ourselves, so that no more disasters happen. Will we ever see the day that Mr. Hydes no longer run the world?
Dipak Kumar