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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 26, June 19, 2010

Bhopal: Some Questions for Scientists

Sunday 20 June 2010, by Nikhil Chakravartty

The ten days that followed the Union Carbide’s killer gas leak in its plant at Bhopal on December 3 have not only seen the death of nearly three thousand people and more than a lakh hospitalised, but have brought in its train dramatic developments with far-reaching implications. The Chairman of the Union Carbide Corporation, Warren Anderson, was arrested and bundled out of Bhopal, while the Chairman of the Indian branch of the Union Carbide, Keshub Mahindra, and its Managing Director, V.P. Gokhale, are still in police custody as these lines are being written.

Expectedly, Anderson’s arrest touched off angry protests from Washington to J.R.D. Tata and his business tribe together with their media clientele. After all, the Union Carbide is the third biggest chemical enterprise in the USA, and thirty-first among the two hundred top multinational corporations in the world. Shocking that such a top boss from the land of Free Enterprise could at all be touched by a mere State Government in India. One does not know if Warren Anderson has recovered from the shock of the episode.

As for Mahindra and Gokhale, they could never possibly dream that they should at all be held responsible for thousands of lives dying because of the leak in their plant. After all, the plants are meant to produce profits and not the risk of having to spend sometime in prison.

The Union Carbide disaster has thus brought out the stark reality of the day: the Two Worlds that Disraeli had talked about—the world of millionaire management bosses on the one hand, and that of the millions of underprivileged who are the victims of the pollution belching out of the profit-minting plants. And in a season when the vote of the underprivileged has to be sought in the battle for power, no Chief Minister could have let such a big fish as Anderson escape, when lakhs in Bhopal were clamouring for the head of the guilty plant owner.

Much has already been written about the faulty maintenance, about past leaks, and corruption that flowed at the back of it all. All this is now being utilised by the Union Carbide bosses to cover up their own misdeeds. It is heartening, however, to see that the Bhopal disaster has thrown up a veritable worldwide awakening of the need to guard against pollution and against the neglect of safety laws by multinational corporations.

The tragedy at Bhopal therefore is without parallel in its ramifications, covering the national decision-making system as well as international implications.

In addition, the scarcity of information, a blanket ban on providing information even to those who want to understand and help, has created a situation in which it appears that the policy of those who have imposed the ban on information is to keep the people in the dark. This is all the more surprising in view of the fact that information about those features which are supposed to be secret, are available outside India, as well as to foreigners.

In a situation of this nature, it is the duty, in order to restore and win the confidence of people who have suffered and are afraid to give full information to people. The scientific community’s first duty is to people, rather than foreign companies or Indian for that matter, and their interest, and they have to work for the alleviation of the sufferings of the people. Or, is it that those who have imposed the ban on information have something to hide? Or, their policy is to increase discontent amongst people against the government?

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In the absence or lack of basic information, and contradictory information as is available through various press reports, one can only ask questions. These are basic questions, for which the government has to provide answer to the people:

1. How many accidents had taken place in the factory since its inception; what were the reports on each accident; what were the remedial measures taken?

2. What was the role of the Safety Inspector?—Did he submit any independent report at any time?

3. The government made at different times various statements about (a) the location not being dangerous; (b) the chemicals which were being made did not pose any major hazard; (c) adequate safety measures were taken; (d) reports on various accidents and action taken on them.

What was the basic data and source of information on the basis of which these statements were made? Were the above statements made on the information given by the company?

4. Why no action was being taken on the complaints submitted by the trade unions and the reports submitted by the voluntary groups and newspaper reports?

5. Have the pollution and deaths been caused by MIC, Phosgene or any other chemical?

In addition to the above, a number of very serious questions arise with regard to the machinery of the government and persons involved in the decision-making. Some of the basic questions which need to be asked are:

1. Was any feasibility study carried out (a) with regard to India’s need for MIC or Phosgene; (b) the location of the plant? Or, did the statements made by Union Carbide form the basis of decision-making?

2. Why was the specific location approved, when plants making dangerous chemicals are built outside the populated areas?

3. Why was the USA’s export policy instruments revoked for the erection of the plant at Bhopal, since the technology to manufacture lethal chemicals is placed under the Munitions list? Was it a part of the policy of multinationls to erect dangerous chemicals and high polluting chemicals in the developing countries; or was there any other unstated purpose?

4. Why was the intermediate MIC to be supplied by the parent firm?

5. What were the considerations before the Government of India to renew the agreement in 1983?

6. Did the parent company supply the safety know-how on an uptodate basis?

7. Is it true that the parent company’s investment in 1976 was only Rs 15 crores and an R and D establishment costing Rs 20 crores was allowed to be established in 1983? What were the objectives of the R and D Centre, its programme of work and the factors which led to its acceptance by the government; and to what extent income tax relief was given to the parent company for the R and D Centre?

8. How was it that Union Carbide India Ltd. (UCIL) was allowed to enter into collaboration with the USA Union Carbide Corporation to synthesise new chemicals and test them on tropical pests at Bhopal? What were these chemicals; how many tests were carried out, was the data of chemicals and tests made available to the government? How much money was provided by the parent company to UCIL for the tests?

9. What is the relevance of the chemicals made and tests carried out at Bhopal to chemical warfare?

10. Was the establishment of the R and D Centre and the tests to be carried out approved by the Committee of Secretaries in the Cabinet?

11.What were the links of CSIR laboratories with the Union Carbide R and D Centre? Why did the CSIR laboratories lack facilities to carry out pesticide tests and were asking the Union Carbide R and D Centre’s help for carrying out tests?

These are serious questions for which answers must be provided to the public. The government and the various scientists have not yet come forth with information which would enlighten the public and reassure them. Some of the statements so far issued are against the factual position.

The scientists owe responsibility to the families who have suffered and to the people of this country. Unless they discharge their duty to the people, the people who already have little faith in them would lose it completely. The man in the street is likely to get the impression that many of the scientists—even some within the government—are working only for the big companies, foreign firms and their interests alone. It is time to dispel this impression. But this can only be done through action and not words.

(Mainstream, December 15, 1984)

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