By Rajiv Desai
This article appeared in Chicago Tribune, 24 years ago (November 30, 1986). It was the cover story in the paper's Sunday magazine.
It was a cold, clear night in Bhopal on Dec. 2, 1984. At the Union Carbide India Ltd. pesticide plant, the night shift had just begun. It was around 11:30 p.m. Soon, a catastrophe would strike and sear the name of this central Indian city into the world's consciousness.
The plant stands on a 100-acre lot in the northeastern part of the city. In the central area of the plant was the unit that produced methyl isocyanate (MIC), a toxic and volatile chemical used in the manufacture of a line of pesticides patented by Union Carbide Corp., the parent company, headquartered in Danbury, Conn.
Near the MIC unit were three huge storage tanks where the liquid methyl isocyanate was stored. From tank No. 610, the one closest to the unit, came the hissing sound of gas escaping under pressure. A white cloud formed and began to drift in a southeasterly direction toward the Bhopal railway station and a cluster of shantytowns surrounding the plant.
Somehow, water had entered the storage tank that contained anywhere from 11,000 to 13,000 gallons of MIC. A chemical reaction ensued, turning the MIC into gas.
The gas was vented through a safety valve to a scrubber that should have neutralized it as it escaped. But the intense heat and pressure generated by the gas overwhelmed the scrubber.
Another safety device, a flare tower designed to burn off escaping gas, might have helped even though it didn't have the capacity to handle the intense pressure, but it didn't because it had been dismantled for repairs.
Unchecked, the deadly gas swirled out of the tank and into the night.
By the time it was all over, more than 2,500 people had died and about 518,000 more were made ill, according to government figures. The gas leak at the Union Carbide plant was the worst industrial disaster in history.
Nearly two years later, S. P. Chaudhary, production manager at the Bhopal plant, stands at the plant's northern edge and surveys the weed-choked grounds.
"We had prize-winning landscaping here," he says, "the best roses, the lushest lawns. Now look at the waste."
In the distance looms an industrial complex of tanks, towers, pipes and sheds. "That's the MIC unit," he says, expressionlessly.
Other, more agonizing effects still linger. You can see them in the lines of people outside the numerous makeshift medical centers, in the anger of the workers idled by the disaster, on the expressionless faces of the victims, in the controversies surrounding the event and its aftermath.
As the Indian Airlines jet swoops low on its final descent into Bhopal, a big, beautiful lake comes into view. Ringed by lush green hills, it shimmers in the early morning sun. Bhopal is a city of 900,000 people crowded around the lake's northern, eastern and southern shores. It is the capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh, a stretch of Kipling country noted for its forests and wildlife, ravines and forts, princes and brigands.
Bhopal used to be the seat of a Muslim kingdom that was integrated into the union of states when India won its independence from British colonial rule in 1947. The city boasts imposing edifices from that regal past--a mosque that claims to be the largest in Asia, a palace and a huge, elaborately carved city gate--all rising from intricate lanes, crowded streets and tightly packed traditional row houses.
During the 1950s Bhopal, along with most of the state of Madhya Pradesh, was classified as an underdeveloped area and marked for special attention by the federal government in New Delhi. A huge "public-sector" enterprise (one owned and operated by the federal government) called Bharat Heavy Electricials Ltd. (BHEL) was set up near Bhopal. In nearby Jabalpur the government put up a major armaments factory.
In the 1960s the private sector was offered special inducements to locate manufacturing plants in the region. Attracted by the newly established industries, professionals came from all over India. Bhopal emerged as a major regional center, its population growing by 75 percent to about 500,000 between 1961 and 1971.
As the city prospered, arts and culture flourished. Recognizing the new importance of Bhopal, the federal government funded the construction of a complex to house art galleries, museums, theaters, a poetry center and a library. Called Bharat Bhavan, the complex is a low-slung building set around wide courtyards. It nestles on a hillside in the exclusive Shamla Hills section noted for its flower-bedecked gardens and panoramic views in the southern part of the city.
Union Carbide India Ltd. (UCIL) was one of a number of companies that took advantage of government inducements to set up shop in Bhopal. Among the incentives it received from the Madhya Pradesh state government was a long- term, low-cost lease on a plot of public land.
The UCIL plant is in the northeastern quadrant of the city. It was built in 1969 as a formulation factory for Union Carbide's Sevin brand of pesticides. A product popular with cotton and tobacco farmers, Sevin is an insecticide that kills pests by paralyzing their nervous systems.
"We began by importing Sevin Technical (a chemical concentrate) and formulating (diluting) it into the commercial product," says Chaudhary.
An articulate chemical engineer in his 40s, Chaudhary has been at the plant since it opened. He explains that Sevin Technical was a patented product made by reacting methyl isocyanate (MIC) and alpha-naphthol. The highly toxic concentrate was then diluted with other chemicals to make commercial Sevin for the agricultural market.
In 1973 Union Carbide Corp.'s management committee in the United States approved a capital expenditure of $20 million to expand operations at its Bhopal affiliate. As a first step, the Bhopal plant began to produce Sevin Technical, using imported MIC and alpha-naphthol.
Two years later the company began what Chaudhary called a "backward integration" of its operations. Instead of importing the ingredients needed to produce Sevin Technical, the goal was to manufacture them at the Bhopal site. In 1978 the company set up a unit to produce alpha-naphthol, and a year later the MIC unit was added.
The expansion at UCIL took place at a time when the Indian federal government's campaign to boost agricultural production began to bear fruit. Increased use of fertilizers and irrigation, the introduction of dry-farming techniques and hybrid crops, and a massive agricultural research and education program ushered in a "green revolution" that eventually transformed the country's agriculture.
By the end of the 1970s India achieved self-sufficiency in food production. This major agricultural success created new demands for a whole range of agricultural products, including pesticides.
With the added capacity, Union Carbide's Bhopal plant was then able to produce different pesticides for different segments of the expanding Indian market.
Underlying the increase in the size and scope of the plant was a corporate forecast that sales of its pesticide products would reach 5,000 tons a year by 1982. Sales peaked that year at 2,200 tons, an amount that fell considerably short of the projected figures.
At that production level the Bhopal plant worked at less than 50 percent of capacity, and by 1982 the plant began to lose money.
"Our projections were wrong," Chaudhary admits. It's not clear who made the calculations, but the parent company in Danbury put its imprimatur on the forecast in its 1978 annual report, noting that "pesticide use should grow steadily--particularly in the developing countries, where growth is forecast to be almost twice that in the United States."
Furthermore, while the Bhopal plant was increasing but underusing its capacity, many chemical manufacturers were producing new pesticides called synthetic pyrethroids that began to outsell MIC-based products on the world markets.
The Bhopal plant then took economy measures, laying off nearly half of its workforce of 1,300 and, among other steps, turned off, to save power costs, the refrigeration system that was supposed to keep within safe levels the temperature of the MIC in the plant's storage tanks.
The company's cost-cutting drive began to hurt morale at the plant. Many of its experienced supervisory workers left. At the shop-floor level, less- skilled workers from other units in the plant were transferred to the complex MIC unit. Workers complained to management about corroded pipes and other equipment-maintenance problems\
"We had to cut corners," says B. P. Srivastava, head of the Union Carbide research and development section in Bhopal.
On Christmas Eve, 1981, Ashraf Khan, a pipefitter in the factory's MIC unit, died of respiratory problems after he breathed fumes released by a spill of phosgene (the key ingredient in MIC). There had been other accidents before at the plant, but this was the first fatality, and for the first time people began to realize that the factory might be a public health hazard.
Opposition lawmakers raised the issue in the state assembly. Their clamor culminated in a 1983 motion that urged the state government to force the company to relocate to a less-populated area. But the government, which enjoyed a huge majority in the house, successfully resisted the demand.
"The factory is not a stone that can be picked up and moved wherever we please," the state labor minister, T. S. Viyogi, told the state assembly
The government was caught in a bind. It did not want to make the plant relocate to a safer location, and neither did it want to force the people living in the nearby shantytowns to move away from the plant area. In fact, the state government later in 1983 ceded tenancy rights to the residents of those shantytowns, which, long before the plant was built, had spread illegally on the government land surrounding it.
So the plant stayed, as did the people living around it. "Bhopal was a disaster waiting to happen," says N. K. Singh, a journalist who has followed the Bhopal disaster for India Today, one of that nation's leading news magazines.
On Dec. 2, 1984, the disaster struck. When the MIC gas, odorless and highly toxic, enveloped the shantytowns, people died in their sleep or dropped dead as they ran in terror on the streets. The people of Bhopal didn't know what hit them. "There was no community warning system," says production manager Chaudhary.
Among the hundreds of thousands of people affected by the gas leak were Syed Ashik Ali, 50, and his extended family. On the night of the disaster the 14 members of the family slept in a little hut in the Kazi Camp shantytown just south of the Union Carbide plant.
"I woke up in fright, choking and coughing. My chest was burning, my eyes began to water profusely," Ashik Ali recalls. Thinking that neighbors were "burning dry chilis," he went outside, he says, but saw nothing. "The burning in my chest had become intolerable, and my eyes had almost closed up," he adds. "So I sent one of my sons to the main road to investigate."
After what seemed like ages to Ashik Ali and when he was about ready, he says, to kill himself because of the pain, his son returned to tell of the panic in the streets. "People were running helter-skelter, shouting that some poisonous gas had leaked from the Union Carbide factory," the son remembers telling his family.
Not knowing what else to do, the family chose to huddle together in the hut. "I decided that we should all die together," Ashik Ali says.
Meanwhile, Fazlur Rahman, a brother-in-law with whom Ashik Ali shared the hut, had also ventured out. "When I heard that gas had leaked from the factory, I went to my friend Salim Ali, who used to work there. He told me to cover my face with a wet cloth," Rahman says.
When Rahman returned, he found members of the two families gathered together in the hut. Two of his daughters lay on the floor covered with sheets under which they had huddled in fright. "I thought they were dead," he says, pointing to his daughters Sabina and Sahana, now 11 and 10 respectively.
"The next morning my brother came with the bus that he drives for a living, loaded us all into it and drove us to the hospital," Rahman adds, recalling that most of the children in the family had passed out along with Ashik Ali.
Another survivor that night was Santosh Singh Thakur, 26, a worker at the Union Carbide canteen who lived in Chola, a shantytown east of the plant. "I covered by face with a wet cloth and ran to my house," he says.
He lived, but lost his job when the plant was closed down seven months after the disaster. Currently unemployed, Thakur does volunteer work at a medical center in his community. He feels that the state government bears the responsibility for the disaster because it allowed the company to set up the plant near a populated area.
Ashok Kumar Rana, 20, a graduate student at Bhopal University, was overcome by the gas. "My eyes remained closed for four days, and I still have difficulty breathing. I had to drop out of school because I couldn't concentrate on my books," he says. He had hoped to become a police inspector, but "the gas leak ruined everything." Rana also is a volunteer at the community health center in Chola.
Narbada Prasad, 35, was unemployed at the time of the disaster. He was returning from a friend's place when he heard about the leak. Rushing home, he found only his 6-year-old son. "I grabbed him and ran to the bus stop, hoping to get out of town. But the gas got to me by the time I reached the bus stop, and I fainted," he recalls with a shudder.
None of these survivors have total recall of that night. Their stories leave many questions unanswered, but they refuse to be pinned down to specifics. It was a night in which the raw instinct of survival prevailed over all other human demands.
"It was so bad that my neighbor abandoned her 7-month-old baby in a mad scramble to escape the pain," Fazlur Rahman says. "Likewise, many youths left their elderly parents behind."
"About 30 percent of those affected by the gas leak were children," says pediatrician Ashwini Syal of Bhopal's Hamidia Hospital. The hospital's pediatric ward normally admits 6,000 patients a year; in the days following the disaster the ward treated many times that number. "We were too busy coping to keep (complete) records," Syal adds.
Trying to explain the dimensions of the disaster, Syal falls back on his own experience. "As a medical doctor, I have seen people die, but this was awesome--almost a year's quota in a few days," he says.
Syal was called to the hospital in the early morning hours of Dec. 3. By then the initial trickle of victims seeking aid had become a flood. "They came in every conceivable mode of transport, and they kept coming in larger numbers," he recalls. The hospital was forced to call in 750 medical students along with doctors from other private hospitals in the area to handle the emergency.
Syal had learned from the attending physician in the emergency ward that the victims had been affected by a poisonous gas emanating from the Union Carbide plant. No more information was available.
"Initially, we examined the victims mainly to determine if they were dead or alive," he says, seated in the spartan doctor's lounge of the hospital's pediatric unit.
Syal and his colleagues found that most people suffered from burning eyes, breathing difficulties and hyperacidity. Working without information about MIC or its effects on humans, they could only treat the symptoms, not their underlying causes.
"We treated the victims with eye drops and bronchial dilators used on asthma patients. It was clear that even the Union Carbide people knew very little about MIC gas," he adds.
Meanwhile, a controversy developed over the treatment of victims. A Bhopal physician who conducted autopsies on the victims said he had found evidence of cyanide poisoning and recommended the use of sodium thiosulfate as an antidote. But Union Carbide disputed the doctor's findings, saying that MIC had no links with cyanide.
Citing the company's internal memos, critics later said that at high temperatures, MIC breaks down into hydrogen cyanide and challenged the company's rejection of the the cyanide-poisoning claims as an attempt to play down the toxic effects of MIC.
Dr. Yves Alarie, a toxicologist atthe University of Pittsburgh's Department of Industrial and Environmental Health Sciences and an expert on MIC and its toxic effects who has followed the Bhopal disaster, says that his tests showed no cyanide release in Bhopal. He notes that autopsy reports bore no record of the bitter-almond smell associated with cyanide. In any case, he adds, MIC gas is even more toxic than cyanide and by itself accounts for the fatalities and illnesses resulting from the leak.
Thanks largely to the efforts of people like Syal, the victims received the best care possible under the circumstances. In fact, many Western health experts later observed that they could not have done any better even if they had had more-advanced and better-organized facilities.
The medical response also included research studies on the long-term effects of MIC. One such study, funded by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), targeted infants born to victims who were pregnant at the time of the disaster. The goal was to see how these infants' mental and physical growth might have been affected by the gas leak.
The ICMR researchers surveyed a selected population of about 85,000 people, of whom 2,500 were pregnant women. The staff of 40 field workers visited the women monthly, and then weekly during the final month of their pregnancies. A thousand of these women were defined as "at risk" because they were in the early stages of pregnancy--20 weeks or less--when the gas leak occurred.
"In this group we found a significant increase in (spontaneous) abortions and stillbirths," says Syal, who is one of the researchers.
As a continuation of the project, researchers are now charting the growth of the "MIC-gas babies" every six months. "We find no evidence of congenital abnormalities," says Syal. "However, there's been a major increase in neurotic symptoms among these children--nightmares, sleeplessness, fatigue, lack of concentration, irritability and so on."
The ICMR study has focused attention on the children of India, where nearly 40 percent of the population is under age 15. In a culture that dismisses youth and reveres age, this segment of India's population is possibly the most neglected and oppressed.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the ICMR study is that it has made the country aware that its poor also have psychological needs. Indian mental- health professionals have an essentially middle-class bias. The assumption is that the poor are too busy keeping body and soul together to experience psychological problems.
For victims like Ashik Ali, whose income is less than $40 a month, the biggest concern is getting government relief payments. However, he has had to reckon with the state government bureaucracy, which is in charge of distributing relief funds from the federal government. Ashik Ali claims that he is entitled to an extra share of the $120-per-family government relief payment, arguing that there are really two families under his roof, his and that of his brother-in-law Fazlur Rahman. The bureaucracy did register the two families, but only Rahman has received the payment.
"I've talked to dozens of people. Everybody says they will do something, but so far nothing has happened," says Ashik Ali in a tired voice.
The relief payment is important to Ashik Ali, perhaps more for psychological than financial reasons, though the disaster showed how fragile his economic base was. Without medical help and the relief money, he and his family would have suffered even more.
The two families are hoping that there will be a settlement in their favor in a lawsuit against Union Carbide. Ashik Ali remembers being visited by an American lawyer accompanied by a local agent. He has a statement issued by the lawyer's U.S. firm and by Masand Mirza, a lawyer with the Bhopal Legal Action Center. The slip of paper registered him as a plaintiff in a class- action suit the American law firm said it would file against Union Carbide in the United States. It stipulated that the law firm would receive 33 percent of any settlement and would be reimbursed for all costs incurred. "The American told us we were entitled to damages of about $8, 000," Ashik Ali says.
But Ashik Ali is fast losing hope that he'll ever collect anything from that lawsuit. "That kind of money is beyond our wildest dreams," he says with an air of resignation. "However, the disaster awakened greed in me. In our lives, there's no room for greed. We have to share the little we have."
Fazlur Rahman, on the other hand, takes a hard-nosed view. "It's understandable that the (Madhya Pradesh state) government couldn't cope with the disaster," he says. "But since Union Carbide is an American company, what is the American government doing to make the company pay its dues? How would it have reacted if the same thing had happened in America?"
In addition to making relief payments, the Indian government has funded several rehabilitation projects to help families of workers who lost their means of livelihood in the disaster. One such project is located in a cluster of industrial sheds near the Jaiprakash Nagar shantytown east of the plant. Inside the sheds are rows and rows of women working at sewing machines. They are making clothes to be sold in local markets. The project is funded by the state's industries department.
The project's administrator is Ram Karan Yadav, 29, a mechanical engineer and the general secretary of the Union Carbide Karmachani Sangh (workers' union) who worked at the MIC unit in the Bhopal plant. He now works as a factory inspector for the state government.
When Union Carbide announced its decision to close the Bhopal plant after the disaster, Yadav emerged as a major spokesman for the union, leading protests that called upon the government to keep the plant open and challenging the company's decision in court. The court battle kept the plant technically open--and the workers on its payroll--for three more months.
When the state government finally allowed the plant to close in July, 1985, UCIL, after negotiations with Yadav and the union, gave each worker a lump sum of $800 as severance payment (about 6 months' pay).
Yadav today would like to see the government reopen the plant and use its facilities to manufacture a safe product.
Yadav is currently attempting to refute a claim by Union Carbide that the disaster of last December was a case of sabotage by a worker at the Bhopal plant. Last August the company released a statement that said: "Our investigations demonstrate that the tragedy was a deliberate act. Those investigations are now focusing on a specific individual employee of the Bhopal plant who was disgruntled and who had ample opportunity to inject the large amount of water into the (MIC) storage tank, which caused the massive gas release."
Union Carbide's charge is based on evidence drawn from the plant's daily notes, which were written by the supervisor of the MIC unit for the production manager. An entry on Nov. 27, five days before the disaster, shows that a worker was transferred from the MIC unit to the Sevin formulation unit. The company claims that this was, in effect, a demotion, and it contends that that individual was the disgruntled employee who entered the plant that night to perpetrate the sabotage. The motive, according to the company, was to get even with the supervisor for his demotion by spoiling a batch of chemicals. The statement adds that the disgruntled employee had no idea that his act would result in such a disaster.
Yadav disputes the company's findings. "I checked the notes myself," he says, "and there's no demotion mentioned. In fact, the company couldn't have demoted anyone without consulting the union." As for the company's position that the alleged saboteur didn't realize the full consequences of his action, Yadav says, "All MIC workers were college graduates and trained for their jobs."
But Union Carbide is standing by its charge of sabotage. Bud Holman, a New York lawyer representing the company, says that Union Carbide is convinced that the water that got into the MIC storage tank on the night of the disaster was deliberately put into the tank.
Yadav, on the other hand, claims that it would have been impossible for the alleged saboteur to do all the things that Union Carbide says he did from the time, at exactly 10:33, that he punched in for work that night until the time--about 11, Yadav claims; 11:30, according to most other accounts--that the gas leak was first discovered.
Examining the Union Carbide claim of sabotage, India Today last October was told by a Bhopal plant worker that the water pipe involved in the charge was half an inch in diameter and that it would have taken at least 45 minutes for the ton of water that entered the tank to pass through that pipe.
India Today also quoted a 1985 report by Union Carbide that said that the temperature of the MIC in storage tank No. 610 was between 15 and 20 degrees Celsius (59 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit) and noted, "The company's MIC manual says that at this temperature MIC would take at least 23 hours to react if water was added to it."
Union Carbide officials in Bhopal back up the company's charges. "There was no other way for water to enter the tank. We've eliminated the possibility that an operational mistake caused the gas leak. That leaves only sabotage," says production manager Choudhary.
Union Carbide has not named the suspect. But Yadav says the company will charge Mohan Lal Verma, a 28-year-old worker who was a trainee in the plant's MIC unit, as the saboteur.
Deep in the crowded old quarter of Bhopal, Mohan Lal Verma reclines on a bed in the two-room apartment he shares with his brothers as he tells a visitor that he is not afraid of the charges that Union Carbide plans to make against him. "I have the support of the union as well as of the government," he says. His demeanor, however, is that of an obviously upset man. "I'm fed up with the whole thing," he says.
Verma joined UCIL in 1977 as an operator in the plant's alpha-naphthol unit. In November, 1982, when that unit was closed, Verma was reassigned as a trainee in the MIC unit, a much more sophisticated and complex operation where workers, depending on their experience, were paid more than the average wage of about $100 a month.
Verma, who held a postgraduate degree in mathematics (earned while he worked for Union Carbide in hopes of advancing to a managerial position), says the new assignment was a step forward. His training at the MIC unit was to have been completed in February, 1984, at which point he would have been classified as a "confirmed MIC plant operator." Instead, he remained a trainee until the disaster occurred in December, 1984.
Frustrated by the apparent lack of progress, Verma protested to his supervisor at the MIC unit. Eventually, he asked the union to take up his case. "It was sheer mental torture," he says.
Verma says he had heard rumors in the days before the disaster that he was to be transferred to the Sevin unit as punishment for his protest. "But I was never officially notified," he adds.
On the night of the disaster Verma punched in 12 minutes before the 10:45 start of the night shift. He then went to his locker, he says, changed into work clothes and reported for duty at the control room at the MIC unit. Verma claims he remained there until the gas leak was detected and that he left when the gas began to affect him.
Early on, Indian government investigators reported that water entered the tank when, during the earlier shift, a worker was ordered to wash out a pipe leading to the tank. Because the pipe, according to the investigators, had a faulty valve and thus was not properly sealed, water began to flow into the tank, contaminating the MIC inside and causing the runaway chemical reaction that led eventually to the massive gas release. The report adds that the supervisor who ordered the action was inexperienced and had arrived just two months before as a transferee from the company's Eveready battery division in Calcutta.
According to Holman, this "water-washing" theory of the Indian government was rejected by its own experts. He claims that the company has several witnesses who will testify that experiments conducted by government investigators, who traced the path of the water through the pipe, found that it could not have reached the tank that way.
"We remain convinced that water entered the tank when an employee removed the pressure indicator and hooked up the hose to the tank through the utility panel (on which the gauge was located). In fact, when another employee went to check on the source of the leak, he saw the hose with water running down its side and disconnected it. He then ran away, fearing that he would be implicated."
Union Carbide first raised the possibility of sabotage in March, 1985. At a press conference called to announce the findings of the company's initial investigation, Warren Anderson, the chairman of Union Carbide, rejected the Indian government's "water-washing" theory, saying that the company had not yet determined how the water entered the storage tank. He then told reporters that a disgruntled employee might have deliberately connected a water line to the tank.
Five months later, company lawyers submitted a clipping of a newspaper story to a U.S. federal judge who was conducting court hearings in New York. Based on a wire-service account, the story said that a group of Sikh extremists known as "Black June" had claimed responsibility for the Bhopal disaster. ("Black June" refers to June, 1984, when units of the Indian army entered the Sikhs' revered Golden Temple to flush out terrorists.)
According to India Today, the company had earlier tried to lay the responsibility on a Sikh employee, who had been dismissed along with several dozen other company officials after the leak. In doing so, India Today said, it had apparently forgotten that the man had stood surety, or bail, for Anderson when the company chairman traveled to Bhopal after the disaster and upon his arrival was placed under house arrest along with Bhopal managing director V. P. Gokhale and other senior UCIL officials. When the man threatened to withdraw the bail, the newsmagazine said, the company both withdrew the charge of sabotage and gave him a new position at its Luknow plant.
Many Indians see the company's claim of sabotage as a tactic to delay the court case against it. "The idea is to reduce liability," says Yadav.
Another, hotly contested issue centers on which Union Carbide unit should bear the legal responsibility for the gas leak. The parent company has maintained that its affiliate was to blame because its local executives had primary management responsibility for the plant.
The parent company, however, is the affiliate's single largest shareholder. Officials from its corporate headquarters in Danbury and from its Far East division (Union Carbide Eastern Inc.) held the majority on the Indian company's board. "All the major decisions were made in Danbury," says a Union Carbide India employee.
A similar assertion was made a few months after the disaster by Edward Munoz, a retired Union Carbide official who had served as chief executive of the Indian affiliate until 1976, when he returned to the U.S. to head the agricultural products division in Danbury.
Under Indian law, foreign companies can own no more than 40 percent equity in any Indian venture, but certain exceptions are made in the high- technology area. On this basis Union Carbide, as a high-technology company, was granted permission to retain an interest of nearly 51 percent in its Bhopal affiliate.
"Fifty-one-percent holding means you own the responsibility," says B. P. Srivastava, the Bhopal Company’s manager of research and development.
Meanwhile, the parent company continues to distance itself from its afflicted Indian affiliate. "Being the largest stockholder didn't mean anything," says Holman. "The company needed government approval for everything. The affiliate had Indian employees and Indian managers. Even the Indian government recognized it as a separate company, distinct from Union Carbide Corp."
The parent company's attempts to let its affiliate shoulder the blame for the disaster have affected its local employees. Pushed to comment on the subject, the company's Srivastava says, "It offends my pride as an Indian." Another senior manager with line responsibility in Bhopal says, "I understand the need to assess blame, but it does hurt."
Last Sept. 5 the Indian government filed for damages against Union Carbide Corp. in the Bhopal district court. At that time Indian news agencies reported that Union Carbide "failed to appear at the hearing."
Holman explains that the company was not properly served with a summons for that hearing. "We received the summons only in mid-October because it was sent to the company at its old address at 270 Park Ave., in New York City. Everyone knows that Union Carbide has been in Danbury, Conn., for years," Holman says. Union Carbide then appeared in court Oct. 30.
The damage suit was initially brought before a federal court in New York, which agreed with the company's argument that India was the proper forum for the case. But in transferring the case, Judge John F. Keenan ruled that the American-based parent company, not just its Indian affiliate, could also be held accountable by the Indian court.
The judge also ruled that the company must submit to U.S. federal pretrial discovery procedures in India. Union Carbide has appealed that ruling, contending that it, too, should be entitled to subject the Indian government as plaintiff to the the same U.S.-style discovery procedures in India. The move was promptly challenged by the Indian government.
In a "cross appeal," the Indian government said that under Keenan's ruling, the company got what it wanted--to transfer the case to Indian jurisdiction.
"If Union Carbide was more concerned with gaining discovery under U.S. federal rules, it could have chosen to remain in the United States, where there was no question of the general applicability of the (U.S.) federal rules to all parties," the government's brief noted. A ruling on the Union Carbide appeal has been scheduled for late November.
Meanwhile, the Bhopal court has refused to hear the suit filed by American lawyers on behalf of individual victims whom they had signed up as parties to a class-action suit against Union Carbide. These lawyers had sought a "fairness hearing," presumably to ask the Indian court to accept a $350-million settlement offered to them by Union Carbide in March of this year. But the Indian government has already successfully argued before Judge Keenan in New York that any settlement would be invalid without its participation. The Indian government, under legislation enacted by parliament after the disaster, has claimed for itself the sole right to represent the 518,000 victims of the gas leak.
While all the legal bickering goes on, R&D manager B. P. Srivastava worries about the fate of the plush Union Carbide research center in Bhopal's Shamla Hills section. "It's the only one of its kind in the country," he says. He thinks that the government might convert it to a national laboratory because of the fundamental work it does in the field of pesticides.
"We are involved in the discovery of new chemicals and the development of manufacturing processes for chemicals that are currently imported," he says. Srivastava would dearly like to see the Indian government and Union Carbide resolve their differences. "The disaster has demoralized my staff. As a result, scientific work here is suffering," he adds.
Across town, in a residential project built by the Madhya Pradesh state housing authority, union leader Yadav nurtures an ambition to run for a seat in the state assembly. "The Bhopal disaster gave me the opportunity to step out into public life, and I hope to run for public office as an independent," he says.
Already sounding like a candidate, Yadav says that Union Carbide's "demonstrated lack of compassion will hurt the interests of other American multinational firms in India. We were the company's edge in competitive world markets. In trying to pin the blame on us, the company is cutting off its nose to spite its face."
In New Delhi, Shiv Visvanathan, a social scientist at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, feels that the gas-leak disaster in Bhopal is a ringing indictment of development priorities in Third World countries, which are dominated by a predilection for imported technology without the concomitant infrastructure to assess and manage such technologies.
"When the gas leak occurred two years ago in Bhopal, the government did not have the will or the wherewithal to deal with the tragedy," Visvanathan says. "As a result, it did what it knew best. It bureaucratized the catastrophe into reports, certificates, files and serial numbers. Thus, the disaster, which appeared apocalyptic to the people of Bhopal, was spread over a conceptual assembly line and broken down into a series of routine and humdrum acts," he adds.
From Basheer Khan, 26, a Bhopal taxi driver, comes perhaps the most pragmatic assessment of the disaster. "True, the gas leak was a tragedy," he says. "But it also had a silver lining for people like me and for the local hotel industry. We've had more foreigners come here in the past two years than at any other time that I can remember."
Steering his cab skilfully through Bhopal's narrow streets, he adds, "Things haven't changed much since the gas leak; people have gone back to living their own lives. In India, we have learned to take disaster in stride."
Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010