Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Bhopal Gas Tragedy of India and the REAL truth of involvement

The Bhopal Gas Tragedy - What happened?


Child Victim of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy
On the night of the 2-3rd December 1984, Bhopal, capital city of Madhya Pradesh in India, bore witness to one of the most horrifying Industrial disasters referred to as the Bhopal Gas Tragedy or the Bhopal Disaster.

This happened due to a toxic gas leak at the Union Carbide India Limited's (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal killing over 3,000 people immediately and has continued to claim close to 20,000 lives till date. 

And according to wikipedia, "causing 5,58,125 injuries including 38,478 temporary partial injuries and approximately 3,900 severely and permanently disabling injuries"

This deadly methyl isocyanate poison gas leak at the plant in 1984 continues to bring suffering, health hazards, dangerous environmental conditions over three decades!

The company in question, Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), is a subsidary of the U.S.A-based Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) and company ownership reports show that the UCC owned 51% stake in the UCIL.


UCIL's setting up of the Plant and involved parties

According to the latest set of cables (Kissinger Cables) released by WikiLeaks, the United States had lobbied hard (under UCC requests) during the 1970s to setup operations of UCIL in India. The USA sought exceptional terms from the Indian Government to help the company setup its plant in Bhopal.

The UCIL managers in India were in touch with US Diplomats and sought their intervention to secure terms for UCC's investment in India. According to a Times of India news report, both the US Officials and UCIL personnel had lobbied hard to ease the norms for the company under the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) in the 70s.

The FERA, passed during the leadership of Indira Gandhi, limited equity participation of Foreign Firms in India. The FERA was basically passed to ensure conservation of Foreign Exchange and prevent leakage.

In 1973, the UCIL head requested US Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan to request the visiting US Deputy Secretary to State to lobby with the Indian Finance Minister on behalf of the UCIL to ease norms elaborated by the FERA. This would mean that the UCC would get a free passage for its investment in India.

Meanwhile, in Delhi, the UCIL continued to seek the help of the US Government to get exemptions in the FERA. Also, another cable reveals that the US Embassy asked the state department to help the Indian Company secure a loan from the US Exim Bank.

In September 1975, the US Lobbying in the Indian Government allowed great results for the UCC in India. The UCIL secured a full manufacturing licence for 5000 tonnes of MIC-based pesticides. Despite this, the lobbying still continued to ease norms under the FERA act even after the UCIL was granted some concession already by the Indian Government.

By this time, the UCIL had secured the loan and was well on its way to set up the Pesticide Plant.

Documents also reveal that in the same year, the UCC decided to install unproven MIC technology in the Bhopal plant. While they were doing this, they were making it quite clear that they would not agree to any condition that would reduce their equity in the Indian unit below 51%. UCC was on now planted firmly in the Indian system and stayed on top of any intervention by authorities.


How and Why did the Leak Happen?

UCIL's plant in India was to develop the pesticide/insecticide Carbaryl under UCC's brand called "Sevin" using MIC (methyl isocynate) as an intermediate. The MIC is a flammable, dangerous and toxic substance also used in the manufacture of Rubber and other materials. MIC is an extremely hazardous substance for Human health.

Companies like Bayer also manufactured Carbaryl however, they did it without the use of MIC at an extra manufacturing cost. Bayer and other companies however, still use the UCC process for making Carbaryl in certain areas.

According to Wikipedia, "The chemical process employed in the Bhopal plant had methylamine reacting with phosgene to form MIC, which was then reacted with 1-naphthol to form the final product, carbaryl." 

This "route" differed from the MIC-free routes used elsewhere, in which the same raw materials were combined in a different manufacturing order, with phosgene first reacting with naphthol to form a chloroformate ester, which was then reacted with methylamine."

During the early 1980s, the demand for pesticides had fallen considerably. However, UCIL continued to manufacture Carbaryl and this also led to a build-up in the MIC stock.

The complaints started in 1976 when two workers complained about pollution inside the plant. Following this, in 1981, a worker was splashed with phosgene. When he removed his mask in panic, he ended up inhaling large amounts of phosphene gas. He died 72 hours later.

American experts visited the plant in 1981 and warned the UCC about a "runaway reaction" in the MIC storage tank. Local Indian Authorities also warned UCIL about the same problem however, no constructive and preventive measures were implemented by UCIL. Nothing from UCC either.

Jan 1982 - 24 workers were exposed to Phosgene leak. They were admitted in the hospital because the company had not regulated the wearing of safety masks.
Feb 1982 - MIC leak affects 18 workers
Aug 1982 - A Chemical Engineer sustains burns on 30% of his body after coming in contact with MIC.
Oct 1982 - In an attempt to stop another MIC leak, the MIC Supervisor suffered severe chemical burns and two other workers were severely exposed to the gases.




This continued in 1983 and 1984 - chemicals of different proportions leaked and continued to cause damage to workers and people around them.

The company also filled and stored MIC beyond recommended levels with poor maintenance after they stopped producing MIC, failure of safety systems due to poor maintenance and shockingly, the SWITCHING OFF of safety systems to save money.
The MIC tank refrigeration system could have drastically mitigated the adversity of the gas leak.

There were heavy attempts to cut down expenses in the plant. During the event of a pipe cut, the employees were told not to replace it. Apparently, the UCIL thought the workers could do without much training. They halted promotions that hurt the worker's morale and in turn drove the skilled workers to other places.
Workers were asked to use English manuals though they had very little understanding of English.

By the year 1984, only 6 of the 12 operators were working with MIC and the number of supervisory personnel was cut by half. There was no maintenance supervisor in the night shift and instrument readings were taken every 2 hours instead of the previously 1 hour readings.

Although the workers made complaints via the Union, they were ignored by the company. In fact, the company fired a worker who went on a 15-day hunger strike.

The UCIL also fined 70% of the employees for refusal to deviate from the regular safety norms under management pressure.

The MIC tank alarms had not been working for 4 years and there was just a single back up system compared to the 4-stage backup process that UCC had in the USA.
The Flare tower and vent gas scrubbers were out of service for 5 months before the disaster. Since just one gas scrubber was operating, it could treat the high amounts of MIC.
Also, the flare of the tower could only handle a quarter of the gas that leaked in 1984. Also, it was out of order during the time of the incident.

The Steam boiler, intended to clean the pipers was in operational. Despite this, more equipment was either in operational or not working.

Shockingly, Carbon Steel valves were used in the factory although it is known to corrode when exposed to Acids.

The MIC gas was supposed to be kept at 4.5 degrees C. However, the temperature was 20 degrees C.


After the inquiry was commissioned, they found that the UCIL was using a very dangerous pesticide manufacturing method to save on development cost, used large-scale MIC storage, undersized safety devices among other critical reasons.

Plant management deficiencies also included factors like Reduction of safety management, lack of skilled operators, insufficient maintenance, inadequate emergency plans.




Who stands responsible?

In both India and the USA, lawsuits were filed against both UCC and it's India subsidary UCIL. The litigation in the US ended when the district court of New York ruled that it had no  jurisdiction on the cases and mentioned that the appropriate venue to carry this litigation was in the Indian courts/ Indian Law System.

The New York Court had come to this conclusion after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case in the first place. Now, all legal proceedings against both UCC and UCIL had to be held in India according to the US court.

In India, there was no procedure to represent an enormous number of Plaintiffs and hence, the government of India brought in a Statute, "Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Act, 1985" that enabled, by essence of the law, the Indian Government to represent the vast majority of victims and plaintiffs and carry on the litigation against UCC and UCIL.

Four years later, in 1989, the Indian Supreme Court approved a settlement between the Central Government and UCC/ UCIL.

UCC, as the parent company of UCIL, agreed to pay 500 million US Dollars in damages. This money was to be placed in a trust, and administered and distributed to the victims as the Madhya Pradesh government saw fit.
Since the UCC/ UCIL finished the settlement, in consideration, they wanted their officers, directors and employees to be relieved of all criminal charges and any liability.

After widespread protests against the settlement, 2 months later, the Indian Supreme Court reconsidered it's approval and announced that the settlement is confirmed, but mentioned that the UCC/UCIL and respective officers, directors involved will remain subject to criminal prosecution.

The Indian Supreme Court conducts cases against UCC and former-CEO Warren Anderson till date.

Although the settlements were made, NGOs and victims groups, families have not been satisfied mentioning that the trust money was not distributed adequately, mismanaged and misappropriated by the State and Central Government.

Also, the accident area till this day remains highly toxic because it has not been cleaned up. Since there has been no "Environmental Protection Act" in place, there was no regulatory plan or legal mechanism to clear up the affected area and remedy the site.

Surprisingly, neither the Courts nor the Government bodies mentioned about who would actually take responsibility for cleaning up the area, bear the costs involved.

9 years later, in September 1994, The Federal UCC sold it's entire stake in UCIL to Eveready Industries India Ltd (EIIL). Actually, the UCC owned 51% of EIIL and called it Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL). It had just sold it back to EIIL.


Also, a US Court rejected the lawsuit blaming UCC for causing Soil and Water Pollution around the site of the plant and ruled that responsibility for remedial measures lay with the respective state government and not the UCC.

During this time, another chemical company "Dow Chemical Company" expressed interest in purchasing UCC. It believed that since the UCC had sold UCIL to Everready Industries, it would bear no liabilities to the problems in Bhopal. Many Dow share holders opposed the acquisition and threatened to block transactions claiming that the Bhopal disaster would attach itself to Dow and that the company would have to carry the Bhopal-baggage and be subject to liability.

Dow already had headquarters in Mumbai. People started protesting against Dow's plans of acquisition. After all the shareholder suits were dismissed, the Federal Trade Commission allowed Dow to acquire UCC in Feb 2001.

Looking at the nature of developments, the protests intensified with people coming together to form different NGO groups and social activist groups. Some of these solidified into the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB) which was spearheaded by Amnesty International and Greenpeace.

Activists and Protestors hold Dow accountable and want them to pay for all the remedial activities and accuse Dow of "shielding the UCC" after acquisition.

Dow stands as the 2nd largest manufacturer of chemicals in the world and currently stands immune to everything that India has to charge against them.



Minister of State for Chemicals and Fertilizers Srikant Kumar Jena had filed an affidavit asking the court to look into Dow, UCC, UCIL and Everready India to pay for environmental damage cleanup of the affected area.

However, almost immediately, Jena mentioned that India is going "soft" on the US Corporation because of immense pressure from the US. Also, India was warned by the US after National Security Advisor Michael Froman linked US investments in India with India's stand on Dow Chemical.

Since this issue was turning out to be huge, the government had to take a step back and go smooth on Dow.

Dow Chemical Company currently runs a two manufacturing units from Mumbai, one from Lote, one from Pune and one from Chennai with branch offices and other offices elsewhere across these locations and Noida. Although Dow faces threats and opposition from Bhopal Tragedy NGOs, it seems to have the backing of a powerful USA that can possibly threaten India into doing what it wants to do anyway.

Meanwhile, the Ex-CEO of UCC, Warren Anderson lives happily in the USA immune to everything while the people of Bhopal still struggle from the horrors of poor management and facilities in the UCIL plant.

The idea of writing this post is to make people be aware of history as it happened and also to understand the different elements involved. Firstly, it has to come to the awareness of many people that unless this cable was released by the WikiLeaks, there would have been no possible way to know about other sources of involvement in the setting up of UCIL operations.

Secondly, it is our duty to be more responsible to observe, report and speak-up against any unethical behavior/ attitudes by corporations.

Thirdly, we have to be more responsible and educate ourselves about what is happening around us to really understand the dynamics of any situation.

Our collective voice will force and push information to people who don't have it. Our first objective is to give true information to those people who need it and fight alongside them for our collective rights.