Deccan Herald, Bangalore (India), op-ed column, December 1, 2006

Beware of Bhopals

I looked for but could not locate any detailed news report in India, on an explosion that occurred in a chemical plant on September 26 near Baytown in Texas, USA but have some information sent to me by some activists. The explosion at the Bayer plant`s toluene di-isocyanate unit (a chemical used in foam applications) injured 22 persons who had to be treated for eye irritation, and skin and respiratory problems, while one man with burns was taken by ambulance to Houston.

Do the phrases “explosion in a chemical plant”, “isocyanate” and “respiratory problems caused by toxic chemicals” ring a bell? Especially at this time of the year when yet another anniversary comes round, of the infamous 1984 Bhopal accident (the world’s worst industrial disaster in history )? Twenty two years on, a whole new generation of children born to the victims has grown to adulthood, and the world has moved on, pushing Bhopal to the periphery of the nation’s --and the world’s -- consciousness. What is scary, however, is that activists’ warning that “Many more Bhopals are waiting to happen” and that “ little has changed” (despite the massive loss of lives in that accident) are not receiving the attention they deserve, from the public and from those whose job and duty it is to protect us all from similar dangers.

My point is not to reiterate the details, but to point to another aspect of the differences between what happens in a “developed” country and what transpires in a “developing” nation (like ours) when such an accident happens. Compare the sequences of events at the Bayer plant, with what happened in Bhopal -- emergency responses were immediately activated at the former, the emergency brigade was on the job, decontamination for exposure to toxic fumes was carried out immediately, and the release of irritant ammonia (that makes eyes burn) was mitigated “within ten minutes” of the accident. At Bhopal, for hours, no one, certainly none of the thousands who were left gasping for breath, had a clue about what was happening or what to do. The Baytown plant had “all the resources necessary” to activate immediate relief responses. Bhopal had none. The US Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) was immediately informed, and the company lost no time in assembling an international team of experts to investigate the accident. The Bhopal case dragged on for two interminable decades, even as the victim-survivors suffered long-term ill-effects (still births, reproductive problems, permanent disabilities – one of my abiding memories is of a meeting in 1998 with a sardarji who is a resident of Bhopal and has to take pills lifelong, to control nasty physical symptoms caused by the fumes).Even the hospital set up to treat the victims got into controversy and not one of those affected by the accident could claim the same speed in receiving medical attention as at the Texas plant. Even though the numbers affected by the mishap in Texas were less than one per cent of those affected at Bhopal.

In June 2005, one contract employee at Bayer died due to exposure to corrosive chemicals caused by pressure build up in a valve (as in Bhopal). Bayer was slapped with a fine of $ 5,000. How many died at Bhopal, and how much compensation was finally decided upon?

These details come from a coalition monitoring multinational misdeeds. Supporting the coalition are eminent persons like members of the German Bundestag, attorneys, pharmacologists, biologists and pediatricians. Whether it is because safety legislation is lax (or their enforcement lackadaisical) in countries like India , or because of a haughty perception among the multinational behemoths that life is cheap in the developing countries (and they can get away with murder, literally) the end result is that victims get a far better deal overseas.

The Centre for Communication and Development Studies at Delhi put together a dossier titled “Agenda” on industrial pollution, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal accident, in which one finds a whole lot of case studies of lethal dangers that industries pose, to citizens, in different parts of India.. Activist-film makers like K.P.Sasi of Bangalore and Saratchandran of Kerala have produced documentaries giving graphic descriptions of the disasters-in-the-making sprouting around us in the name of development, but we as citizens are largely apathetic to these dangers-lying-in-wait around us – till something like Bhopal happens and we feel the effects in our personal lives or families. Certainly, it was the threat of public outrage that caused the quick action in the Bayer accident in Texas. Perhaps we citizens have ourselves to blame for not exercising the same level of public vigilance in our country, not bothering to keep abreast of lurking dangers (which has become essential as industrialisations’ sophistication increases) and not supporting activists in sufficient numbers when they raise warning signals.

Sakuntala Narasimhan