Norvergence: It’s time to remember the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster

The Bhopal gas tragedy has not changed agricultural practice patterns in India.

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George Stacey, an environmentalist at Norvergence: “I’ll never forget Bhopal Gas Tragedy- a man-made catastrophe resulted in the death of over 4,000 people. Millions of folks are still suffering because of it.”

Till 11:00 PM, December 2, 1984, was a normal day for the people of Bhopal. Meanwhile, George Stacey who was a teenager then was enjoying his day in New York with his favorite book, “Islands in the Stream”.

Suddenly, more than 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a pesticide plant (Union Carbide India limited) in Bhopal, India led to the death of more than 4,000 people. It later became the worst industrial accident in the history of the world.

After 35 years, the Norvergence team headed by George Stacey is publishing an inquiry through this blog that puts straight questions to the policy of the government (then) and the management of Union Carbide Plant.

History of the Union Carbide Plant

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In the 1970s, the Indian government asked Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) to build a plant for the manufacture of Sevin (a type of pesticide). Due to the proper access to transport infrastructure and central location, the company built the plant in Bhopal. At starting, it was approved only for formulations of pesticides from certain chemicals but later the whole final product was started formulating there.

During the 1980s, the crop failure and famine in the subcontinent led to farmers’ incapability to buy pesticides.  Therefore in 1988, the management of the corporation decided to close the plant and sell it to a different company. After no one shows interest in buying it, the corporation decided to dismantle the production units and shift it to some other country.

Meanwhile, the plant continued to operate with very fewer safety precautions.

On December 2, 1984, an operator working in the plant noticed a small leak of methyl isocyanate (MIC) and the continuous increasing pressure in the storage tank.

After almost 2 hours, a plume of MIC entered the environment by pushing the safety valve aside.

In the span of the next 3-4 hours, the streets of Bhopal were filled with dead bodies of humans and animals. Almost 3,800 people died immediately and in the subsequent 2 decades, more than 10,000 people suffered premature deaths.

We also thoroughly studied, “The New York Times” report that focused on the main reasons behind this accident such as design flaws, operating designs, training deficiencies, and maintenance failures.

Norvergence: Things Happened Before and During the Bhopal Gas Tragedy

  • According to one of the employees, months before the accident manger of the plant shut down a refrigeration unit whose main function is to keep the MIC cool.
  • Two main safety systems were totally unable to cope with anything unfortunate happen during the night time. Further, one system was out of functioning during the accident and the other had been inoperable for many weeks.
  • Initially, the supervisor thought that it was a water leak, not gas. Also, he decided to deal with it in the next tea break.
  • Spare tank was not empty which again was rule violation as during emergency gas cannot be separated from problem tank.
  • Many employees also admitted that training, education level for maintenance, etc were also very reduced by the plant management.
  • Kamal K Pareek who was senior project engineer during the building of the methyl isocyanate in 1971 said (Norvergence quoted The New York Times):

“The plant was losing money, and top management decided that saving money was more important than safety. Maintenance practices became poor, and things generally got sloppy. The plant didn’t seem to have a future, and a lot of skilled people became depressed and left as a result.”

Norvergence: People of Bhopal Feel Cheated

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Source DNA India

We read and analyzed interviews of many eyewitnesses. One of them is Shehzadi Bee, 63 who has talked to The Independent.

“I with my 4 children was lucky to find a truck that was there to evacuate people. The scene on that truck was horrible. Everyone was having breathing issues, burning in their eyes, and then they were vomiting and passing stools. Nobody knew what was going on, what was happening to them. People were falling unconscious. Then we saw people dying inside that truck before our eyes. Many, many people die.  I received 25,000 (INR) as compensation.”

Rachna Dhingra, a member of the Bhopal Group for Information Action founded in 1986 said: “People feel cheated. If you look around Bhopal, there are some areas where every fifth household has a child with a disability. You see that they have been left to fend for themselves, denied what they feel was rightfully theirs in terms of compensation… by this corporation.”

Norvergence: India Specially Bhopal after 1984

India has undergone rapid industrial development since 1984. But there are still less strict rules for the treatment of water or gas produced by small scale industries and the industrial solid and hazardous waste has increased appreciably throughout the last 2 decades. The Bhopal gas tragedy has not changed agricultural practice patterns in India. Even now, around 22,000 people died every year because of pesticide poisoning.

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