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Saturday, December 5, 2015

What caused Bhopal gas tragedy?

The estimated death toll from the 1984 Bhopal disaster is about 15,000 people. But what caused the tragedy? This is excerpt from Robert James Bidinotto's essay, "Bhopal: The Fruit of Industrial Policy," July 19, 1985:

'Not all of the many multinationals in India were willing to tolerate such exploitation (and that is, for once, the perfect word). Under pressure to transfer control to Indians, IBM and Coca-Cola, for instance, left the country in the late 1970s rather than relinquish their independence.

'But Union Carbide India, Ltd., which had been operating in India for decades, chose to remain. . . .

'As many of the most skilled and experienced workers saw the handwriting on the wall and left, local management replaced them with less skilled novices. MIC operator positions, which had once required college science degrees, were filled by high school graduates. Managers used to working with MIC were replaced by less qualified people, sometimes from Carbide's low-technology battery factories. Meanwhile, outright incompetence was legally protected: Indian law forbids the firing of workers, except for very serious infractions. The factory, following the pattern of socialized nations everywhere, was experiencing a "brain drain."

'Until 1982, U.S. supervisory and training personnel were still at the plant. But under Indian law, those Americans were licensed for fixed periods and had to leave once their Indian replacements were trained. At this point, Carbide visits to the site all but ended, and headquarters relied mainly on reports issued from Bhopal.

In June 1982, representatives from U.S. headquarters did conduct one final safety inspection, based upon which they filed a critical report. But safety was now the responsibility of local management.'

The article ends with these lines:

'After tea, Suman Dey noticed that the temperature gauge for tank 610 had climbed off the top of the scale, and that the pressure gauge was rising toward 40 p.s.i., at which point an emergency relief valve burst. . . . "There was a tremendous sound, a messy boiling sound, underneath the slab," he recalled. The slab began to shake, and Dey ran. There was a loud noise behind him, and a giant crack appeared in the concrete. There came a blast of intense heat. When he heard the loud hissing sound, he looked up and saw huge amounts of MIC gas billowing out of the pipe 120 feet above the tank. Like an ominous white specter, it began to drift away from the plant.

'It was the toxic waste of industrial policy.

'Years before, these had condensed as acidic downpourings of laws and regulations, stifling and smothering business enterprise.

'Years before, those responsible could have spared the people of Bhopal.

'By 12:45 a.m. on December 3, 1984, it was too late. . . .'

Source: The Intellectual Activist (Vol. 4, No. 2)

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