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Who didn't help Carbide?

‘Who let Warren Anderson go?’ is the wrong question; the right question is ‘Who didn’t let Warren Anderson go?’ writes Jyoti Punwani as she chronicles the betrayals and sellouts after the Bhopal gas tragedy

‘Who let Warren Anderson go?’ is the wrong question. The right question is: ‘Who didn’t let Warren Anderson go?’ A poster put up by Bhopal’s victims outside the Union Carbide plant in 1988 said it all: ‘Carbide hatyaari hai; Sarkaar ko pyaari hai’ (Killer Carbide is the beloved of the government). There was only one government that helped Bhopal’s victims without being forced to: V P Singh’s National Front government, which announced in January 1990, a grant of Rs 200 per month to all 500,000 gas victims. Till then, it was a tale of betrayal and sellouts.

In December 1987, Bhopal judge M W Deo had ordered Carbide to pay Rs 350 crore as interim relief, on a petition filed by activists. Carbide challenged this all the way to the Supreme Court, which, instead of deciding this issue, announced in 1989, a final settlement of Rs 715 crore, just 16% of the sum quoted by the Centre a year earlier. The terms of this settlement? The quashing of all civil and criminal suits against Warren Anderson and other UCIL officials, and a promise by Rajiv Gandhi’s government that it would defend UCC against all future complaints. Activists filed review petitions, and the criminal proceedings were allowed to carry on. 

The Supreme Court failed the Bhopal victims again and again; but then, who didn’t? Consider this statement made by S Varadarajan, then director of CSIR, the seniormost science official in Bhopal after the leak. At a press conference on December 15, he said of the disaster that had killed 2,000 at one go, “The whole issue has to be seen in the context of the cost-benefit ratio. It has to be looked at in terms of necessity. No technological operation is entirely without risks; we can’t make any advances without them. We can only reduce risks”.

The risks posed by Carbide to Bhopal’s citizens were well-known. The state environmental board had recorded the presence of poisonous gases inside the plant to be in excess of permissible limits. The plant’s union had, in late-1982, written to the Union home minister and the state chief minister about the spate of mishaps inside the plant. Journalist Rajkumar Keswani had written three articles in a local weekly predicting a major disaster.

But could the ‘cost-benefit ratio’ be ignored? Arjun Singh, ex-CM P C Sethi and Indira Gandhi’s yoga guru, Dhirendra Brahmachari, routinely used the Carbide guesthouse. Carbide had built two private wards in Hamidia hospital, in which (Radhika Ramaseshan in The Sunday Observer) the head of the MP environmental board was convalescing when the leak occurred. On Carbide’s rolls were relatives of MP’s political elite: the PRO, the purchase officer, a timekeeper here, a supervisor there. The chief security officer at the time of the leak was a former IGP.

No wonder, nine years before the leak, when M N Buch, head of Bhopal’s municipal corporation, had advised shifting the plant out of the city due to the growing population around it, he was transferred. Congress’s P C Sethi was then the CM. When the demand was repeated in the Assembly, labour minister Tarasingh Viyogi retorted, “The plant is not a toy to be played around with.” 

The cost-benefit ratio played itself out even after December 3. The royal send-off to UCC chief Warren Anderson was just one manifestation. Immediately, after the leak, a decision had to be taken on how to dispose of the remaining gases left inside. The decision most profitable to Union Carbide was allowed. Though there was a safe way of disposing of the remaining methylisocyanate (MIC), it would have cost too much. So UCIL simply carried on with what it would have done anyway — UCIL officials ‘under arrest’ inside the plant, with the help of US officials, converted the remaining 22 tonnes of MIC into the pesticide Selvin. Varadarajan was inside too, but what exactly his role was could be gauged from the differing estimates he gave of the amount of MIC and other gases in the plant — depending on what UCIL officials told him (The rest of the chemicals remained; they continue to contaminate the soil till date). 

Naming the exercise ‘Operation Faith’, Arjun Singh remained present during the operation, but the citizens fled – despite Rajiv Gandhi having declared the day after the disaster that the city was free of poisonous gases. During the election campaign that took place a month later, Congressmen never failed to declare that the jawan mard (braveheart) CM had risked his life by going inside the plant to ‘destroy’ the poisonous gas. The BJP was not far behind — A B Vajpayee declared that he had come all the way to Bhopal for the victims while his rival Madhav Rao Scindia had not. 

Ironically, none of these claims were made to the victims; for no leader visited the colonies around the plant. I remember my embarrassment when some of the older victims, racked by breathlessness and cough, asked if I could get them blankets. Congress heavyweight V C Shukla was to come to the colony to distribute blankets. Victims turned out eagerly; neither Shukla, nor the blankets arrived. 

Our governments routinely shield the guilty and ignore the victims, but this routine conduct had a life-and-death fallout for victims of the world’s largest industrial disaster. Sodium thiosulphate was the best antidote to MIC — said UCC’s medical director and Heeresh Chandra, head of forensic medicine in Bhopal’s Gandhi Medical College immediately after the leak. But the MP government banned it, for that would have meant admitting that cyanide poisoning had taken place, and inflated Carbide’s compensation. Even a year later, the government admitted to the Supreme Court that a complete detoxification programme involving sodium thiosulphate injections had yet to take place — despite the ICMR recommending this as the best treatment. 

Miscarriages and stillbirths were seen immediately after the leak; yet, the government refused to advise all pregnant victims to go in for MTPs as soon as possible, and avoid conception for at least a year. The result? Abnormal babies born with sickening regularity after the disaster.

The government refused to maintain systematic medical records and post-mortem reports — these would have correctly assessed Carbide’s culpability. The Jan Swasthya Kendra run by volunteer doctors inside the UCIL premises (after victims had raided it in May 1985), the only clinic that maintained such records, was shut down, its doctors arrested and its records handed over to UCIL! The apex court had to order the government to restore supply of sodium thiosulphate to the Kendra. Reports by the ICMR and NIMHANS spoke of the victims’ need for nutritious food and light employment as was given to disabled WW II soldiers. Some months after the disaster, the MP government set up workshops for women victims. For stitching five baby frocks and panties, they were paid Rs 3. 

This article first appeared in The New Indian Express, June 17, 2010.

Jyoti Punwani is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.