Notes from India: 1984 – Bhopal

Bhopal is a major city in central India. Photo: © Bastos -

Posts in Blue Planet Green Living’s “Notes from…” category provide readers with a personal viewpoint, often an essay, from a writer whose views are intrinsically linked to their own nation or locale. In this case, we present reflections on a needless and gruesome tragedy that occurred 26 years ago in Bhopal. Those responsible for operations at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) plant in Bhopal were convicted of “causing death by negligence,” according to Wikipedia. In this post, writer Dipak Kumar offers us a look back at the tragedy in his nation and shares his thoughts about preventing future ones. He calls his post an effort to derive at a ‘wisdom‘ “ regarding the tragedy. We share his hope that wisdom will one day prevail. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

On the night of December 2nd 1984, I was traveling from Jorhat to Guwahati, in Assam, more than 2,000 miles away from Bhopal. I, a medical representative, was in an overnight bus for the 250-mile journey.

I had to take this bus ride every month for my cycle meeting. I liked this journey immensely, as the bus passed through the Kajiranga forests, and I stayed awake in anticipation of spotting a rhinoceros. I had no luck on this night, and I recall telling this to my co-passenger, Jinoo, who sold baby food and prickly heat powder.

In the cold morning of December, bleary eyed, I knocked at Subrato’s door. I stayed with him to save on the hotel bill, which we spent on booze. The radio news was all over. We all understood something terrible had just happened.

On the night of 2nd December, while I was trying hard to get a glimpse of a rhinoceros, 42,000 kg of lethal gas had leaked out of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL)’s pesticide plant in Bhopal. By the time I pressed my friend’s doorbell, about 4,000 people were already dead.

Our cycle meeting started sharp at nine a.m. Mr. Ghatak from Calcutta had come to conduct the meeting. After the sales review, we had a tea break. He told us about methyl isocyanate (MIC). He also told us that our colleagues in Bhopal were in great danger.

Today, 2010, we know that more than 500,000 people have been affected by the Bhopal gas leak, and this is still not all the aftermath. Now, as you read this, 400 tons of chemicals that lie in the UCIL plant still trickle down into the groundwater resources of Bhopal.

“Business Decisions”

We know about the “business decision” at UCIL to use methyl isocyanate (MIC) instead of less hazardous (but more expensive) material to make Carbaryl, the product UCIL made. We also know of a “business decision” at UCIL that shut down the MIC tank cooling system, with the sole intent to save money — for the shareholders, of course — and, one could argue, to improve the performance of the management.

The most important “business decision,” of course, was to completely ignore the 1982 safety audit of the Bhopal plant, which had identified 30 major problem areas that could cause a hazard. Choosing not to correct these problems would not have saved a lot of money for the company. These problems, however, were fixed at the company’s identical plant in the U.S.

Was the Bhopal gas leak a disaster? It was going to happen eventually. UCIL’s management team knew about the safety violations. But possibly they wouldn’t have imagined the effects would be this enormous.

“D” People

Why do intelligent people at responsible positions tend to make such “business decisions”? These kind (they are of a kind, I have no doubt; let us call them the “D” people) have a priority of immense self interest, and they take huge risks on other people to save their own face. You will find this kind of people at the centre of all disasters. For example, we know of such people having an important role in the 2008 economic meltdown.

We should all be concerned that many such “D” people would be manning important positions in our society right now. “D” people cause disasters, given sufficient time. “D” people can also develop into dictators if the ground they walk on is fertile enough. Don’t we have such “D” people near the BP oil leak? Think of them, the ones who chose the cheaper designs.

Can we have a sieving system to identify and prevent such people from reaching responsible positions in our society? Maybe at the school, the university, and definitely at management institutes. Or, is it that human beings cease to be so when they are saddled with a certain kind of responsibility? Or, for some people, is looking good all that matters in life?

There are another set of people who are “oh, so true to their profession” but not to their evolution as humans. Great lawyers from India argued in the courts of the USA that the compensation case of the native Indians be conducted in India. The laws in the US were far too in favor of the victims “and the company might go bankrupt.”

In addition to UCIL management and the lawyers, there have been hundreds of people — the police, the judiciary, and politicians of all inclinations — who worked hard 24×7 to ensure that the court case of UCIL would take only 26 years.

That is time enough for genetic defects to show up. Perhaps it is time for another court case — on behalf of the children born of survivors.

Of Standards — Poor and Double

Every day when I travel in crowded buses and local trains, I go through the classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde syndrome. On the platform I am Dr. Jekyll, just eager to enter the train. The moment I am in, I turn into Mr. Hyde and do my best to prevent others from entering the train. I hate crowds, you see, though I am seldom alone.

The Mr. Hydes at Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) reportedly never shared any research reports of over a dozen studies on methyl isocyanate (MIC) with the medical fraternity. Either the reports were/are very damaging, in which case MIC should never have been used — or, the reports were not so damaging, in which case, antidotes to MIC would have been ready in 1984.

Today we know that injections of sodium thiosulphide would have saved thousands of lives on the night of 2nd December 1984 at Bhopal. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) was then doing a double-blind trial on effectiveness of this drug as a de-toxifier, but the report came 22 years too late.

The gas cloud on that night was denser than air and stayed close to the ground, affecting children and shorter people and those who never woke up. In the area declared as “gas affected,” there were 200,000 children of age less than 15 yrs and 3,000 pregnant women.

On the morning of 3rd December 1984, almost all the trees in the “gas-affected” area had shed all their leaves and developed burn patches. The Xerophytes suffered more because these plants keep their stomata (nose) open at night. Chromosomal abnormalities have since been found in eggplant, tomato, radish, and other shrubs.

Time magazine called Bhopal "India's Disaster." Photo: Courtesy Dipak Kumar

The bank of the Narmada River was a horrific site of innumerable mass cremations of men, women, children, and cattle. Those who ran that night inhaled more poison than the few who had a ride. Of the 154 people studied between 1986 and 1988, more than 20 percent had at least two chromosomal abnormalities, the more common type being translocation in chromosomes 13 and 21. MIC was found to have changed ovarian epithelial cell production, leading to permanent damage and carcinogenesis.

Dow Chemicals USA purchased UCIL in 2001. Although it denies any responsibility for damages caused by UCIL in Bhopal, Dow fights more than 75,000 asbestos-related lawsuits for Union Carbide in the USA. Twenty-six years later, contamination at the site has still not been cleaned up.

On its cover following the Bhopal gas leak, TIME magazine wrote, “INDIA’S DISASTER.” To me, the Bhopal gas leak is as much India’s disaster as was slave trade Africa’s disaster or Hiroshima Japan’s disaster. It is a human disaster.

I guess we are waiting for some sensible evolution to occur in ourselves, so that no more disasters happen. Will we ever see the day that Mr. Hydes no longer run the world?

Dipak Kumar

Guest Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

For More Information

Bhopal Medical Appeal

Wikipedia: Bhopal Disaster

MSNBC: Worst Industrial Disaster Still Haunts India

NY Times: Decades Later Toxic Sludge Torments Bhopal

NY Times Slideshow: Toxic Waste Plagues Bhopal

Notes from India: Greenathon Raises Funds for Solar Lights

The Greenathon brings solar lights to villages that may not have electricity for another 10 years.

“Over 1.6 billion people in the world lack access to electricity; roughly 25 per cent are in India alone. For these people, life comes to a standstill after dusk. Inadequate lighting is not only an impediment to progress and development opportunities, but also has a direct impact on the health, environment, and safety of millions of people, as they are forced to light their homes with kerosene lamps, dung cakes, firewood, and crop residue after sunset.” — Lighting a Billion Lives (LaBL)

One of India’s biggest green events, the Greenathon, aired recently on NDTV (a leading Indian television station). The purpose was to raise money to support a program sponsored by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). TERI’s “Lighting a Billion Lives” (LaBL) initiative is working to “provide solar lanterns to villages that would otherwise be without electricity for a decade or more.”

The Greenathon was a 24-hour live event that started on February 7, 2009 and continued through February 8. It was telecast on all NDTV channels “to raise awareness about the environment and find ways to create a cleaner, greener tomorrow.” The event featured India’s leading actors, business leaders, activists, designers, NGOs, teachers, and school children. By the end of the Greenathon, donors had pledged more than Rs 2 crore ($400,000 US) to supply solar-powered lanterns to villagers in remote areas of India.

The event highlighted the efforts of several celebrities, who contributed in different ways toward the cause. Following are a few examples from the official Greenathon website:

  • Milind Soman, an actor and model ran 60 kms to raise awareness for the cause.
  • Other celebrities performed dance numbers, sang, planted trees, “adopted” villages, cleaned the streets, and much more.

“The Campaign aims to bring light into the lives of one billion rural people by replacing the kerosene and paraffin lanterns with solar lighting devices,” according to the LaBL website. “This will facilitate education of children; provide better illumination and kerosene-smoke-free indoor environment for women to do household chores; and provide opportunities for livelihoods both at the individual level and at village level.”

So far, some 2,600 solar-powered lanterns are being used in 40 villages (in India and Myanmar), with 2 more villages in process. The cost of a single lantern is Rs 3600 or $90 US. Interested persons may donate by visiting the LaBL website.

Each solar lantern saves —

  • 40-60 liters of kerosene/year
  • 100 Billion Rupees burned each year in kerosene and wick lamps.”

Things are starting to look “greener” for India.

Makur Jain, Ph.D.

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Post

Notes from India: Clean Lucknow, Green Lucknow

Notes from India: “Clean Lucknow, Green Lucknow”

India has lush vegetation and abundant natural beauty. Photo: Makur Jain

I’ve spent my entire life in India, but have yet to see a trashcan anywhere on the streets. I guess that’s the reason why there’s a big pile of garbage at most street corners, especially in the residential areas. In some locations, however, the government hires street sweepers to clean the streets of garbage. My family, and others in our neighborhood in Lucknow, burn any garbage left on the street so there are no smells, no germs in the air, and no filth outside the house.

The hillsides are littered with trash. Photo: The Small House Society

The hillsides are littered with trash. Photo: The Small House Society

Since we don’t have separate dumpsters for recycling, people carrying large plastic bags on their shoulders pick empty plastic bags and bottles, glass bottles, and other items from the piles of garbage on streets. These items are sold, then recycled. Since most of the empty plastic and glass bottles are used and reused for storing spices, creams, oils, food, and other items, they typically aren’t thrown away unless they’re broken.

Food leftovers are generally given to the maid of the house, or put out for cows, birds, or dogs on the streets to eat. But the sad part about this is that some people discard food leftovers or peelings in plastic bags, and unsuspecting cows or buffaloes eat through the plastic bags to get to the food. This can lead to sickness and death for the animals.

On the brighter side, it’s very encouraging to know that hill stations like Nainital and some others don’t allow use of plastic bags to discourage people from throwing it in the lake, which is the focus of tourist attraction.

City streets are covered with litter, and paan stains mar the walls.

City streets are covered with litter, and paan stains mar the walls. Photo: Makur Jain

Items not thrown out on the street — such as non-composting paper, metal, and some plastic garbage — are sold to a kabari (trash/garbage collector). The kabari then sells the items to someone who can sell them further or recycle them. Some of these kabari ride three-wheel bicycles through residential neighborhoods, stopping and buying recyclable materials, such as old newspapers, metal things, glass or plastic material, old appliances, etc., from people who call out to them.

The animal dung out on the streets continues to be a nuisance to the cleanliness and hygiene of the city. There was a time when the local milkmen would have small houses and pieces of land throughout the city. They kept their cows, buffaloes, and goats there, and used the gobar (dung) as fuel. They’d collect it, dry it, and make flat discs of it to be used as fuel to cook food. It was possible for them to do this, because the dung would be on their fields or on the nearby streets, where they could collect it.

Ever since the government moved the milkmen out of the city, the stray cows’ dung on the streets just ends up on tires and shoes, and becomes a stench. Even if these wandering urban cows belonged to someone, it would be humanly impossible for the owner to keep track of them and collect the dung of his cows from the various streets they walk on. On a more positive note, there are gobar gas plants that allow the gas from gobar to be used as fuel.

Three-wheeled cars share the streets with cows in Lucknow. Photo: Small House Society

One would be surprised to see the dumping grounds here. It’s a huge piece of land where the garbage is left for years to rot! But there’s good news also. Sometimes the government or the city’s development authority, for example the Lucknow Development Authority (LDA), will press the garbage with road rollers into the ground for months, then cover it with mud or concrete. Then they sell that land as residential or commercial property – using garbage as landfill.

Another form of garbage that can be seen all over India on walls, buses, streets, and many government offices is the remains of spit from paan (betel leaf). This tobacco spittle becomes our “social bookmarks.” It’s funny and ironic that every place or wall where it says थूकना मना है। (Do not spit), people make sure they spit on the word मना (not), so the remaining words are थूकना …है। (Do … spit).

The paan stains, as well as cigarette and bidi butts, are littered everywhere. But we’re making progress. The Supreme Court passed a law last year on October 2, prohibiting smoking in all public areas. The Delhi High Court has also banned smoking from being shown in movies.

What’s surprising is that a lot of people contribute toward a “greener India” without even knowing it. Since most cities have small markets in every neighborhood, people just have to walk a couple of blocks and can find almost everything one needs for day-to-day living, thus reducing the pollution from vehicles. Also, Delhi, Lucknow, and other cities have small three wheeler auto-rickshaws that run on compressed natural gas (CNG), which is more environmentally clean.

We are taking small steps in my country, but we are making progress. We are moving toward “Clean Lucknow, Green Lucknow” (the slogan painted on numerous railings, walls, buildings, etc.), and thus toward a greener India.

Makur Jain, Ph.D.

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Post

Note from India – Greenathon Raises Funds for Solar Lights

Makur Jain, Ph.D., Contributing Writer

Dr. Makur Jain lives in Lucknow, India, where she earned her Ph.D. in English literature. During the 2007–08 school year, she was hosted by the U.S. State Department as a Fulbright Scholar to teach Hindi at the University of Iowa.

Makur Jain, Ph.D., Contributing Writer

Makur Jain, Ph.D., Contributing Writer

Having an opportunity to compare India and the U.S. gives her a unique perspective on solutions to sustainable living. For example, India is a leader in some areas of environmental innovation, such as using bicycles and small compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles for transportation.

Since Iowa City is home to the Small House Society, during her time in the U.S., Makur had an opportunity to learn about the small house movement and other initiatives for simpler and smaller living. This is how she first connected with Blue Planet Green Living.

Makur Jain

Contributing Writers

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Makur’s Posts:

Notes from India: Greenathon Raises Funds for Solar Lights

Notes from India: “Clean Lucknow, Green Lucknow”

Project GreenHands – Compensating the Earth