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On Bhopal.

I am writing to express my extreme disappointment in a recent article in World Watch, on Bhopal ["Bhopal Campaigner's Death Highlights Victims' Plight," November/December 2006, p. 9]. The author got it almost all wrong.


As it happens, I was in Bhopal a few days after the event. My visit had been arranged long before, but my host had just been appointed chairman of the committee hastily convened by the government to decide what to do about the second tank of methyl isocyanate (MIC) that had not leaked. Nobody at the time knew what had happened. Curiously, journalists were blaming Union Carbide the day after the accident, without any facts at all. Here are a few key points:

1) Union Carbide/U.S. (UCUS) was the owner of 51 percent of the shares of Union Carbide/India (UCI), but it had no local management control whatever. All employees were Indian nationals, by government fiat. 2) The plant was designed and built by British contractors chosen by the Indian government, not by UCUS. 3) The original educational standards for technicians had been weakened from four years of college to two years, by local management. 4) Very important: the plant was located in the center of the city rather than on the periphery, because the local government wanted it so. 5) UCUS had sent an inspection team a year earlier that had turned up several serious safety problems. At the time of the accident none had been dealt with and two of the [plant's] safety features were not operational. 6) Not a single employee was harmed by the MIC leak, which occurred in the middle of the night. All of the roughly 2,000 victims were poor peasants living in tents or shacks in a field adjacent to the plant. They were there because the plant gave them free water. The enormous numbers quoted by your author are mostly sheer invention by the local media.

It is true that a couple of thousand people who breathed [the released gas] died quickly (not 8,000 as your article suggests) and some number of others suffered damage, some permanent, but mostly not, to the skin and the lungs. But the casualty figures you published (20,000 killed and 500,000 injured) are sheer invention. Everyone who was anywhere near the place now claims to have suffered permanent damage, but virtually all of the effects were immediate.

It took over a year before the Indian government permitted an outside engineering consultancy to investigate the actual cause. There was a lot of loose talk about washing the pipes with a valve turned the wrong way. I believed that myself until I saw the report, by the consulting firm Arthur D. Little. It turns out that a whole series of valves had to be turned wrong, and the only rational explanation for the "accident" is that it was deliberate sabotage by a disgruntled employee. Has there been any prosecution? I don't think so. The Arthur D. Little report has been suppressed. The Indian government (and the media) much preferred to blame Carbide. And, by the way, your author states without qualification that Warren Anderson [Carbide CEO at the time] is guilty of a crime. What crime? The people mainly responsible were, and still are, right there in Bhopal. Yet your author seems to absolve the Indian government of all responsibility. Management responsibility (without effective authority) is one thing and criminal liability is another.

I have seen bad, one-sided stories in the media, but for a magazine that pretends to be objective, your story is just about the worst in my experience. You got all your information from "activists" who are not professional scientists and who got their information from tainted and extremely biased sources. You owe your readers an apology and an explanation.


Professor Emeritus, INSEAD, and Institute Scholar, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis

Fontainebleau, France

Monideepa Talukdar, the article's author, responds: Professor Ayres's most important point concerns the number of people killed and injured in the disaster. The numbers I cited (8,000 killed in the first 24 hours and 20,000 killed and 500,000 injured to date) are tallied from various sources that rest their findings on eyewitness accounts from the first few days, the number of bodies buried/cremated, and on the number of patients seeking treatment in local hospitals over the years. The official figures are in the range of approximately 2,000 dead. However, considering that the plant was located in a central area of the congested city with a population of more than 900,000 at the time, that MIC has been shown in several studies to have long-term debilitating effects, and that toxic waste from the deserted factory site has polluted the soil and ground water--not to mention the chaos in the city immediately after the leak, the overwhelmed medical staff and poor record-keeping, and mass burials and cremations--the higher numbers are not far-fetched.

Prof. Ayres objects to the article's sources of information as "activist" and therefore automatically biased. However, he grants full credibility and objectivity to a report commissioned by the very company implicated in the case. Arthur D. Little was commissioned by UCUS to write the report, which puts in question its finding that the leak was an act of sabotage by a disgruntled employee. The company has not made any specific charges against any specific person but used the sabotage theory to delay proceedings in the civil suit. The report has not been "suppressed"; rather, several experts and even Carbide managers have disputed it.

Prof. Ayres notes that the local (Indian) management have also gone scot-free while so much attention is focused on Warren Anderson. The real question is why no one from the company, regardless of nationality and affiliation, has faced criminal proceedings. Warren Anderson garners more scrutiny by virtue of being the most senior company official implicated. The article does not suggest that he is actually guilty; that can be settled only through a fair trial. He is a fugitive because he is a defendant in a criminal suit pending in the Bhopal District Court but has not been extradited to stand trial. The article makes clear that this is due to the Indian government's halfhearted effort as much as anything else, and that the medical and economic rehabilitation of the victims, or lack thereof, is primarily the government's responsibility and it has come very short of expectations.

Developing countries generally have much lower environmental and labor standards and inadequate enforcement of the regulations that do exist. This is precisely why it is profitable for multinationals to set up operations in developing countries. The government is definitely complicit, especially for its failure in providing just compensation and rehabilitation. Having said that, the responsibility for maintaining safety standards and preventing accidents primarily lies with the corporation that owns the site. Both the government and the corporation share accountability but the article's chief intent was to highlight the victims' plight, who continue to relive the tragedy and struggle for justice 22 years after it happened.


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Title Annotation:FROM READERS
Publication:World Watch
Article Type:Letter to the editor
Date:May 1, 2007
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