That night, this day

Written by Garima Pant | Updated: Jun 21 2010, 04:54am hrs
Where were laws flouted in Bhopal

It was a disaster waiting to happen. According to a 2000 Amnesty International report, between the beginning of 1983 and the time of the disaster, a series of cost-cutting measures were implemented. Damaged or malfunctioning equipment was patched up rather than repaired, or replaced by sub-standard material.

Documented evidence suggests that by 1983, the methyl isocyanate (MIC) unit only had six operators compared to 13 in 1980, while the number of maintenance personnel was reduced to just two. Further, Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) had by this time decided to dismantle the plant and ship it to Indonesia or Brazil, with a feasibility report completed just three days before the disaster.

The company decided to store the ultra-hazardous MIC in Bhopal in bulk, without equipping the plant with corresponding safety measures.

Technology used was not proven and entailed operational risks.

Standards of safety in design or operations in Bhopal were different from those UCC had in place in the USA. What was also missing was a comprehensive emergency plan or system in Bhopal to warn local communities about leaks.

Operational and waste disposal practices at the factory harmed the environment even before the gas leak. Since the plant opened in 1970, it has been a source of environmental pollution. Even today, the contaminated site continues to pollute the groundwater, the sole source of water for those around the plant, with toxins.

On the fateful night, it was a series of wrongdoings that caused the worlds worst industrial disaster:

* The refrigeration unit installed to cool MIC and prevent chemical reactions had been shut for three months.

* The vent gas scrubber had been shut off for maintenance.

* The flare tower had been shut off.

* There were no effective alarm systems in place.

* The water sprayers were incapable of reaching the flare towers.

* The temperature and pressure gauges were malfunctioning.

* Tank number 610 for storing MIC was filled above recommended capacity.

* The standby tank for use in case of excess was already having MIC.

With over 22,000 people dead (as per 2004 ICMR projections) and several thousands injured, a host of new laws and regulations were formed, but their implementation and monitoring has been ignored, which was the case with Bhopal as well. Union Carbide Corporation did not inform the government of the potential hazards and the Indian government failed in its duty of monitoring and regulating, says Satinath Sarangi, a member of a voluntary medical organisation, Sambhavna, in Bhopal. The state government was armed with several laws to deal with environmental protection, use of hazardous substances in manufacturing and safety: Factories Act, 1948; Insecticides Act 1968; Water Pollution Act, 1974 and Air Pollution Act, 1982. Despite this, it failed to take necessary measures for monitoring and evaluation of safety aspects.

With rampant and unregulated import of hazardous material in India, another Bhopal could be in the making. And as far as the original tragedy goes, few lessons have been learnt from it.