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How $37.68 a day could have saved Bhopal

June 25, 2010 17:04 IST

The entire Bhopal saga was witnessed from close quarters by Rajkumar Keswani, an outstanding journalist who had in fact foreseen this catastrophe. His work proves that the tragedy of Bhopal started much before December 3, 1984.

Two years before the Union Carbide factory leaked killer gas, he wrote in a weekly magazine called Rapat (news): Bhopal jwalamukhi ki kagaar par (Bhopal on the edge of a volcano).

Keswani witnessed the entire saga of deception of the victims of Bhopal by the Indian and American governments and multinational corporations. He narrates how Union Carbide Corporation's fatal cost-cutting measures sealed Bhopal's fate.

Who did what to cause the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster? A question that has been answered a million times -- Union Carbide's cost cutting mission. The same question has been denied a million times as well. Also, who denies it is a million dollar question. Union Carbide Corporation of the US denies it based on its propounded theory that Union Carbide India Limited was 'miraculously' an independent subsidiary.

Damning documentary evidence, in possession of the author since the past 26 years, would never tally with UCC's statement. Obviously, it is too much of a discomfort for UCC and Dow Chemicals, the new owner of the killer company.

It has never been a secret that the company's Indian subsidiary UCIL was given birth, nurtured and operated through remote control by UCC via its Eastern wing at Hong Kong, Union Carbide (Eastern). And logically so, since UCC held the majority stake in that subsidiary too.

What remote control, could be a question. One glaring example of how the Bhopal plant was operated in consultation with UCC on a day-to-day basis would be the answer. The exchange of telex messages in August-September 1984, a few months ahead of the disaster, between UCIL and UCC officials speaks volumes on this count.

The issue in question is the use of 'gasket filler materials' for the Bhopal plant.

On August 27, 1984, Works Manager J Mukund -- one of the seven sentenced to two years in jail for the criminal negligence in causing the disaster -- sent a telex message to C D Miller of the UCC at the Institute plant in the US.

I reproduce both the telex copies here, as they are:

BHOPAL TLX 1588

27 AUGUST 1984

TO: MR CD MILLER, BLDG 507, INSTITUTE PLANT UCAPCO

PIPING SPECIFICATIONS IN CHLORINE/PHOSGENE/MIC AREAS CALL FOR FILLED SPIRAL WOUND FLEXITALLIC TYPE GASKETS

FILLER MATERIAL SPECIFIED IS TEFLON IN SOME CASES AND ASBESTOS IN OTHERS

WE WOULD LIKE TO STANDARDISE ON ASBESTOS AS FILLER TO REDUCE VARIETIES STOCKED AND COST

HAVE ALREADY SUBSTITUTED ASBESTOS FOR TEFLON IN SOME CASES DUE TO STOCKOUTS AND SEE NO ILL EFFECTS

WOULD APPRECIATE YOUR VIEWS ON THIS

REGARDS

J MUKUND BHOPAL

PLS RD  XXXX

SECOND LAST PARA PLS READ AS TEFLON IN SOME CASES

Before moving ahead for the response to this telex message, seeking a change in certain specifications made by UCC earlier for the Bhopal plant, one has to note the occurrence of two words 'COST' and 'EXPENSIVE' in the two telex copies.

Strangely enough, UCC took 15 days to respond to this query -- a well thought out response. The response telex is not from Miller, to whom the original query was sent, but C S Tyson. Miller happened to be one of the three persons at UCC to whom the copy had been marked.

Now the response telex:

ING0007   ING00003 4808Z) 09/12   0858/0903

TELEX TO MR. J. MUKUND UCIL BHOPAL PLANT(BOM)

In response to your telex, dated August 27,1984, regarding spiral wound gasket filler materials, we at the Institute plant have in the past substituted asbestos as a filler materials for spiral would gaskets for the following UCC pipe specifications, 1E13, 6E1, 7C1 and 41E1. We have not had a recordable incident attributed to substituting asbestos for Teflon as a gasket filler.

The best gasket filler material we have tested to date, for sealability and temperature jis(is) Grafoil. I would expect spiral wound Grafoil filled gaskets to be too expensive and too difficult for you to acquire.

The piping specifications for your location can be revised to reflect your decision.

C.S.Tyson

Cc: C.D.Miller 

H.J.Karwan

B.D.Mollohan

So the 'independent' Indian subsidiary of UCC had to consult the 'sovereign' parent company at each and every level, on a day-to-day basis. Even in case of replacing one material to other in the plant.

What is more important in this case is not just the role of UCC in daily operations, it is the role of UCC in cost-cutting measures, which finally led to disaster. UCIL had started making losses in those years in the '80s. In an attempt to go from red to black, a heavy cost-cutting drive was launched in the plant -- a drive, conceived and led under the leadership of UCC.

A document dated February 24, 1984, marked as 'confidential', is an exchange between R Natrajan and J B Law, vice-president and chairman respectively for Union Carbide Eastern (Hong Kong) discussing the prevailing severe financial crisis at UCIL and the measures to overcome that.

The document says: 'A major OIP (Operation Improvement  Programme) effort, including reduction of 335 men, resulted in $1.25m annual cost saving in 1983 but future savings will not be easy.'

It also has a question: 'What is UCC going to do to resolve this problem?'

The answer to this question was 'more cost-cutting' -- this time compromising its already slack safety systems and risking the lives of an entire city population. One such measure to save money was putting off the refrigeration system, which was supposed to keep the volatile MIC gas cool.

The Methyl Isocyanate plant operation manual clearly states: '…keep circulation of storage contents continuously 'ON' through the refrigeration unit and maintain tank temperature below 5 degrees C (Celsius). Set temperature to sound an alarm at 11 degrees C.'

But the temperature in the MIC tank on that fateful night did rise to over 200 degrees Celsius, converting its contents into a death cloud over the town of Bhopal.

And yes, for record's sake, the cost saved by the Union Carbide on the Freon gas required for running the refrigeration system was $37.68 per day. That $37.68 spent on that particular night could have, perhaps, saved several thousand lives.

Rajkumar Keswani in Bhopal