The City of Bhopal is situated nicely upon the banks of two artificial lakes, created many centuries ago. It stands amidst the farms of a verdant plateau. It is the capital of the largest and center-most State of the Republic of India, Madhya Pradesh, whose population of some fifty-five millions contains a disproportionately large number of Moslems (there being 500 mosques in Bhopal alone), and also some ten million people still organized tribally. Per capita income in the State came to 1217 rupees (about $100.00) in 1981, one of the lowest averages in India.
The City must now consist of a million persons, or at least did so before the tragedy. Its industries are few, the factory of the Union Carbide Company of India, formulating pesticides, being outstanding for size and modernity. It holds a Medical School and a Technical College. Communications with the outer world are by train and bus, supplemented by several airplane flights a day that pause at the City's decent little airport before proceeding South or North. Automotive traffic on the highways to and from the city is slight. Still, enough traffic converges upon the several thoroughfares of the City to congest them.
Despite a number of elegantly constructed mosques and old houses, most of them approaching a desperation of disrepair, the total aspect of the City is unlikely to impress a stranger favorably. Actually there are few strangers, except from the villages around, and those who come to do business with the State Government, or to seek medical care at the free hospitals. (There is one hospital bed in the State for every four thousand inhabitants.)
On the more pleasant streets of the City the upper civil service, executives, proprietors and professional classes dwell; most people live in shabby but not unclean areas, and one wishes that he might go through town with a magical paint brush, because every wall, every interior, seems to want a coat of paint.
Unfortunately, when it came time for a sudden magic to strike Bhopal, it was not a bright paint, but instead an evil magic, a cloud of poison gas, disgorging from the best-painted, most modern part of the City, set apart from the rest by a tight, high wire fence, the Union Carbide complex, sixty acres of high technology on the northern outskirts of the City.
Is it superstition or some hidden rule that from the best-appearing the worst evil strikes? Was it not from Germany, cleanest and most advanced of countries, that there sprang suddenly the Nazi evil that almost destroyed Western civilization? Was it not from the immense factory of modern culture, the United States, where cities and farms are alike industrialized, that there appeared in the skies and upon the roads of Vietnam those splendid fleets of shiny aircraft and armored vehicles dealing out destruction to poor villages? For its own part, there is the high Soviet technology replicating the Vietnamese war in Afghanistan.
It is not superstition, but solid common sense, to pose the question of Bhopal in universal form : How can man use his most modern and ingenious developments in ways that will not turn upon his fellows and destroy them?
Every Indian city that can boast of progress must confess to the slums that come with progress. To create a new factory of the highest levels of design and technology employing one thousand workers in a fully modern setting is to create a shanty-town of 30,000 people. It is practically a sociological law, one which, however, has been given only cursory attention by those who try to built modernity by emplacing isolated scraps of it upon a traditional culture.
The phenomenon is not Indian, but worldwide.The phenomenon is also historic. As industry came to England, to France, Germany, old Russia, old America, it brought with it the same social movement. Myriads of people abandoned their villages to cluster around the new gods of industry so as to live a life that seemed a little better than the old one.
So the case of Bhopal is not unique, but typical, historically and today. One new "real" worker brings a family of half a dozen people, maybe more. These people attract more people. Some are relatives. Some are from nearby villages: they, too, hear the call of the city. There will be a little business to do because there is a little more money to circulate. Shops will be needed, and let us not be snobbish about what a shop must be like. A shop is a few vegetables; a shop is a man who fixes sandals with a hammer, pincers, a few nails and thongs; a shop is a person whose family goes out to find firewood, breaks it into little pieces, and sells it. In the end, a single well-employed worker will be supporting a family and auxiliary workers, and in part their families. We discover finally a ratio of one to twenty, and what began as a factory providing 1000 new job ends up supporting a large-sized town at the least, for we are not counting all the hopeful ones who move in and somehow add themselves to the already existing city economy, offering even cheaper services and labor. This ratio of "real" jobs is about one-fourth of the American ratio.
In the end, what it costs to keep one criminal in a New York State jail for a year, $40,000 (never mind the equal costs of putting him there in the first place) can keep 250 people going in India: civilized, decent, gentle, clean, and hardworking people who bear no grudge against the world. For such are the shantytown dwellers of Bhopal -- as elsewhere in India. And such are those who perhaps to the number of 60,000 (counting the rest of the victims as of higher socio-economic status) suffered most from the lowering and passing cloud of poison erupting out of high technology.
The cloud, called appropriately by some Indian newspapers "the killer-cloud", emerged in full hissing fury close to 1:00A.M. from a venting tower, after passing through an apparatus designed to render harmless the poisonous gas of methyl-isocyanate (MIC). The gas ascended the vent pipe in a long-drawn-out explosion lasting for nearly two hours. It was initially propelled by the extremely high pressure of the tank that had held it in liquid form and emerged from the pipe into the atmosphere. Then, directed by the wind, it streamed out, not losing its internal turbulence until expanded and cooled. MIG has a density twice that of water, yet the cloud, both wind-propelled and self-propelled, could spread out far and wide while training its vapors along the ground.
The air temperature was in the mid-fifties Fahrenheit, a cool night for Bhopal. A fairly stiff breeze was blowing from the Northwest, from the countryside down upon the eastern sectors of the City. Both conditions -- the temperature and the wind -- were misfortunes: the chill air forced the hot and heavy poisoned moisture of the release to carry along close to the ground, preventing it from rising and dissipating.
The wind blew the gas through the most densely settled sectors of the city. About twenty-five square miles of territory were covered by lethal vapors during prolonged venting. Attempts at mapping the course of the cloud have produced differing configurations. A United Press International map, reproduced by the New York Times, pictured an overly well defined course proceeding over adjoining shanty-towns, the railroad station and down through the southeastern part of the City. A map of B. K. Sharma of India Today presented a much more widely diffused pattern, which represented the many stories of poisoning in the downtown areas, and at the Straw Products Factory where many of the workers succumbed to gas, and at the hospitals and in the well-to-do areas. Figure 1 here follows the extensive view. No one questions that places most heavily affected were the congested slum colonies such as J. P. Nagar, Kazi Camp, Chola Kenchi, and Railroad Colony.
Even in the most tightly packed areas, the cloud did not behave uniformly. The variables that determined its fatality included the age and physical condition of the victims, one's sleeping posture, the position of one's mat or bed in relation to the open air, the varying use of cloths and water upon being struck by symptoms, and finally what must have been eddies, whorls, currents and pockets in the overall wave of poison.
The people knew right away the source of the poisonous air, although it was incredible and shocking. Thousands had fled their homes a few months before upon the occasion of a small discharge of gas and an associated rumor of disaster. Now they choked and screamed at one another to rise and flee, aiding each other when they could, the choking and gagging leading the fully blinded. Some stepped out of their huts at the first whiffs, strangling, and where too blinded to turn back in, were swept up in the gathering human torrent and often never saw their families, neighbors and friends again. Some fled in a fright that respected no one until they awakened as from a dream miles away. Havoc, chaos, madness in the mass : such words could be used for once literally.
No one ran toward the source of the cloud although to run against the wind would have been the rational action to take (as many who did not need to run said knowingly afterwards). Of course, they would have run up against the wire fence of the factory. To run crossways would imply that they would know the dimensions of the cloud; but so far as they knew the cloud might have been infinitely large. Wherever they turned they were met by a haze that worsened the choking, blindness and retching. Death and coma came as a final release from an excruciating agony, no matter whether of minutes or hours. The merely injured would continue to suffer hours, days and weeks of torture.
To the dead left behind were joined those dying along the line of rout. The crowd grew to be enormous and moved rapidly. In three quarters of an hour, its original surviving members had rushed five kilometers. This we know by figuring from the time of the gas release to the time when the Director of Medical Services, hastening to discover the trouble, was met by the onrush of people and had his car turned around and boarded by a score of victims, several of whom had expired but were mounted by others on the hood and top anyway. All obstacles were overrun; every cart, bicycle, and car was pressed into service. The incapacitated were sometimes trampled in the dark tumult. The dead, the screaming wounded, were everywhere one turned. Although the crowd hardly needed to be exhorted, a police van could be heard creeping ahead with its loudspeaker blaring: "Run for your lives ! Poisonous gas is coming !"
Cattle, pigs, goats and dogs were exterminated in the path of the cloud. Later on their carcasses marked the contours of the cloud upon the ground.
The workers in the factory saw the venting of gas from its first occurrence and they could run against its flow. They numbered about seventy-five persons and certainly did not constitute a trained and disciplined force that would venture forth in their vehicles (which did exist) and protective gear (which also existed in limited quantity, the oxygen masks being of twenty-minutes duration) to give first aid (of what kind?) to the people crying out for help (in the dark inaccessible corners unreachable save by stretcher -- what stretcher?). Emergency help from the factory was nil.
The whitish greenish gas thus extruded was sufficient to have killed the million people of Bhopal had they been equally exposed and had the gas been sprayed uniformly in 180 degrees of arc. It is believed by toxicologists and it has been made into a rule in India and the United States that one in fifty million parts of methyl-isocyanate is enough to cause harm to a human exposed to it in an eight-hour work day. Twenty parts per million will send a person into agonies within five minutes. MIC is so reactive, that experts Arthur Palotta and E. J. Bergin suspect it to be potentially a mutagen, teratogen, and carcinogen.
A tank of MIC thus becomes a kind of neutron bomb capable of fusion and explosion simply by adding water to it: people are destroyed and property is preserved. It is a wonder that terrorists have not targeted MIC installations, but perhaps untrained employees in charge of unsafe systems can also do the job.