Late on the day of the disaster a figure of 600 deaths was being circulated. Each day for several days thereafter the number augmented by hundreds, and a statistical bifurcation manifested itself between conservative figures, which sought to stay under 2000, and radical figures, which began to soar over five thousand and achieved twenty thousand and even fifty three thousand, this last being a figure that was related to me by a respectable lawyer who claimed to have gotten it from a government geologist from Madhya Pradesh as well as other people who "ought to know".
Not without reason or support, I have settled upon a figure of 3000 dead, 10,000 seriously disabled, 20,000 significantly disabled, and 180,000 affected to minor degrees. Later on we shall have occasion to look at these figures more closely. Just now they are cited as a preliminary to describing how the institutions of the community responded to a disaster of such proportions.
The Union Carbide company was quite unready for the emergency. It could render no aid to people. For all the good they did, the thousand employees and the Indian and world network of 100,000 employees and hundreds of offices and factories and outlets might as well have been on holiday. This slight exaggeration is aimed at stressing the purely local nature of the disaster and the total response that was levied upon an unprepared and poorly equipped community, and should be qualified to mention the individuals who later on pitched in to help the community; it also implies the confused nature of the little medical and humanitarian aid provided, the perhaps deliberately misleading responses to police inquiries as to what was going on at the plant, and the aborted siren blast. The siren was first turned on full to give the public alarm, then quickly muted to the level of an internal alarm, and only raised to the public level after the gas cloud had been discharged. This last matter should be investigated thoroughly. The action was in keeping with the company policy of reassurance to the authorities and public; it could well have been ordered, and in any event was a decision by a company employee.
The only excuse for what would appear to be criminal negligence here is stupidity and panic. One needs to discover the mechanism of the siren to see whether it consisted of two sirens, or one that could be raised or lowered in volume of sound. If two sirens, an excuse is practically inconceivable. If the latter, a single siren that could be adjusted, then the operator might reason falsely, thus : 'Loud is for the public; soft is for the plant; so first I will turn it on loud to warn the public and then I will turn it on soft to warn the plant. There is no way of warning both at the same time.' Anyhow, the men in the MIC unit area warned the other employees by siren, loudspeaker, and voice to flee and they all did so and in the right direction.
The top man, the Plant Manager, was alerted around 1:45 A.M. by a city magistrate who presumably heard some news from the police, who in turn had been alerted by the actual seepage of the vapors into the city police control room and by a roving inspector who reported in around 1:00 A.M. that some disturbance was occurring at the Union Carbide plant. The Manager reached the site quickly, passing through a mist of MIC, which he opened his car window to sniff, and which caused him to tear and cough. By the time he reached the plant, the air there was breathable. He said that the plant telephones were not working. If so, it was because they had been abandoned, because the police had put through calls before his arrival and they had been told that the problem was under control. The national union leader of Union Carbide workers claims that the Plant Manager and Chemical Plant Manager called All-India Radio to alert and instruct the people, but the Radio station refused to alarm the public without permission of the Central Office.
Until the truth became all too obvious, plant officials claimed that they had stopped the leak in the fatal Tank 610, even adding that the feat had been accomplished in under an hour. Much later, it became apparent that the "leak" had not been plugged, but that all the MIC of Tank 610 had been exhausted, as cleanly as if by plan. Only a little vapor greeted the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation when it sought samples from it days later. The Plant Manager, with refreshing frankness, declined to call the accident a leak, as the New York Times and many of the press and public figures termed it, insisting that it was an 'uncontrolled emission.' In effect he was calling it a constrained, slow-motion explosion.
If there had occurred no other way for the gas to escape, it would have exploded the tank. The human effects then might have been greater or less, depending upon how much the pressure and heat would have diminished in bursting the container. The gas would have spread fast and low, killing many plant employees. Bursting water and gas pipes would have stimulated a continued vapor reaction. On the other hand, the explosion inside the tank might have exploded the other tanks and its cloud might have been distributed in all directions at first, and then spread over the whole south hemisphere that is, over the whole city.
A police inspector had alerted the police quickly, but the efforts of the police to alert the population ahead of the cloud of gas were unsuccessful. Phones aroused some and loudspeakers others, but both were most effective in the better residential districts where the gas was taking its smallest toll. Moreover there was some question as to the advice to give generally. The specific advice had to put the decision upon the individual and the individual had a hard choice to make : If you think you can evade the cloud then flee; if you think you cannot, close the windows and door and at the first sign of gas douse yourself in water and bury your face in wet cloths. (I would point out that in hot countries, houses are designed to admit outside air always, and anyhow most of them leak air.)
The police then joined in transporting victims to hospitals and burial grounds, for it was decided that the bodies had to be disposed of rapidly to avoid danger of plague and because there were too many victims to bury or burn ceremoniously. There seemed little likelihood, also, that identification could be accomplished in a large minority of cases. Looting was not much of a problem since practically everyone was in distress.
The Army Sub-area Commander was contacted by an ex-Brigadier General who was President of the Straw Products Company, with 176 employees working the night shift; they were assailed by the gas, and telephoned to him. The Army sent relief trucks promptly but many of the workers were stricken and some died. About 2:00 A.M. the Army Area Commander was reached and sent out a fleet of trucks that reached the devastated area within an hour. There began for the military a grim ordeal over the next few days of combing the houses for the dead and surviving. Other soldiers served as orderlies in the hospitals. The main activity now was in the hospitals, and can be described along with the several medical issues in the next chapter.
At Union Carbide's elegant headquarters in Danbury, Connecticut, away from the congestion and confusion of New York City and ten and a half hours behind events in Bhopal, the news brought shock and disbelief. No one was denying responsibility, or that the plant was part of themselves. The principal officer for environmental affairs assured interrogators that MIC was hardly lethal, rather a form of riot gas causing tears and coughing. Announcement was made that experts would be quickly despatched to the scene from America. The Chairman consulted his conscience and in the face of opposition from his staff decided to leave for India and Bhopal. Diplomatic channels obtained for him a promise of entrance and exit. Meanwhile the company's public relations staff was stepping up its operations. Scores, if not hundreds, of "communications specialists" were hired to contain public hostility and alarm. They answered thousands of inquiries from the public, politicians, and the press. News briefings were frequent. The defensive instincts of the Company were manifesting themselves; orders were passed around the world to refer all inquiries to appropriate authorities and to allow no visitors on UC premises anywhere without special clearance. The Company began to dig itself in for a state of siege.
When the UC Chairman flew to Bhopal on Friday, December 7, he was met at the airport and arrested by police. He was charged with criminal negligence, released after several hours of detention in the comfort of the company guesthouse, had bail posted for his release, and flew in an Indian government aircraft back to New Delhi. There he visited the Indian Foreign Secretary, under escort by the U.S.A. charge d'affaires in an Embassy automobile, and spent the weekend before returning to the United States. He had decided against a news conference in India because of the expected hostility of the Indian press, a warranted fear, inasmuch as he had only a modest ameliorative program to offer and could hardly speak up proudly or even informedly of the events at the Bhopal plant.
The Chief Minister -- Americans would say "Governor' -- of Madhya Pradesh refused to meet with the Chairman and in fact had ordered his arrest along with the top officers of the Indian Union Carbide company. It was understood, however, that his safe return to America had been promised by the Union Government. An offer of a relief grant from the Indian company amounting to ten million rupees was announced coincidentally and was refused. The Chairman's visit was not then a success and the Chief Minister scored in political points; however, not to have come would have appeared to be a heartless omission.
The State government was relatively inert, following upon the arrest of the Union Carbide officials and the seizing of the plant. Before then, forty hours after the disaster, a meeting of secretaries and heads of departments was called to coordinate emergency activity. A State Relief and Rehabilitation Committee was set up under the Chief minister, which fissioned into two Committees. One, on finances, was to survey the damages but was overshadowed by the more ready Union Government relief payments. The other decided to distribute free milk to children and nursing mothers.
Besides preferring criminal charges against the managers, the State set up a Commission of Inquiry headed by a Justice of the High Court to investigate "into the events and circumstances of the accident, the adequacy of steps taken by the factory authorities, the adequacy of safety measures and their implementation in regard to measures for prevention of similar accidents in industries of this nature." The State has also served notice to Union Carbide of intended cancellation of its license to operate under the Insecticides Act of 1968, and the Chief Minister said that the plant would never open again. Further activity was expected upon the occasion of suits by the State against the Union Carbide interests in India and America, and upon the convening of the State Assembly, when hospital appropriations, industrial safety and rehabilitation measures would be taken up. At first the State denounced the American lawyers and then it began to sign up its own clients, until now 6000, and in March, with the Union Government, entered the U.S. Courts alongside the lawyers.
The incapacity of the State in the emergency is understandable. It possessed little in the way of equipment and few personnel trained for crisis management. Its own employees dispersed for their own safety. There exists no large welfare apparatus devoted to the problems of the poor. Confronted by a parade of demonstrators at the beginning of January, organized into a "People's Movement" to seek relief, the Chief Minister could only seek to belittle their pressure tactics and at the same time to placate them with assurances of concern and help to come.
It needs be said that underlying the unrest in regard to the State and City governments was the feeling, rather more widespread in India than in the United States, that both the political and administrative branches were ordinarily corrupt. After the excuse of over-population, corruption is the most common reason given for the painfully slow progress of India toward providing its people with a decent existence. The same State Government, the press was quick to point out, had been warned in advance of potentially grave accidents likely to occur on the Union Carbide premises. The factory location had been defended by State officials both as safe and as too expensive to move. This was in December 1982. No one knows, but many suspect, that damaging facts will come to light in the courts when the record of inspections and the inspectors themselves are brought forward. It is possible that required inspections were not performed, or were performed in a perfunctory manner, and that known defects in safety systems will have been passed over, and further that inducements of various kinds may have been traded.
The Government of India was similarly handicapped in responding. The Prime Minister, like the State's Chief Minister, behaved as proper politicians should; their sincerity and sorrow were genuinely felt and appreciated, just as was mother Teresa's. The Central Government within days was distributing adequate quantities of wheat, rice, oil, sugar, and milk to residents of all the affected areas of the City. It also announced that it would pay RS. 10,000 (about $800.00 U.S.) to every heir of a deceased victim, Rs.2000 to the seriously hurt, and 100 to 1000 to those less affected. These were called ex gratia payments, meaning free and unqualified, but serious problems arose in the course of paying out Rs.36.67 lakh (about $300,000) to 5724 victims, and led after four days to a suspension of payments. Prompt resumption of payments was promised but only in mid-January and after some talk of popular demonstrations were some payments made to the heirs of the dead. The problem of verification and administration was too great for the Government. The People's Movement was outraged. Why, they asked, should one hesitate to pay benefits on demand to the applicants from heavily affected areas? How, asked the bureaucrats, can we pay out money without proof? Some might cheat! They were using a figure of 1404 deaths, so announced by the State Government. No doubt the Union Government is feeling acutely the problems of determining personal damages and norms of compensation.
The Government of India, too, is planning to sue Union Carbide both in India and in the United States on behalf of the victims, and the State and Union Governments have in fact proceeded to join their suits in America. It is moot whether this action would deprive the victims of their individual rights to sue under Indian Constitutional Law, and under the American Constitution. To an individualist and libertarian it is ironical and delinquent parents suddenly appearing in loco parentis to represent their neglected and victimized children.
And, of course, the Indian Government has set up a Committee to study comparatively the methods of regulating hazardous industries around the world. Initial attempts of the Opposition to debate the issues of Bhopal in the Parliament were frustrated. Nor has the Opposition, severely reduced and divided following the recent elections, managed to establish a non Governmental position respecting the Bhopal disaster.
If all of this seems a poor response by the collectivity of concerned institutions to a vast tragedy, we may console ourselves with several thoughts. First, it is doubtful that the immediate response to such a disaster in other countries would be markedly superior. Second, the crowd of destroyed and sickened people pulls itself together and heals itself in a rudimentary manner and instinctively, individually and by mutual aid, apart from the institutional machinery of the government, which claims in this modern age a total and glorious mission that as often as not it fails to perform. Moreover we have not yet delt with the medical response, which was heroic. Fourth, the story is not finished; the possible outcomes of the devastation and decimation have not been related.
Finally, consider the victims, thousands in number arising out of the poorest of the Earth. Their own glorious annals deserve volumes. I cannot recount them here. Consider whoever was controlling trains at Bhopal. With people all around him stricken and crying out in agony and while others fled, himself half-blinded and hardly able to talk, he calls to the railway stations to the North and the South, telling them to stop the trains, keep them from entering the poisonous cloud at Bhopal. He died.