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bhopal disaster – a personal experience


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									      Bhopal Disaster – a Personal Experience
                 J. K. Gehlawat (Former Professor, IIT Kanpur)
         248, Ram Krishna Vihar, 29, I.P. Extension, Delhi – 110092, India


       Bhopal Tragedy was the worst industrial accident in the world where several
thousand persons lost their lives. It occurred at the Union Carbide plant located
inside the city of Bhopal and close to the railway station, at midnight of December 2-
3, 1984 due to the leakage of a MIC gas which took the local sleeping and floating
population unawares.

      This paper describes the experience of a transit passenger who reached the
Bhopal Railway Station by train at about the same time when the deadly gas leakage


       Safety in the operations of chemical plants, where toxic gaseous substances
are handled, is of prime importance. Safety aspects begin right at the stage of
designing a chemical plant. Foolproof construction and meticulous drills for the
prevention of any accident during operations of the plant are mandatory. I had an
opportunity of working at the pilot plants of a leading chemical production unit at
Bombay where gas-liquid reactions involving toxic gases like ammonia, chlorine and
sulpherdioxide were carried out. I was well familiar with the safety programmes and

       I had personally known the Site-Chief at the Bhopal Plant of Union Carbide,
Dr. Roy Choudhary and their Regional Marketing Manager at Delhi, Dr. U. V. Singh.
Hence, I was aware of the activities at the Bhopal plant and that methyl isocyanate
(MIC), a toxic reactant, was stored in underground storage tanks in tonnage quantity.
       I was working as a consultant to a new project at Indore which is about 160
km from Bhopal by road. I used to visit this client once in a month. I was on my way
to Indore when my train from Kanpur reached Bhopal at about mid-night of
December 2-3, 1984 when the deadly gas leakage had occurred at the Union
Carbide plant. The factory was situated in a thickly populated locality at a distance
of about 1 km from the railway station. Fig. 1 shows the plant location and the gas
affected areas of the town. Other details including compensation paid upto July 19,
2004 are shown in Fig. 2.

A Frightening Personal Experience

       My train reached Bhopal railway station amidst great chaos due to the
leakage and heavy spread of the nasty pungent toxic gas in the atmosphere. There
was no coolie (baggage handler), no taxi, no one to tell what had happened-except
the cry all around among suffocation and burning eyes owing to exposure to the toxic
gas. On another occasion I would have taken a taxi and gone straight to Indore, my
destination. But on that fateful night I had to walk down with baggage to Hotel
Bharati located at a distance of about 350 meters from the railway station across a
flyover. I decided to go there because the owner of the Hotel was from Kanpur and
known to me. It was a horrifying experience to walk down the distance upto the Hotel
since the heavy cloud of the pungent gas not only affected the respiratory system
adversely due to inhalation but my eyes also became sore and red like it happens
with a tear gas. I felt a bit comfortable on reaching the hotel. It is a three-storey high
but small hotel.

       There were about 20 occupants. As pointed out earlier in the text, I had
worked in a chemical plant where toxic chemicals were handled. As a chemical
engineer and as a teacher I knew that many gaseous reactants are highly soluble in
water. Most are heavier than air and that on a chilly midnight the concentration of
the toxic MIC would be much higher at the ground level than on the upper floors.
Hence, I advised the hotel occupants: (i) to shift to the top floor, (ii) to close all the
windows, (iii) to switch on the ceiling fans and exhaust fans, (iv) to breath through
wet napkins and (v) to wash eyes with water as frequently as possible. I asked the
Hotel Manager to given milk to all. Milk works as an antidote in such situations
because casein and other constituents of milk work as adsorbents for the toxic
substances and minimize their residual effects on the body systems, particularly their
passage into the blood stream.

        We struggled through out the night and suffered a lot inspite of the above
precautions. It was at about 4.0 a.m. that the intensity of the gas started decreasing.
By 5.0 a.m., it appeared to be nearly normal when I called my client at Indore and
informed him about the ordeal at Bhopal. I told him that I shall leave for Indore by
the first available vehicle. I requested him to locate a good physician and an eye
surgeon at the medical college at Indore for my medical check-up and treatment.

       I checked out of the hotel at about 6.30 a.m. and walked down to the nearby
taxi-cum-bus stand. I was pleasantly surprised to find the situation at the bus stand
nearly normal. There were many more passengers who must be stranded at Bhopal
like me. I boarded a Luxury bus for Indore and reached there by 11.00 A.M. At
Indore I checked into a hotel and learnt by news from the All India Radio that a lot of
people had died in Bhopal that night due to the gas tragedy. It was also reported that
most deaths occurred on the roads. These were mostly the poor people, who tried

to run away on foot and collapsed on the roads due to excessive inhalation of the
toxic gas. Those who remained in-doors, including the plant personnel at the site of
the gas leakage, survived, though many may have taken ill or suffered from gas
exposure and died during later years due to lack of proper diagnosis or treatment.

       My client at Indore had contacted an eye surgeon at the Medical College, Dr.
Nahta. I was under his treatment for a few days and returned to Kanpur feeling
nearly normal.

Negative Compensation for Claim

        I was among the six hundred and fifty thousand persons who filed their claims
for compensation. Documentation and Medical Examination occurred at Bhopal
more than once. A bronchial attack on my lungs and on-set of cataract in both the
eyes were noticed as after-effects of the exposure to MIC. Another half a dozen
visits to Bhopal took place for the judicial proceedings. The claim was settled during
1997 with a payment of Rs. 35,000/- (about 800 US Dollars). It virtually meant a
negative compensation since much more money had been spent by me during this
period on medication and frequent travels to Bhopal for documentation and judicial

Concluding Remarks

       Like several other travelers, my presence at Bhopal at the time of the gas
tragedy was merely accidental. I escaped major suffering due to prior knowledge of
toxic chemicals and on account of simple precautions as described earlier in the text.
A much larger section of the local population was badly affected. As per confirmed
reports about three thousand persons died (mostly on the roads) on that fateful night.
Several thousand suffered from moderate to serious illness-most of it persistent and
irreversible owing to exposure to the toxic gas and died in later years due to lack of
proper treatment. Over twenty thousand persons are reported to have died till date.
Pregnant women have had miscarriages and given births to deformed babies.
Thousands lost their eyesight. The aged and the children continue to suffer. As for
the compensation: payments of Rs. one to two hundred thousand (2500-5000 US
dollars) to the families of the dead and Rs. 25,000 to 35,000 (600-800 US dollars) to
me and others, after 10-15 year's of claim proceedings are very meager sums.

       Prevention is better than cure. Stringent inbuilt safety norms in plant design,
location of hazardous plants away from the habitation, vigilant plant operations,
frequent mock drills to continually test the safety systems for its proper functioning
and operators’ preparedness are needed to move towards zero accident rate in
industrial practice. It is a great challenge to the plant engineers and planners but
surely worth the effort.

                 Fig. 2: Relief for Bhopal Gas Victims

   Wards in Bhopal Municipal Corporation (1984) – 56

   Gas affected wards – 36

   Estimated Population of Bhopal Municipal Corporation (1984) – 8, 94, 539

   Estimated Population of the 36 gas affected wards – 5, 59, 835

Night of Dec. 2-3, 1984
   Methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked from Union Carbide factory as Bhopal slept

   Immediate toll stood at over 3000 with thousands impaired in various degrees.
    Toll continued to mount over the coming years

   Union Carbide deposited US$ 470 million with Reserve Bank of India in
    settlement of claims in Feb. 1989.

   Over the years part of the money distributed to victims, but a large amount is held
    up due to legal complications

    July 19, 2004
   Supreme Court orders the full amount, which has grown to Rs. 1,503 crores with
    interest, to be released to victims.


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