On Bhopal.

PositionLetter to the editor

I am writing to express my extreme disappointment in a recent article in World Watch, on Bhopal ["Bhopal Campaigner's Death Highlights Victims' Plight," November/December 2006, p. 9]. The author got it almost all wrong.


As it happens, I was in Bhopal a few days after the event. My visit had been arranged long before, but my host had just been appointed chairman of the committee hastily convened by the government to decide what to do about the second tank of methyl isocyanate (MIC) that had not leaked. Nobody at the time knew what had happened. Curiously, journalists were blaming Union Carbide the day after the accident, without any facts at all. Here are a few key points:

1) Union Carbide/U.S. (UCUS) was the owner of 51 percent of the shares of Union Carbide/India (UCI), but it had no local management control whatever. All employees were Indian nationals, by government fiat. 2) The plant was designed and built by British contractors chosen by the Indian government, not by UCUS. 3) The original educational standards for technicians had been weakened from four years of college to two years, by local management. 4) Very important: the plant was located in the center of the city rather than on the periphery, because the local government wanted it so. 5) UCUS had sent an inspection team a year earlier that had turned up several serious safety problems. At the time of the accident none had been dealt with and two of the [plant's] safety features were not operational. 6) Not a single employee was harmed by the MIC leak, which occurred in the middle of the night. All of the roughly 2,000 victims were poor peasants living in tents or shacks in a field adjacent to the plant. They were there because the plant gave them free water. The enormous numbers quoted by your author are mostly sheer invention by the local media.

It is true that a couple of thousand people who breathed [the released gas] died quickly (not 8,000 as your article suggests) and some number of others suffered damage, some permanent, but mostly not, to the skin and the lungs. But the casualty figures you published (20,000 killed and 500,000 injured) are sheer invention. Everyone who was anywhere near the place now claims to have suffered permanent damage, but virtually all of the effects were immediate.

It took over a year before the Indian government permitted an outside engineering consultancy to investigate the actual cause. There was a lot of loose talk...

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