Bhopal 20 years on: More questions than answers

03 December 2004 10:25  [Source: ICIS news]

The tragedy of Bhopal is its lingering aftermath almost as much as the disaster itself. The world reacted with incredulity in December 1984 when deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas swept through the Union Carbide plant’s safety systems and descended on residents huddled in the shanty town nearby. Technical and management errors were compounded by the plant’s location. There can be no excuse for the inadequate response of organisations and agencies following the tragedy that has left many thousands suffering still in India.


Twenty years on it is obvious that Bhopal marked a turning point for the chemical industry. An accident of this magnitude had to have widespread influence. In many respects West was pitched against East and apparent technical sophistication against a rapidly developing economy.


But Bhopal never was or can be that simple. Technical questions may eventually be answered – but they have not yet been adequately. The real questions why, however – and why some forms of relief or compensation have taken so long to reach sufferers of the aftermath or victims’ families – may never be.


After 20 years it is still not possible to put the tragedy into perspective. Responsibility for the Bhopal plant, built to manufacture pesticides and other agrochemicals, was handed by Union Carbide to the Madhya Pradesh government authorities in 1998. There are claims now of inadequate clean-up and continued suffering due to leakages of toxic materials from the plant.


Disputes over cause, compensation and cleanup will take longer than 20 years to settle. Indeed most of the $470m of compensation Union Carbide paid to the Indian government has not yet been released. Criminal charges have been talked about, but none brought.


The emotions evoked by Bhopal continue to be strong but the gloom and despondency that hung over the disaster area has apparently lifted and a degree of normality has returned to homes and streets made desolate by the deadly gas cloud.

Managers and operatives in the chemical industry were jolted by the tragedy. The anniversary will serve as a timely reminder that safety at every chemicals plant is paramount.


Chemicals makers worldwide but particularly from America can never forget Bhopal. The heavy burden of responsibility for safe plant operation rests on their heads but also for an adequate response when things go terribly wrong.


With hindsight it is not difficult to see where Union Carbide went wrong in its reaction to events. Indeed, the most telling lesson from Bhopal is that companies need to be prepared for eventualities they cannot, technically predict.


Managers have to know how to react effectively under stress and make the right decisions in the absence of detailed information. In all things to do with safety and crises, potential or real, it is managers and management systems that are called upon to perform. And under the chemical industry’s flagship safety, health and environment programme, Responsible Care, it is management systems that are of most importance.


The term ‘responsible care’ may, indeed, say it all. Chemical companies are responsible for the chemicals they produce and the reactions used to make them. They have a duty of care not just to their employees but to communities that live and work around their plants and to consumers who ultimately use or come into contacts with their products.


In its awfulness, the Bhopal tragedy has shown over 20 years just how responsible chemical producers are for the lives of so many.

By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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