Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Bhopal happens and nobody is prosecuted

This week marks the twenty fifth anniversary of the worst industrial disaster in history – the leak of the deadly methyl isocyanate from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. Thousands of people died and the horrors have been well documented.

This post focuses on one notable aspect of what happened after the disaster. Or rather what didn’t happen. Nobody has yet been prosecuted in a court of law for the accident. That’s right. After 25 years, there has not been a single criminal prosecution.

There is little doubt that safety systems in the plant were poorly designed, bypassed in actual operation and there was criminal negligence on safety. Those of us who have worked in factories know how elaborate safety systems are when handling extremely dangerous chemicals like methyl isocyanate. And yet multiple safety systems seem to have been routinely bypassed. Just glance at the Wikipedia article on the accident that details the number of safety systems that were reported to have been non operational at that time.

The government, NGO’s and all the shouters wanted to prosecute Warren Anderson, the then Chairman of Union Carbide globally. This is a classic manifestation of trying to go after a global name – the more senior the better to show that something is done. Flash of publicity. But is Warren Anderson really the culprit ? – was it he who bypassed multiple safety systems at the Bhopal plant ? Was he the one who designed the systems in the first place ? He should take moral responsibility, but he is not criminally responsible.

The real criminal responsibility lies with the plant management and the actual operators of the plant. The people who took short cuts. The people who gave lip service to the required safety procedures. The people who tried to cut costs by short circuiting what they saw as elaborate non essential procedures. The people who allowed stocks of MIC to build up because the final product was not selling, but didn’t think of the consequences. They are the people who should be prosecuted. If there were serious design deficiencies with the safety systems, then the design guys must also be prosecuted. By not doing so, we have not served the demands of justice. We have implicitly accepted that it is OK to bypass safety systems, even when the consequences are as disastrous as what happened. We have failed to award exemplary punishment to the people really responsible – and thereby deter similar people in other factories from taking shortcuts on safety.

In some ways, we should look at ourselves. We are cavalier about safety in our own homes. Don’t we overload a socket by drawing an extension box and plugging multiple devices to it ? Don’t we ignore earthing and plug a two pin plug where a three pin plug is required ? Don’t we get irritated by the fuse going off repeatedly and short the fuse box ? Do we even have a single fire extinguisher in our house ? This is the same lighthearted approach to safety that caused the Bhopal disaster. Pardon my sermonising like a snooty b%$#@, but this is one topic where I won't stop being a sanctimonious pest.

We would do ourselves a good turn by not taking safety lightly. By asking for a safety audit of our own homes. And then following the safety procedures without fail. Next time we plug a 2 pin plug into a three pin socket .........


savitha said...

Thanks for reminding: Every good deed has to begin from home.

Regarding the Bhopal tragedy: As usual, every crime will be pushed under the carpet, blame it on the public's short memory! Even a crime of this large a scale! That's a curse on us!!

Deepa said...

Incidentally in our country, people think they are being quite chivalrous by taking safety lightly. You'd see people bragging about a dangerous cut they managed in a busy traffic or not wearing helmets, etc. Everyone thinks, "its not gonna happen to me". God knows where did we get this attitude from; haven't heard about such an attitude towards safety, anywhere else in the world.

VA said...

An eye-opener! glad that we were taught minimum safety rules and domestic crisis management in childhood by our parents. However, I am sure there may be some or the other rules which even we might not be aware of. To my mind, a rule is a rule, howsoever mundane it may be.

VA said...

oh, clicked the submit button twice.

Just wonder when will our judiciary system start punishing such vicious criminals. May be, our country is too democratic.

J said...

25 years! That's a long time given that nothing (much) has happened. I like the idea of at least converting it into a lesson on the importance of safety and highlighting the responsibility of every individual involved in the process. I agree completely with your viewpoint that safety begins at home but I don't know if I want to talk about household safety in the same breath as safety in a chemical plant, where the scale of the disaster can be much higher and there is a lower sense of ownership to begin with. Mainly, I fear that it may dilute your message. In any case, this is a serious issue and point taken.

Half Indian said...

Strong agree!!!

Ramesh said...

@Savitha - Yes, many crimes have been pushed under the carpet - but this one was so big that they have successfully managed to push an elephant under.

@Deepa - We do have that particular disease especially when it comes to traffic. But underneath we are a scred lot - witness the roads when there is an eclipse !

@VA - Very well said - a rule is a rule especially when it comes to safety; no compromise whatsoever.

@J - One of the greatest companies when it comes to industrial safety is Du Pont. They are a chemical company and yet no Lost Time Accident in decades anywhere in the world. They taught a simple principle - safety is mostly attitude and if you take care of the small issues, the big issues will take care of themselves. They focus with zero compromise on every small matter and they say a big matter never comes up. Very enlightening ; they are an amazing company when it come to safety.

@Dave - Thanks very much

savitha said...

On second thoughts, Ramesh, we are too engrossed in 'our' lives, we remember tragedies only on anniversaries. 26/11 happened-all before our eyes(thanks to the media), one year now, no significant progress, no prosecutions, there is a blame goat in the name of Kasab (he is just an arrow, isn't he?)-living life like he never lived, intelligence foresees yet another strike on queue, we are too busy with our lives, remember only on the anniversary, forgetful of the fact that when there is yet another strike, we, the common man will ONLY be the victims- from ledgers of citizens, to ledgers of papers exchanged!! :( :(. I am sure, 25 years from now, someone, somewhere will write a post like this on it, too!!

Durga said...

A sanctimonious pest? Bah! People who are open minded and take things in the right spirit, in the best interests of themselves, their families and society will certainly take every bit of these safety precautions seriously. People who don't, are, sadly, ignorant and would continue to be so.

Srivats said...

Oh my the bhopal incident, this was one of the case studies in the PR studies and I was heartbroken on postmortem of minute details of it. Its very hard for the people and I believe they burn the ceo statue every year on that day. As you said he is morally responsible, he had the power to do something, but he didnt! worse our government itself didnot do justice to the accident, if we take a xray of our country we can find n number of illegal and hazard plants nicely seated amidst the crowd.

But you rightly pointed out, safety starts with me, I am guilty of plugging two pin into three pin and also using extension box, whats worse is I dont even know its wrong to do that. We need people like you to tell us whats right and whats wrong! So tell me how do I use two pin plug when my whole home is three pinned, an How can I use forgo using extension.. serious please advice.

Srivats said...

sorry for the typos and long comment LOL

gils said...

maybe we shd all celebrate this in a big way..lets have a 1/12 (or whichever day carbide spewed poison) for spitting poison day..we already have 26/11..sitting ducks day..we can also include kandhar shame as free flight for terrorists day..i think..soon we wud run out of mixed fractions and finally the real numbers would be conquered..much to the chagrin of fermat and ramanujam !!

Sandhya Sriram said...

when my company made every non compliance of safety whether official or home to office as a cardinal violation which can even cost an individual his job, i felt that safety is a culture which needs to evolve from the heart and that these types of step are Regressive. this is exactly what i told the then CEO in an employees meet. but then, after that, i realized, that is not.

Complacency to safety is ingrained in our blood - i sometimes feel it is genetic. it requires very very hard imposition and penalties. I tell you while all of us will promise to you on this post that we will not violate safety at home, come next month, you ask the same question, we will give you a sheepish smile and say - ya - but -- actually ----- blah blah - all the nonsense.

How we light crackers on the diwali day with our KIDS and how much we care least for safety.

I hold a dupont safety training certificate. But i still used to always gloss over water spilt on the floor and until my baby started slipping on the same.

In a shell petrol bunk, they dont mind you not filling fuel and losing the customer but they will not let you use the mobile in the bunk. They will take few minutes extra to serve a customer but then, no procedure or sop will be violated. this is because they are not given any benefit for whatever achievement at the cost of safety. Unless it is pushed in that fashion, it will never happen.

This is like Anniyan Movie where the protagonist awards capital punishment for any complacency to civic sense. Safety has to be drilled down like that especially in a country like ours.

sorry, i think if you let me on, i will go on- so while my thoughts are still flowing at rapid pace on this topic, i stop here.

ps - please put a word limit on your comment box - atleast it will make ppl like me think before typing

LG said...

omg,25 years, its a a real curse for our country not to learn from our own mistakes or from others either. Look at the very latest incident of the similar case here in Karnataka - http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report_karnataka-police-file-fir-in-kaiga-incident-nobody-named_1319194

The problem in us (me included), we didn't even realize that we are doing wrong things. By the time we realize, it becomes a habit. To me, these safety things (including road safety)and healthy living should start right from primary education.

Still in my remote village(TN) back in India, cows are roped in electric pole. Sorry, but strictly not LOL matter.

A journey called Life said...

25 long and shameful years for people whose lives never remained the same.. for people who never got to see justice.. i really do not know how as a country, only the lives of the high and mighty are importatnt.. lesser mortals can be resigned to lowly fates such as the Bhopal tragedy..

safety like charity must begin at home, and we are a lax lot..and this needs to change..

plus we need to get some really strong measures in place to make sure people at the helm or in responsible positions be made accountable.. so they will think twice before just limiting their duties to lip service..

Ramesh said...

@Savitha - you are right - we remember anniversaries, but do not do much in the interim. :(

@Durga - Thanks for bearing with my tirade and actually seeing in a positive light

@Sri - Lovely comment - only criticism - not long enough. I wish I knew what the safety standards at home to follow are. Don't even know whgere the authoritative source of this information is. :(

@gils - Sadly your comment is all too close to the truth. How we all wish it wasn't so.

@sandhya - One thing I WILL NOT do - in any manner restrict your comment. Please write more - your comments are a wonderful perspective and I am touched that you take the time to eloquently articulate a very nice point of view. I look forward to reading your comments as much I look forward to reading your own blog post.
You are on the dot, as always - we have to expunge the complacency from our blood.

@LG - Absolutely. It must become a way of life from school. Sad to read the report on Kaiga. Usually nuclear plants have good safety systems - don't know what happened in this case.

Ramesh said...

@AJCL - These sort of long delays when nothing happens is because of real lack of accountability. When we elect criminals as MPs, we accept that it is OK to commit a crime. When we don't prosecute , that's the message we send. In China, they hand out death penalties left right and centre. It seems barbaric. But its a wonderful deterrent. You may recall the milk adulteration scandal in China a year ago. They've already hanged people for it. The next adulterator will think 10 times before he does it.

kiwibloke said...

Simply Keyensian philosophy is our approach to safety. You value things that are not abundantly available. There are too many people in India and so a few lives do not matter has been our credo - reflects in our driving standards, they way we 'play' with electricity etc. Was in a Chopper repair shop a week back in Norway - amazing in terms fo what they do to idiot proof the whole place so that no one has a remote chance of a work place accident- A country of 4 Million people can not afford to lose any time / lives on accidents! (incidentally there is a complete ban on drink drive - not even a pint of beer. Consequenses are severe, 3 months in jail and 3 months of your salary equivalent in fines!)

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

My $2c worth. The Indian has an attitude about the perception that his job carries. The lowly inspector will not do his job well if he believes it does not carry a positive social image. I remember on a visit to Boston a few years ago, I had taken my wife to visit the USS Constitution anchored at the harbour. The lady who guided the tour group was a midshipman in the US Navy - the lowest possible ranking. When she finished the tour she told the group it was her last tour because she was being posted out to an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. Her job, she said, would be to sweep and clean the take-off deck every hour. She said it with some pride and then noticed one of our countrymen smiling at her. She said "Sir, this is not just any job. May I inform you that 25 years ago, two jets went off the deck and ditched in the sea because a cigarette butt had fallen on the take off path and the aircraft deviated by just a few millimetres when being catapulted. Sir, mine is the most important job on that ship. I keep our pilots safe". That just shut everybody up. I admired her for her pride. She may still be sweeping decks or swabbing toilets. Any may be she is a rare Pollyanna like character, like Annie, singing her way through a humdrum life. But what a wonderful attitude.

During this week BBC carried a short clip about a man in Bhopal called Jagdish who is 25 years old and is as tall as my three year old. He is one of the millions born with birth defects dues to MIC poisoning. He has no will to live. His mother wishes he had never been born. I was profoundly moved.

What kind of people are we? Ultra sensitive to the slightest slight from some white man in a mall in the West. But utterly, totally callous about our fellow man, our duty to him and to ourselves, to do a decent job at whatever we do. The world's biggest bloody hypocrites. Thats what we are.

Ramesh said...

@kiwi - only partly true. we do value things that are not abundantly available. But we only have a very few loved ones. wouldn't we value them enough ? And yet we take stupid risks.

@Dada - Hey, that's harsh. Some are like that. Maybe even many are like that. But not all are like that. As a nation, we are better than that.

TV Balasubramanyam said...

Most of us might think that we know what to do, but we don't. Definitely this is one reason why people don't follow safety procedures.
There is one more which many are not aware.. the incompetence of those who are supposed to be specialists such as engineers & doctors. Sample these
-A masters degree holder and a practising engineer who argued that an instrument did not need need maintenance or calibration because the plant was put up by Sir M Vishveshvriah
-Surgeons in Singapore who did not know the exact procedure of washing hands before surgery
-A group of Chemical & Metallurgical engineers from a large consulting company did not know how to use gas laws which are taught to every high school student
-I have come across many electrical engineers would lack authentic knowledge of the concept of earthing in a manufacturing plant

Ramesh said...

@Balasubramanyam - Thanks for the comment. Yes incompetence amongst those who should know better exists and yes, sometimes we may not be aware of the right thing to do safety wise. But I believe our biggest curse is that we don't really care about our own safety. Take the helmet for two wheelers - how stupid can a person get so as not to wear one.

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