It all started with the manufacturing of flash light batteries in Calcutta by the Eveready Company Limited of Great Britain. Later on this company became a subsidiary of UCC headquartered in New York. The company later adopted the new name of Union Carbide India limited and also established a factory in India to manufacture flash lights along with expansion of its capacity to manufacture dry-cell batteries. The company progressed and by the eighties they were involved in batteries, carbon and metals, plastics, marine products, and agricultural chemicals. UCIL established fifteen plants in different parts of India.
To expand its agricultural division UCIL sought permission of Indian government to allow them to set up a pesticide plant. Initially the plant was started near the city of Trombay but later on switched to Bhopal. The plant in the beginning imported Sevin powder from the United States diluted it with non-toxic powder and sold it. Later the Indian government pressurized UCIL to manufacture Sevein and its components in India. That’s how the Bhopal plant expanded and the investment in the plant increased from initial $1 million to $25 million. The company made its mark among all companies present in India in terms of Sales.
In Bhopal the UCIL factory was like any other process plant with storage tanks, hoppers and reactors connected by pipes, pumps, valves and ducts. Sevin was made through a chemical reaction between alpha-naphthol and methyl isocyanate, MIC. MIC is a highly reactive liquid that boils and becomes a gas above day time temperatures. UCC was the world leader in MIC technology and provided essentially al the process design for the plant but did not send engineers to supervise the construction. The alpha-naphthol unit began experiencing some problems. Also the sales were started going down in the beginning of 80s due to various reasons.
Due to the decline in sales the unit started having losses. The staff at the MIC was cut from twelve operators on a shift to six. The maintenance team was reduced in size. In a number of instances, faulty safety devices remained unrepaired for weeks. The plant was running at far below capacity. The company seriously started making plans for dismantling the plant and shipping it to some other region. UCIL was located in Bhopal where there was a shanty town inhabiting thousands of India’s poorest citizens. In the South of Bhopal wealthy Indians lived in their elegant houses.
MIC the main component used to prepare Sevin was made at the plant by reacting Phosgene gas with another chemical but the system had been idle. The MIC was being used from ‘charge-pot’ which was periodically resupplied from either of two different tanks. Operators had experienced difficulty in pressurizing one of the tanks. At the night of the incident, several hundred gallons of water entered in this particular tank. The water reacted with MIC producing heat and gas. A relief valve soon lifted and MIC vapor began flowing through vent headers and out a discharge stack.
Some workers reported to supervisors that their eyes began to water because of possible leak of MIC. Supervisors found what they believed was the source and they set up a fire hose to spray water on the suspected leak. The water curtain that may have reduced the concentration of the gas was only set to ~13 m and did not reach the gas; it was not designed to contain a leak of such magnitude. The supervisors retired to the company canteens in violations of instructions not to take their break together. The supervisors were later called when the tank was rumbling with increasing pressure but it was too late for them to take any concrete action.
MIC vapor were billowing from an atmospheric vent in the air. The cloud of deadly white gas was carried by the northeast wind toward the shanties on the south side of the plant. On the cold night cold of December 03, 1984, MIC settled toward ground. The gaseous fumes reached the huts resulting in panic and confusion. Many of the weak and elderly died where they lay blinded and smothered by the acrid fumes. Though the audible external alarm was activated to warn residents of Bhopal, it was quickly shut down to avoid causing panic among the residents.
Thus, many continued to sleep, unaware of the unfolding drama. However, as the words of the gas leak spread, many of the Bhopal’s affluent citizens fled in their cars while poor were left behind. An estimated 2000 or more died that deadly night while over 200,000 were injured. Doctors and hospitals were not informed of proper treatment methods for MIC gas inhalation. They were told to simply give cough medicine and eye drops to their patients. Confused crowds waited outside hospitals outside the hospitals for medical care. The plant on the other hand, later on, was closed and locked.
The citizens of Bhopal remained totally shocked by the turn of events. Soon after the incident blame game started. UCC referred to deliberate act as a possible cause of the water entry. Later the company suggested that a Sikh terrorist group might have sabotaged the plant. A representative of UCC’s investigation team suggested that the gas was formed when a disgruntled plant employee, apparently bent on spoiling a batch of methyl isocyanate, added water to a storage tank. There were many theories started flowing around. UCC and UCIL executives were charged in India with manslaughter and other crimes.
UCC chairmen Anderson along with the head of UCIL was arrested and briefly detained by Indian officials when they went to India after the incident. Several UCIL employees were also arrested and CBI began criminal investigation. A number of US and Indian lawyers rushed to sign up gas victims and their relatives as clients. Different class action lawsuits were filed in the United Sates on behalf of the victims of disaster. In March 1985, India enacted the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Act, giving UOI the exclusive right to represent the victims.
Finally, In an out-of-court settlement reached, Union Carbide agreed to pay $470 million for damages caused in the Bhopal disaster. As we know from the background of the case that refrigeration unit was not working, safety devices were not working, safety standards and operating procedures were not im place, maintenance was poor, downsizing took place and less qualified personnel were hired. These issues indicate that the problem lied at the management level. Inefficient operation shows that there was absence of even basic management.
The day to day operations were not carried out according to the general standards and norms then what can be said about disaster planning or planning for dealing with an unforeseen event. At UCIL the local management should have taken the complete responsibility of the diaster as they failed to maintain even the basic principles of management. Even though foreigners were on the board of directors but it was not the responsibility of the board member to run day to day operations. The whole blame was put on foreigners and forign board and the case became one of the most talked about industrialized disaster in the history.
The plant was purely run by the Indian local managers and it was the responsibility of such managers to maintain the basic standards. This incident would not have happened had management been active in implementing the basic levels of management. Ideally there should be a contingency plan in place to deal with the possible disasters. In plants dealing with chemicals there is always a possibility of accidents and disasters of any proportion. It was naive of the management to forget about the contingency measures.
On another level the government of India also played the political part and tried to trap foreign board in the incident while forgetting that primary responsibility lied on management on ground. Foreign board in Bhopal’s case also on the hand tried to safegurd its image as the issue was discussed on all forums There had been many accidents of similar nature in UCC’s American plants prior to the Bhopal accident but they did not get much publicity and were not blown out of proportion because they were tackled at the management level on ground. As later there was a ruling that the case should be tried in India.
The company denied every charge leveled against UCC and pointed out that no US citizen had been employed there 2 years before the disaster. Foreign board definitely had the moral responsibility of the incident but they cannot be blamed for failed day to day operations. The case reminds us that on the first level basic management should function and operations should be efficiently run. However the management responsibility does not end here. Management should be on toes and keep on scanning both external and internal environmental factors. There should be contingency plans in place to deal with possible mishaps or disasters.
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