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Book heat on Carbide

Bhopal, July 26: A series of accidents happened at Union Carbide before the Bhopal gas disaster killed over 4,000 people between December 2-4, 1984.

The US multinational grossly flouted safety norms and employed outdated technology, amounting to criminal negligence and making a strong case for homicide trial, a new book by then Bhopal ADM H.L. Prajapati says.

Eighteen years on, the book — Gas tragedy: An eye witness — is a chilling first-hand reminder of the leak considered the world’s worst industrial disaster. Prajapati, now a secretary in the Madhya Pradesh government, is convinced it was a tragedy waiting to happen and was made by man’s “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity”.

Prajapati says the country has learnt little from the Bhopal tragedy and has not woken up to the need for disaster management. “God forbid, but if anything happens, we are far from prepared,” he says.

Appalling conditions had prevailed before the catastrophe but the Carbide management had allegedly turned a blind eye. When Prajapati called J. Mukund at 1.20 am on December 2, minutes after the lethal gas began to leak, the then works manager of the factory feigned ignorance and claimed all was well. Besides, Carbide officials refused to disclose the name of the killer gas, methyl isocyanate (MIC), making it tougher for doctors to treat victims.

Prajapati says the first accident took place on November 24, 1978, in the naphthol store of the factory with a fire destroying property worth Rs 62 lakh. The second happened in December 1981 when phosgene leaked out of an MIC plant, killing plant operator Mohammad Ashraf.

Soon after, Ashraf’s heir was silently paid Rs 50,000 as ex gratia. The factory inspector also did the rounds of the factory, recommending safety measures that were never implemented. A third mishap happened on February 9, 1982, with 25 workers being severely affected by phosgene leak. On April 22, 1982, three electricians suffered burn injuries.

Before the 1984 tragedy, storage tanks at Union Carbide contained nearly 22 tonnes of MIC instead of the permitted 15 tonnes. The scrubber was turned off for maintenance work. The flare tower was non-functional and the giant refrigeration unit had been turned off for six months, causing a rise in temperature beyond permitted levels.

There was also no adequate water curtain spray though successive inspection reports had recommended it.

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