Aftermath of Indian gas leak
New Delhi, India
It has been one week since deadly gas leaked from Bhopal's Union Carbide pesticide plant and, even now, its aftereffects are being felt. One lawsuit for $15 billion has already been filed against Union Carbide in the United States, and there are indications that another, in the same amount, will be filed by the Madhya Pradesh state government.
On Saturday, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, one of India's most impoverished states, belatedly confirmed that six other accidents - all but one a gas leak - had occurred at the pesticide plant since 1978.
According to Arjun Singh, the Congress Party chief minister, one worker had died, 47 had been injured, and property worth $620,000 had been destroyed. But Mr. Singh did not explain why the authorities had taken no action or why no investigations had been launched at the pesticide factory, where last Monday's gas leak has claimed over 2,000 lives.
Meanwhile Warren Anderson, chairman of the $10 billion Union Carbide Corporation, left India Sunday after meeting the day before with India's foreign secretary and the American ambassador. The atmosphere is increasingly acrimonious as the Indian government and the US multinational attempt to apportion blame for the world's worst industrial tragedy.
In the central Indian city of Bhopal, set in the electorally critical Hindi belt, doctors at the Hamidia Hospital say that it will take weeks, if not months , to determine the full extent of the damage and the health hazards involved. More than 150,000 people have already been treated in Bhopal and surrounding communities.
Little is known about the long-term effects of the lethal gas, methyl isocyanate. Enviromentalists from New Delhi, after monitoring Bhopals's air for two days, have said that the atmosphere is still not entirely clean.
Authorities have closed a number of food markets in the old part of the city, which is within the 25-square-mile area that was engulfed by the lethal gas, and advised Bhopal's 627,000 residents to eat neither meat nor fish.
As the full dimensions of the disaster continue to unfold, industrial sources in New Delhi have confirmed that the Bhopal plant's license for continued collaboration with its US parent firm, which was renewed by the Indian government just last year, was granted only after specific assurances that Union Carbide would install safety systems for handling emergencies. This could explain why the plant began a maintenance program only four weeks ago, and why the crucially important caustic soda scrubber - a supposedly failsafe measure for neutralizing any leakage of the methyl isocyanate - had been under repair and was inoperable for the past month. This raises the crucial question, however , of why the gas, stored in three, partially underground tanks, was not drained or neutralized before the maintenance work began.
A critical panel in Bhopal's control room was also not in place, perhaps removed as part of the maintenance program, and this prevented the gas leakage from being recorded on the plant's monitors. According to a former Indian executive of Union Carbide, the company furnished its Bhopal plant with only one manual and one backup alarm, instead of the four-stage alarm system required in the United States.
The political implications of the disaster are already being felt on the ruling Congress Party. And, with national parliamentary elections only two weeks away, there is concern in ruling party circles that Congress could loose many of its 35 - out of 40 - Madhya Pradesh seats.
The rather bizarre arrest of the Union Carbide chairman on Friday may have been an attempt by the chief minister to recoup his losses. Mr. Anderson was held for six hours under the watchful eye of 50 armed guards in the company's posh Shyamala Hills guest house.
Following the intervention by the US State Department, Anderson was released after paying $2,500 in bail, and told politely but firmly that his presence in India was no longer required.