ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Mass Murder in Bhopal

Is it only methyl isocyanate, the deadly gas which was allowed to leak out in vast quantities from the Bhopal factory of Union Carbide, the American multinational, which has, already at the time of writing, sent over 2,500 persons to a most painful death, maimed countless thousand others, permanently perhaps, and threatened indeterminable genetic damage to the yet unborn? The mass of technical detail which has become available about methyl iso-cyanate and related chemical substances, their roles in the production process employed by the death-dealing plant, the malfunctioning of different parts of the plant's equipment and so on have tended to create the impression that the tragedy in Bhopal is primarily a technological phenomenon. But has not as much information of a different kind too become available to suggest that it is the larger framework of social relations within which the Union Carbide factory was established and has been operating which has wreaked havoc on the people of Bhopal, a very large number of them impoverished inhabitants of slum settlements in the plant's vicinity?
 
It is necessary to raise this question because there is already a tendency to suggest by implication that, give or take some random human errors on the part of lowly plant operatives, the Bhopal tragedy, terrible as it has been, is the price that has to be paid for development, for the green revolution, for increases in agricultural production. This formulation, one may be certain, will be put forward more explicitly and brazenly in the days to come. Carried to its logical conclusion, the suggestion would be that figuratively speaking many of the poorer victims of methyl isocyanate in Bhopal's slums were alive in the first place because they had been provided with food to eat by the economic and technological advance represented by the Union Carbide plant and its use of methyl isocyanate to produce pesticides, Simultaneously, the details of the malfunctioning of the vent scrubber which would otherwise have rendered the methyl isocyanate quite harmless, the non-activation, of the arrangements for burning up the rogue gas, the failure of the factory's disaster alarm mechanism, and so on, are intended to suggest that it was all an unfortunate accident, the probability of whose occurrence can be minimised if not eliminated altogether by more foolproof and effectively functioning safety devices and procedures.
 
It is possible in the abstract to conceive of relatively effective devices for pollution control, of locating potentially hazardous manufacturing facilities at a distance from population concentrations and of even forsaking more dangerous technologies and products in favour of less risky ones. But how likely is it that all or any of these things will be done in the prevailing economic and political set-up? We now know that the administrator of the Bhopal municipal corporation had in 1975 issued a notice seeking to shift the Union Carbide plant out of the city; instead it was the official who got shunted out to another job. We also know that beginning from 1980 or even earlier there had occurred a number of cases of leakage of poisonous gases causing casualties, some even fatal, among the factory's workmen. These cases were written about in the press, the Madhya Pradesh government certainly knew of them and they were even discussed in the state assembly Yet no action by the government—and, of course, the company—followed and Union Carbide was able to hush up matters, in one case reportedly by persuading the family of a worker who had died of gas poisoning to move to Rajasthan. Going further back, the economic, technical and legal departments of the Union government had considered Union Carbide's application for setting up the Bhopal plant and had approved it, including its location and the technology proposed to be employed, and had chosen to find nothing wanting in the safety equipment proposed to be installed. We also know now of the cozy relationship which exists between Union Carbide and the Madhya Pradesh government, the revealed tip of which comprises lucrative contracts and high-paid positions in the company for ruling politicians and senior civil servants and their relatives and the hospitality of the company's lavish guest house for local power-wielders and the Congrcss(I).
 
In the context of the human misery caused by the Bhopal disaster these details do assume rather lurid colours, but otherwise they are commonplace features of the operations of private business and its relations with the political and administrative authorities. Therefore, though in the wake of what has happened in Bhopal the air may be thick just now with brave talk of tightening up safety precautions at plants which use or produce hazardous substances wherever in the country they might be, the prospect of such measure being actually taken by industry and enforced by the government has to be realistically assessed taking into consideration the nature of the political-economic system which allowed Union Carbide to get away for years with arrangements which produced the colossal tragedy of the night of December 2.
 
The capitalists' imperative of capital accumulation and profit maximisation necessarily render the possible consequences of technologies and products on health and safety, of their own workers and of the people at large, matters of secondary, indeed minimal, importance. It may sound frivolous but it is by no means far-fetched that between installing additional safety equipment and setting up a lavish guest house for the use of powerful politicians and - bureaucrats a Ia Union Carbide, the capitalists' cost-benefit calculation could invariably favour the latter, given the class specification of 'costs' and 'benefits'. And when the costs and benefits are computed not in this country but at the headquarters of multinational corporations in Connecticut, USA, or wherever else, the results get perverse enough to justify, for instance, the shipping out to countries like India of products so patently deleterious to public health and safety that their use has been prohibited in the multinationals' own home countries. It is the network of relationships among the powerful multinationals, our own indigenous capitalist class and the governments, our own as well as those of the developed countries to which belong the multinationals, which, as much as the methyl isocyanate itself, is, responsible for the mass murder in Bhopal.

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