Tuesday, December 1, 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 .........