Bhopal is the capital of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, and is popularly known as the City of Lakes, owing to the presence of two large lakes, the Upper and Lower, that abut the city’s precincts. It is located on the Malwa Plateau at an average elevation of 500 m, and experiences a humid subtropical environment. The population of Bhopal City is close to 2 million people, 56 percent being Hindus, 40 percent Muslim, and the remainder Christian, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh. It was founded in the 11th Century by King Bhoja of the Paramara dynasty and in the early 1720’s was transformed by Dost Mohammad Khan into a fortified city. Bhopal’s Taj-ul-Masajid mosque is one of the largest in Asia. In the heart of the city is the Vin Vihar National Park. Declared in 1983, the park covers an area of nearly 5 km2, and though a national park it is actually managed as a zoological garden under the guidelines of India’s Central Zoo Authority, for it is enclosed, thus the animals roam in what in practice is a large zoo. Animals such as large cats, for example leopards, are hand fed.
A cultural practice that I first commonly experienced here is the eating of ‘paan’, from the Sanskrit ‘parna’ a word meaning feather or leaf. Paan is a stimulating psychoactive preparation of betel leaf combined with areca nut and or cured tobacco, and is chewed before spitting or swallowing. Variations on the ingredients are commonplace, these reflecting regional preferences, but slaked lime is often added to bind the leaves. The World Health Organisation and the International Agency for Research on Cancer accept scientific evidence that chewing betel and areca nuts is carcinogenic. Its adverse effects include gum damage, tooth decay and oral cancer. Tobacco-filled paan induces profuse salivation that stains the mouth. Ill effects placed to one side, chewing paan constitutes a widespread and important cultural activity in a number of Asian and western Pacific countries. It is sometimes regarded as an aphrodisiac and in ‘Ayurvedic’ medicine chewing paan is considered a remedy for bad breath.
The city looms large in the minds of most Western visitors as the site of the Bhopal gas disaster, the tragedy occurring over the 3-4th December 1984 at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant situated in the city. Several hundred thousand people were exposed to methyl isocyanate gas, and other toxic chemicals. Some estimates place the total figure of those affected at well over half a million. Figures for the actual number of deaths range from 2,259 to more than 16,000. In June 2010 seven ex-employees, including the former UCIL Chairman, were convicted of causing deaths by negligence, and sentenced to 2 years imprisonment and a fine of $2,000 each, this being the maximum punishment under law.
The UCIL factory was built in 1969 to produce the insecticide carbaryl. The chemical production process involved methylamine, a colourless gas which is a derivative of ammonia, and the gas phosgene, to form methyl cyanate. Phosgene was used in World War I as a chemical weapon, but is also used as an agent in the synthesis of pharmaceuticals and other organic compounds. There was a history of earlier chemical leaks at the plant causing death and injury, and the Union Carbide Company had been warned of the potential risk of the processing procedures undertaken there. But few remedial actions were undertaken.
Factors leading to the disaster included inadequate storage and poor maintenance, failure of safety systems, and safety systems being turned off to save money, including the methyl isocyanate tank refrigeration system which could have mitigated the severity of the disaster if it had been operational. The situation was greatly exacerbated by the widespread slums built near the plant, and the lack of response plans in the event of a disaster. In November 1984 most of the safety systems were not working and much of the plant infrastructure was in poor condition. Several of the gas scrubbers, as well as the steam boiler meant to clean the pipes, were not functioning. Tank number 610 contained 42 tons of methyl isocyanate, this far in excess of the allowed amount. Water leaked into the tank and a ‘run-away’ reaction followed, leading to the raising of temperate and pressure, and the consequent venting of toxic gas; about 30 metric tons of methyl isocyanate escaped in 60 minutes. This was blown across Bhopal. As of 2008 the Union Carbide Company had not released information on the composition of the gas cloud, which in addition to methyl isocyanate may have also contained phosgene, hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, hydrogen chloride, oxides of nitrogen, and monomethyl amine. The gas cloud was denser than the surrounding air, and so stayed close to the ground. Thus children, and those of shorter stature, were more susceptible to poisoning. Much speculation and controversy continues to surround the nature of the cloud and the factors leading to its release.
Effects of the chemical release were vomiting, eye damage, the sensation of suffocating, and burning of the respiratory tract, with choking, reflexogenic circulatory collapse and pulmonary oedema. Autopsy results showed cerebral oedema, necrosis of the kidneys, degeneration of the liver, and necrotising enteritis. Mass funerals were held, and there were instances of bodies dumped into the Narmada River less than 100 km from Bhopal. 170,000 people were treated in hospital, and 2,000 dead animals were collected and buried. Within days leaves on trees yellowed and fell off. The stillbirth rate increased by 300 percent, the neonatal death rate by about 200 percent. The Indian Council of Medical Research was forbidden to publish health effect data until 1994. Protests by activists against the tragedy led to violent repression from police and government.
The factory closed in 1986, some of its infrastructure was sold but storages of residues remain. The area around the chemical plant is used as a dumping ground for hazardous wastes, and soil and groundwater is polluted. A United States court rejected a law suit against the Union Carbide Company for causing soil and water pollution around the site of the plant, ruling that the responsibility for remedial measures rested with the state of Madhya Pradesh.
The drive from Bhopal’s airport to the relative luxury of my hotel gave me no indication of what had transpired, of the needless loss of life, of the silent mothers cradling silent babies, of small children lined in rows as if innocently asleep, their lips full, slightly open and unkissed. All dead. I could have spent my first evening admiring the lakeside scenery, the passive blue water, the boats at anchor, the modern architecture and the plethora of roadside billboards. I could have driven to one of the trendy cafes that overlook this sublime vision of modernity, sipped at a coffee and laid back in the comfort of a deckchair, …..and thought simple thoughts as to how nice life is, contemplate memories of old girlfriends, and take the air for granted.