Nov 28, 2014

The Ghosts of Bhopal - Part Two

Part Two: Building a New India

Daulat Singh Rajput, a local farmer

The village square in Dhamarra, 30 kilometres north of Bhopal, is centred by a vibrantly painted Hindu temple (hibiscus pinks and sea blues), a russet-coloured made-in-India Massey Ferguson 1035 DI tractor, and two cows.

In a moment, the tractor will taka-taka-taka out to the fields, the two cows will amble behind and farmer Daulat Singh Rajput will wade into his soybean and chick pea acreage to recount the story of a rural revolution.

The acrid heart of the world’s worst industrial disaster lies within the corrosive skeleton of the Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal.

But in a way, its soul lies here, in rural India.

Union Carbide was an early and aggressive example of the expansive American corporation, rising quickly from a five-way merger in 1917, thence securing its place in the American psyche in the post-Second World War economic boom. Eveready flashlights and batteries, Prestone antifreeze, Prest-O-Lite acetylene torches — the range of ever-present Union Carbide products included the Bakelite trademark, ensuring the company’s growing presence in the American home via that ubiquitous, milky-toned synthetic plastic used in the manufacture of a broad range of goods, from jewelry to face powder compacts to butter dishes.

The company’s industrial reputation grew on the back of the first American ethylene plant, established in West Virginia in 1920. From its initial production of ethylene glycol, the poisonous sweet-tasting chemical found in antifreeze, Union Carbide quickly advanced — by the outbreak of the Second World War it was marketing more than 150 chemicals.

Wartime rapidly propelled the research and development of synthetic chemicals. It was through a government-owned facility, put up for sale after the war, that Union Carbide established its presence in Institute, W.Va. Located in the Kanawha Valley, the area quickly earned a reputation for having the highest concentration of chemical manufacturers in the United States. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. The Monsanto Chemical Co. Union Carbide was just one of a group of powerhouse pioneers at work in what would one day earn the pejorative label “Chemical Valley,” a moniker still in common currency.

The role played by the Union Carbide facility in Institute, and the methyl isocyanate processed and stored there, would extend beyond the Bhopal disaster. But that came later. In 1980, Union Carbide could rightly claim to be the third-largest chemical company in the United States, with a transnational reach and annual revenues nudging $10 billion (U.S.).

Entrance to the Union Carbide India Ltd. plant, in Bhopal, India, in December 1984. (AP Photo/Peter Kemp)
In India, Union Carbide initially built its presence through Eveready. The batteries and “torches” became ubiquitous after manufacturing plants were established first in Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1939 and later Madras (Chennai). From the outset, the Indian operations were run through a local subsidiary, Union Carbide India Ltd., which traded on the Calcutta Stock Exchange and had 14 plants under administration.

To pull India out from under the yoke of colonization after independence was won in 1947, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru conceived of a series of five-year economic plans to set the country on a path of planned development. Industrialization was the stated long-term goal. Food security was a necessary underpinning: the Bengal famine of 1943, which claimed at least 1.5 million lives — likely far more — was a freshly seared memory when Nehru proclaimed, “Everything else can wait, but not agriculture.”

It was Nehru’s daughter, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who pushed for the modernization of the sector through a so-called “Green Revolution,” to be advanced through the adoption of high-yield seeds and contemporary irrigation methods, aided by fertilizers and pesticides. The immediate objective was to set India and its half-billion people on what Gandhi called a “race toward self-sufficiency,” with the hope that a growing export market would follow. “Agriculture constitutes the very foundation of the economy,” Gandhi said in 1966. “We cannot falter or fail here.”

Under her leadership, the fourth of the five-year plans (1969-74) forecast a doubling of the country’s agriculture output — priming the pump for pesticide use and, for Union Carbide, opportunity.

In 1960, after years of research and development, Union Carbide started making the pesticide Sevin at its plant in Institute, W.Va. An early ’60s magazine advertisement champions Sevin’s effectiveness against weevils, thrips, beetles, “the thousands of insects that chew up millions of dollars of farm crops each year.” The company later started to manufacture, and store, methyl isocyanate on site. In 1970, it registered the trade name Temik, an acutely toxic pesticide. One of the chemical components was MIC.

India and its Green Revolution was a natural growth market for the new products. UCIL, 60-per- cent owned by the parent company, established an agricultural products division in 1966 and, three years later, opened a pesticide plant on the Kali Parade grounds off Berasia Road in Bhopal. The formulations were to be made with imported chemicals, including MIC, which would be expensively and cumbersomely shipped from West Virginia.

The story might have ended there.

Instead, prodded by an Indian government desirous of domestic industrial growth, the Bhopal facility was reimagined as a full-scale production facility. MIC would no longer be imported. New facilities would be constructed in Bhopal.

Enormously ambitious, the new plant was designed for an annual production capacity of 5,000 tonnes. And it presented a technological and management challenge. India, so eager to industrialize, sought the transfer of technology via foreign direct investment — within limits. In 1973, the country adopted the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act, which restricted foreign investors to 40 per cent equity. Existing multinationals holding in excess of that would be forced to reduce their position. Additionally, the company’s executive ranks were to be comprised of Indian nationals.

Advertisement for Union Carbide that appeared in National Geographic magazine in 1962.
Advertisement for Union Carbide that appeared in National Geographic magazine in 1962.
Union Carbide did reduce its position in Union Carbide India Ltd. Yet the company, in recognition of the advanced technology involved, was granted special dispensation to retain a majority position of 50.9 per cent. It was notable that Keshub Mahindra would become chairman of the Indian company. Mahindra & Mahindra may have started its corporate life assembling jeeps from an American template, but by 1970 it was on its way to being a diversified conglomerate. Today, it is a $17-billion (revenues) multinational with interests in aerospace, real estate and what it calls Rural Finance — loans to farmers.

Daulat Singh Rajput hops from his white Mahindra-made Bolero sport ute, having led the way to a sage-green field of chick peas that spreads as far as the eye can see.

As a student in the 1970s, he would travel daily to and from the family farm in Dhamarra to a college in Bhopal. To cover his education expenses, and also to help out at home, he would take milk from the cows and buffalo by bus to the Union Carbide factory. Forty litres of milk. Two rupees a litre.

A century ago, the primary business of the village was livestock breeding. Rajput estimates that farming took up about 40 per cent of the land. This “Indian farming,” as he calls it, meant the growing of pulses (tuar, or pigeon peas; gram, or chick peas), a single crop a year on a timetable ruled by the June monsoons that are supposed to bring four months of rain but often now just bring two.

“Then slowly the revolution came and people started having all of their land fertile,” he says.

Wells were dug. Irrigation systems put in place. Soybeans were introduced — the primary crop of Madhya Pradesh today — as well as high-yield varieties of wheat that required chemical fertilizers and pesticides. (“Nowadays, pests are very furious,” he says. The illi, or caterpillar, love his soybeans.) Double cropping became common practice.

In the far distance, sprinklers are spraying in an arced chik-chik-chik rotation under a soft blue sky. Rajput crouches to pluck a chick pea pod from the prettily feathered pinnate leaves. The tiniest of pink blooms are nestled here and there. He slits open the pod with his fingers. The pod is fuzzed like a peach; the peas are glistening and slick. “We used to have a yield of about eight to 10 quintals (roughly 400 kilograms) per hectare,” he says. “Slowly, with time, through advanced techniques, we have been able to take it to 20 to 25 quintals per hectare.” There have been bountiful years that have even exceeded that.

A huge well used to draw water for irrigation near Dhamarra
The drought in ’72 was dreadful. And the drought in ’80. And those were the big ones. “We have to face this kind of frightful tragedy every four or five years,” he says. “We can’t make up for the cost we have spent in the farming.”

The years of drought, debt and impoverishment are inextricably entwined with the Bhopal gas disaster. The domestic market never fuelled enough demand to see the plant come even close to its 5,000-tonne capacity. In 1981, the plant operated at half capacity. In 1983, the facility produced not much more than 1,600 tonnes. Farmers consistently turned to less expensive pesticides. In 1984, the plant was headed toward a million-dollar loss.

Union Carbide was among the top five foreign investors in India in 1980, but the Bhopal facility had little to do with that. Headquartered in Danbury, Conn., the company had already decided to unload the money-losing plant. Yet there were no buyers. A corporate albatross, the decision was taken to use up existing chemical stores, but otherwise idle the factory, and, ultimately, dismantle it.

The Bhopal plant had proved to be more than an economic headache. A safety inspection had been conducted by the parent company in the wake of the death of Ashraf Khan, the worker who had succumbed to gas poisoning in the winter of ’81. That report, dated May 1982, cited numerous safety deficiencies, including the inadequacy of a valve to potentially relieve a “runaway reaction.” It fell to the Indian subsidiary to put an action plan in place to remedy those defaults.

The same year an opposition motion was made in the legislative assembly of Madhya Pradesh to have the factory moved. The labour minister with the ruling Congress party would have none of it. “The factory is not a small stone which can be shifted elsewhere,” argued Tara Singh Viyogi. “There is no danger to Bhopal, nor will there ever be.”

Rajput had many friends working at Union Carbide. “There were not any safety measures. If a casualty takes place, then what should be done? There was not even any warning.... They did not have it even for their employees, so there is no way talking about normal citizens.”

In December 1984, Rajput was the sarpanch, or mayor, of the village of Dhamarra. On the 2nd, he was to start a tour of the neighbouring state of Gujarat with the forest officer of Madhya Pradesh. Departure was delayed until the morning of the 3rd for reasons that have been lost to the advances of time.

Morning dawned, and the village soon found itself enveloped in chaos. “It was around 8 or 9 in the morning.... People were running from there (Bhopal) right from the morning,” Rajput remembers. “We then got specified news that some bomb had exploded, or some gas had leaked or some casualty had taken place.”

The people who had fled to the village had no relations in Dhamarra. “They had come to seek safe shelter. Two (hundred) to 300 people had come here.” Rajput calls them “refugees.”

There was no radio in the village. No telephone. News was disseminated by word-of-mouth. By the bus load the Bhopalis came bearing stories of the man-made plague that had been visited upon them.

It is December. The mango trees brace against soil erosion in the winter months. Their leaves hang pendulous and brown before tumbling to the dusty earth.

The chick pea harvest is two months away. If the field is well irrigated, Rajput informs us, the plants could grow to 60 centimetres. An invocation will be offered in February, at harvest time, just as it was offered in November, at the time of sowing. Homage is dutifully paid to the land. The trees give fruit for the welfare of the people; the rivers give water for the welfare of others.

It is said — and this is beautiful — that when the monsoon rains cascade through the leaves of the mango trees, it is like a prayer.

Part One: Wedding Season

Part Three: Post Mortem

Part Four: Mass Tort

Story by Jennifer Wells. Photos by Spencer Wynn.

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