Looking out over that calm lake at dawn, with its fishing boats and flying cranes, it was hard to believe that this beautiful place had been the scene of the worst industrial accident in history.
But months earlier, at about midnight on a cold winter night in December 1984, an airborne blanket of poison gas fell over a sleeping city. By dawn, 1,750 men, women and children were dead. More than 500 people suffered injuries, many of whom died of cancers and other diseases.
The city was Bhopal, in northern India. By the time the case came to court nearly two years later, almost 4000 people had died, 40 were totally disabled and more than 2600 others had lasting partial disability. The agricultural chemicals plant was owned by the giant and now defunct US chemicals firm, Union Carbide, that made an arguable case for sabotage.
At Carbide’s Connecticut headquarters, chairman Warren M. Anderson pledged
his company’s moral commitment to the victims and their families, and flew to India a few days afterward, accompanied by some technical experts and a medical aid team, only
to be arrested and sent home by the Indian government before he and his colleagues had
even visited the site of the catastrophe. The US and Indian Carbide companies offered nearly $2 million in immediate emergency relief, and afterward pledged more than $20 million more in funds and services. Carbide employees and its retirees voluntarily raised more than $120,000 for the relief organizations working in Bhopal.
But UCIL, the Indian company, was less quick off the mark. While it did much to provide relief for the victims’ families, and endured national ostracism with a brave face, it was almost as though its entirely Indian management had been paralyzed with shock. In particular, it had failed to tell its side of the story adequately. This was why, about ten months after the tragedy, I and my colleagues met Warren Anderson with Carbide colleagues at a working lunch at the company’s impressive Danbury, CT, headquarters. He was seeking help for the local directors in Mumbai, then Bombay. As a member of a New York firm of public relations consultants that advised Carbide, I was assigned to fly to India to develop and implement an India-wide program to better explain the situation to the public at large, to its 23,000 Indian stockholders, Parliament and the many communities where it had numerous plants, five operating divisions and 9,000 employees.
Although I’d worked all over the Pacific Rim, I’d never been to India, but within two or three days of that first meeting with Anderson I was flying to Mumbai, on a solo as-long-as-it-takes assignment. On the weekend I arrived there was a meeting at my hotel. The meeting was attended by the Carbide company’s Indian board of directors and the managers of their 13 facilities based all over India.
My chief contact was UCIL’s chief executive, Vijay Gokhale, a handsome, intelligent and civilized man who’d had the misfortune to be promoted CEO only two or three months before the Bhopal catastrophe. Within hours of landing I found myself giving, at Gokhale’s request, a ‘reassuring presentation’ to his discouraged audience.
Having met and talked with the worldwide managers in Danbury, and now to the earnest directors, all Indians in Bhopal that weekend, it seemed to me tragic and ironic that, in India and the many other countries where it operated, Carbide had always acted as a company that cared. A major player on the Indian sub-continent since the early 1900s, it looked after its employees and retirees well, and was a good neighbor in every country and city in which it had operations. Carbide’s people were convinced at the time, and its veterans still are, that the Bhopal disaster was caused by sabotage. How else, they asked, would it be possible to pour, at dead of night, as much as 200 gallons of water into underground tanks of poisonous methyl isocyanate, in defiance of warning signs and color-coded faucets, causing gas to erupt and escape? Since Anderson and his emergency experts were denied access to the Bhopal plant by the Indian Government, they could never carry out their hoped-for search for evidence.
But there was still an untold story to tell. On the following Monday morning my new Carbide colleagues and I set to work. Over the next few weeks we produced a series of reports, each aimed at a special audience, describing what we were convinced had happened in Bhopal, the social, economic, human and other ramifications, and what action UCIL was now taking. While putting these together, we trained the directors and other managers to handle interviews with newspaper reporters, and on radio and television. Oddly, what I remember most vividly of those long, videotaped training sessions in a stuffy top-floor conference room was the constant squabbling and scrabbling of a flock of vultures that had settled on the flimsy iron roof directly above us.
When we were ready, we issued this new material to the Indian media. There are no fewer than 14 Indian languages, yet English is the lingo of government and business, and most educated Indians speak it well. And since India is a true democracy, its media are unfettered and outspoken. While they were generally unsympathetic to Carbide after the disaster, and skeptical about the sabotage claim, the national and regional press, radio and TV generally gave fair space and airtime to the company’s viewpoint.
Several times during the assignment, I made the 450 mile train journey between Mumbai and Bhopal, to see the community and the victims and meet the few remaining Carbide managers there. It was a tough journey alone. Late one night, after an abrupt stop, I woke and found myself looking down from the train window as two railroad workers, lit by searing arc-lights, carried a headless man away on a stretcher. He was presumably the hapless cause of the delay.
Because of the risk of a revenge attack, no one associated with Carbide was allowed to stay at any of the hotels in Bhopal. Instead, I lodged at a company-owned guesthouse in a compound that included their research laboratories, which were still operating near the now-locked and otherwise abandoned pesticide plant. The guesthouse and the laboratories were protected by dense barbed wire, patrolled day and night by armed security men with sub-machine guns. The buildings stood on the shore of the placid lake, across the water from the city’s huge mosque.
The job took two months. Before returning to New York I spent several days in Bhopal meeting with the overseas news reporters who returned to India during the first anniversary of the disaster, to write about the city and the continuing plight of the casualties. At that time, angry crowds milled outside the barricades around the lakeside guest house.
Fax machines and computers were uncommon even in the US at that time, and probably didn’t exist then in India. I wrestled with obsolete copying machines, typewriters and teleprinters that broke down almost daily. There were few telephone lines between Bhopal and the outside world, and those that were available were nearly 50 years old. Our telephone lines were also tapped, which made security difficult, as did the fact that the time in Bhopal was ten hours later than in Danbury and New York. Then there was the heat in Mumbai, heart-rending poverty, and endless, pathetic begging on every street. Above all, there was the touching resignation of the people of India to their intolerable condition.
But for all that, a movingly warm, almost affectionate relationship grew between us. These men -- and they were all men -- were in such desperate straits in a company that was now India’s public enemy. Some of them were expecting criminal indictment, and they all so desperately needed help, encouragement and advice. When I left, they gave me a memento, a bronze effigy of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity. It has little intrinsic value, but is still one of my most cherished possessions.
I returned to India a year later for a further two months. This time, among other things, my mission included handling local and foreign media relations when UCIL faced criminal trial by the Indian government. It was a strange, anachronistic ritual. The law, and all the trappings of the court, from the judge himself to the barristers and solicitors and their robes and wigs, were reminiscent of nothing more than Public Television’s then popular Rumpole of the Bailey. Yet there was nothing laughable about the prosecutors, and the cross-examinations, nor about the sentence. UCIL was found guilty and fined $470 million.
But the most distressing thing of all is that now, more tthan 30 years after the tragedy, far too little of that litigation money has ever reached the survivors of that now distant nightmare.