Looking out over that calm lake at dawn, with its fishing boats and flying cranes, I found it hard to believe that this beautiful place had been the scene of the most deadly industrial accident in history.
But months earlier, on a cold winter night in December 1984, an airborne blanket of poison gas fell over a sleeping city. By dawn, one thousand seven hundred fifty men, women and children were dead.
The city was Bhopal, in northern India. By the time the case came to court nearly two years later, almost four thousand people had died, forty were totally disabled and more than two thousand six hundred others had lasting partial disability. The agricultural chemicals plant was owned by the giant and now defunct chemical firm Union Carbide.
Carbide’s Connecticut headquarters acted quickly. Chairman Warren Anderson pledged his company’s moral commitment to the victims and their families, and flew to India within a day or two, accompanied by some technical experts and a medical aid team, only to be arrested and sent home by the Indian government. The US and Indian Carbide companies offered nearly two million dollars in immediate emergency relief, and afterward pledged more than twenty million more in funds and services. Carbide employees and retirees voluntarily raised more than one hundred twenty thousand dollars 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, some colleagues and I met Warren Anderson at a working lunch at the company’s impressive Connecticut headquarters. He was seeking help for the local directors in Bombay. As a member of a New York corporate communications firm that advised Carbide, I was assigned to fly to India to develop and implement a countrywide program to explain the situation better to the public at large, to its twenty-three thousand Indian stockholders, and the communities where it had numerous plants, five operating divisions and nine thousand employees.
Although I’d worked all over the Pacific Rim, I’d never been to India before, but within two or three days of that first meeting with Anderson I was flying to Bombay, on a solo as-long-as-it-takes assignment. On the weekend I arrived there was a meeting at my hotel, the Taj Palace, the one that was attacked and torched by terrorists a year or two ago. The meeting was attended by the Indian Carbide company’s board of directors and the managers of their thirteen 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 this discouraged audience.
Having met and talked with the worldwide managers in Danbury, and now to the earnest Indian directors 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 two hundred 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 media. There are no fewer than fourteen 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 gave fair space and airtime to the company’s opinions.
Several times during the assignment, I made the four hundred fifty mile train journey between Bombay and Bhopal, to see the community and the victims and meet the few remaining Carbide managers there. It was a tough all-night journey alone. One night, after an abrupt stop, I woke and found myself staring 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 local hotels in Bhopal. Instead, I lodged at a company-owned guesthouse in a compound that included the company’s research laboratories, which were still operating near the now-locked and 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 a placid lake, across the water from the huge city mosque.
The job took two months. Before returning to New York I spent several days in Bhopal dealing with the overseas 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 little guest house on the lake.
It was one of the toughest assignments in a career of almost forty years in corporate communications. Fax machines and computers were uncommon even in the US at that time, and probablydidn’t exist in India. We 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 fifty 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, the heartrending poverty, and the 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 built up between us. These men -- and they were all men -- were in such desperate straits in a company that was now India’s public enemy. Several of them were awaiting criminal indictment, and they all so desperately needed help, encouragement and advice. When I left, they gave me a little memento, a bronze effigy of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity. It has little intrinsic value, but it’s still one of my most cherished possessions.
I returned to India a year later for another 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 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 four hundred and seventy million dollars. Now, twenty-eight years later, individual proceedings against a handful of directors have yet to begin.
But the most distressing thing of all is that even now, in 2012, barely any of the money has so far reached the survivors of that now distant nightmare.