Kumkum Saxena was a medical officer with Union Carbide. She tells Tusha Mittal how she saw the disaster coming
IT WAS the India of 1975. Starry-eyed at 22, Kumkum Saxena could barely believe she had landed a job as a medical officer with Union Carbide. “Fancy me working for an MNC! I was thrilled,” she says. Seven years later, the lustre had faded. Her frequent alerts about safety hazards, norms not followed, rubber masks not worn, had turned her into the girl “creating panic,” an embarrassment for the management. “They were painting such a rosy picture,” she says. “I would scream about silica dust and hydrocarbon levels. The more vocal I was, the more I was kept away. I did not get a pay raise and soon I was barred from management meetings.” At the end of 1982, Saxena decided it was time to quit.]
On the night of December 3, 1984, Saxena sat in her home atop Idgah hill in Bhopal studying for a neurology exam the next day. The phone rang. Hysterical voices talked about a chemical leak, pleading for help. “Oh God, they’ve done it again,” Saxena exclaimed. Chemical leaks were not new for her. They were the reason she resigned from Union Carbide.
“Go against the wind. Put a wet cloth on your face to dissolve the gas,” Saxena told frantic callers. Poisonous methyl isocyanate (MIC) was choking the air. “There was so much gas, the leaves outside my door were singed,” Saxena says. “Had I panicked and opened the door, I would have been killed.” Nearly 20,000 were.
The next morning, the roads of Idgah hill were lined with blue faces and pink froth. “If only Union Carbide had told people how to protect themselves,” she says, “instead of running helter-skelter, thousands would not have left their houses.” It is such measures that Saxena had insisted upon. She knew how simple it was to prevent death.
But Saxena’s story begins before the night of December 3, 1984. That is why it is significant. She describes her job at Carbide as similar to that of a “school nurse” — running a medical centre with four beds and treating injured workers. As part of her training, she visited the research and development labs at the plant, realised the plant was producing extremely toxic chemicals, and learnt about threshold limits. “There was exposure to chemicals at totally unacceptable levels. There’d be a bag full of acid sitting there waiting to kill somebody. Silica and hydrocarbon levels were higher than prescribed. Sometimes there would be a leak not fixed, and yet the personnel were allowed to go there.”
On her own initiative, she began conducting regular blood tests. Often she’d find damaging results. “I’d remove employees from harmful exposure and treat them until the blood counts were normal again.” There were minor leaks “all the time”. The alarm sirens went off at the plant a few times a month, but “we’d contain them” before any fatalities.
WHAT VICTIMS GET, WHAT BHOPAL WANTS
On June 22, a Central Group of Ministers attempted to set right 26 years of neglect by announcing a new package for Bhopal victims:
• Rs 1,500 crore for compensation and rehabilitation. Rs 300 crore for the clean up of toxic waste
• Setting up of an ICMR centre in Bhopal
• Rs 220 crore for upgradation of designated Bhopal hospitals
• Curative petitions to the Supreme Court to review the 1991 out-ofcourt settlement of $470 million with Union Carbide; to review 1996 dilution of charges from culpable homicide to criminal negligence
• Warren Anderson’s extradition and the promise to pursue criminal liability of Dow Chemical
This is the Bhopal Campaign’s response to the offer:
• Compensation is based on a flawed system of damage assessment designed to downplay death and injury
• Only 40,000 victims — less than 10 percent — will receive adequate relief
• The GOM has not heeded the citizens’ demand for an Empowered Commission on Bhopal to oversee rehabilitation. Instead, it has passed on Rs 720 crore to the Madhya Pradesh government. Ministers and bureaucrats will pocket the money
• Much more than Rs 300 crore is required to clean the waste. The contamination has not yet been assessed
• The government plans to dump the waste in Pithampur, where families live within 200 metres. This violates the CPCT guidelines on toxic waste disposal. Instead, waste should be excavated and sent to a country that has disposal mechanisms
• The talk of hauling up Dow Chemical for liability is lip service. This has been the position of the Law Ministry for the last five years. GOM has made no recommendation on how Dow will be made answerable to an MP court
The turning point came when one of those leaks did prove fatal. It was 1981. Ashraf Muhammed, a worker, was found drenched in phosgene (a poison gas used in both the World Wars). “We rushed him into the shower, but it was too late.” His death shook Saxena. She feared that if urgent steps were not taken, “there could be many more Ashrafs”. The world’s worst industrial disaster happened in Bhopal two years later.
“The warning bells should have gone off after Ashraf died,” she says. “That’s when I began insisting on a mass scale evacuation procedure.” It was the one thing Saxena was determined to have implemented. “People living near a toxic plant have the right to know what to do in disaster scenarios,” she says.
YET THE response was predictable — the equivalent of “shush little girl, the elders know better”. Saxena wasn’t surprised. “It’s expensive to keep people safe,” she says. “For a plant that wasn’t making money, that was too much trouble.” The year 1983 brought unprecedented financial losses at Union Carbide. That year, the monsoons were late, the cotton crop failed, and Indian farmers didn’t need Carbide’s product — the pesticide Sevin. India’s American dream seemed to be fading.
“Truckloads of Sevin came back,” Saxena says. “The losses were so huge, the company cut back on maintenance. There was an absolute disinterest in doing anything.” A plant with toxic chemicals, corroding structures, no maintenance, a demoralised workforce and apathy: “It had the makings of a perfect storm,” she points out.
Already the unused MIC being stored — three tanks full — was above permissible levels. Saxena says that because the plant was in a no-production mode, all the safety features — a flare tower that burns the gas, a series of valves and vents — that would have normally “contained” the MIC leak on December 3 were “switched off”.
Saxena — Kumkum Modwel after marriage — left India soon after the disaster. She now works as a primary healthcare physician in Connecticut, US. As she left, she carried with her the memory of a day that need not have happened, of lives that could have been saved. “I had a choice that day — to take my neurology exam or go to the ward. I chose the ward. I knew they’d be short of doctors,” she says. She remembers working with “five syringes”, trying to save the “chaiwala who used to give me samosas”, the Nepali boy, the halwai and his wife gasping for breath. “One of the reasons I wanted to leave the country is best explained by this line from Shakespeare: ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair. Hover through the fog and filthy air.”
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