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The Bhopal gas tragedy should be minutely documented

By B Raman
Last updated on: June 08, 2010 00:41 IST
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A major worry for the international community has been the danger of terror groups like the Al Qaeda using a chemical weapon to indulge in terrorism. Studies have been made of the possible scenarios and how to prevent and counter them. Dealing with a chemical disaster--deliberately caused by terrorists or other criminal elements or due to the criminal negligence of those producing and storing them for industrial and other purposes--is now an important component of any nation's disaster management plan.

In India too, we have a high-powered national disaster management authority which  has prepared different contingency plans to deal with different types of disasters--a chemical disaster being one of them. One would have thought that a detailed case study of the Bhopal gas leak at the Union Carbide plant would have been the starting point of any such contingency planning.

If the Al Qaeda managed to get hold of a chemical weapon and used it, people would die without knowing what happened to them. The security apparatus and other bureaucrats involved in disaster management would take some time to understand why people are dying and set in motion the drill to deal with the situation. The Al Qaeda won't announce its intentions beforehand, it will unleash the chemical and let the world realize later from the unexplained deaths.

That is what happened in Bhopal in 1984. People in their hundreds working in the factory, moving around in the town and living in their homes started falling dead without anyone understanding why they were dying. It took sometime for the authorities to realize that the deaths were due to the gas leak from the factory. They did not know what kind of gas it was or how to protect the people from its deadly effects.

No proper study had been made of the dangers of a leak either due to negligence or deliberately. There had been no contingency planning to deal with the resulting situation.

It is to the credit of the authorities of the Madhya Pradesh government and the Union government led by Rajiv Gandhi, that they rose to the occasion and did whatever they could to save lives at tremendous risk to themselves. Despite their praise-worthy efforts, over 3500 people died--as many as during the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US.

In many seminars that I have attended since 9/11 on the dangers of an act of mass casualty terrorism using a chemical weapon, there were references to the Bhopal disaster as a forewarning of what could happen if terrorists managed to get hold of a deadly chemical weapon and use it. Many of those who made the reference, at the same time, expressed their surprise and disappointment over the fact that the Indian authorities had not documented the details of what happened in Bhopal in 1984, how the situation was dealt with by the authorities, what kind of difficulties they faced and how they got over them.

In fact, according to security experts, no proper case study of the Bhopal gas disaster has been made to draw lessons for future contingency planning to deal with similar disasters. If this is true, this does not speak well of us and underlines once again our casual attitude in such matters.

Before the officials of Bhopal who dealt with the disaster pass away, their account of the disaster should be documented and a thorough case study done.

It goes to the credit of Rajiv Gandhi that he realized the importance of contingency planning to deal with similar disasters in future and set up a special cell in the Ministry of Home Affairs for this purpose. Contingency planning for disaster management started receiving the attention it deserved only after 9/11.
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B Raman