Bhopal was an accident waiting to happen. Bad luck and bad management combined in late 1984 to kill more than 2,000 people in the world's worst industrial accident. The Union Carbide pesticide plant in this central Indian city was closed permanently, and the ensuing legal battle created a corporate crisis that has raised serious questions as to the role of multinational corporations in the Third World.
Paul Shrivastava, an American-educated native of Bhopal, has written the latest in a series of books on that accident. "Bhopal: Anatomy of a Crisis" places Bhopal in a wider context of management--industrial and environmental. Shrivastava believes Bhopal was neither unpredictable nor unpreventable.
This assertion is not particularly novel, and the author has the comfortable advantage of hindsight. Nevertheless, he makes some important points. The first of these is that the public's grisly fascination with Bhopal stems largely from the fact that it was unique--uniquely awful.
But Bhopal was not unique. It was, says Shrivastava, the logical result of corporate and government policies that encouraged the greatest possible risk in the worst possible environment. It was a time bomb. Around the world, others still tick.
A second theme argues that Bhopal was not an "accident" in the usual sense of the word. And here the author demonstrates a useful distinction between an "accident" and a "crisis." An accident is a purely technical problem--a mechanical failure. A crisis develops when that accident, through bad management or no management at all--begins to take a toll in human lives.
Ecologists make a similar distinction when they talk of the food crisis in Africa. First there is a drought, and then through mismanagement that drought can become a famine, and people starve to death.
Public opinion, however, remains resolutely focused on triggering events--an explosion, a drought. Television coverage, in particular, often confuses natural or accidental problems with the root causes of a crisis.
A pipe leaks at Bhopal, an alarm system fails. These are accidents. But why were the most desperate slums in this city allowed to crowd around a factory producing hazardous chemicals? Why does no one in the factory know how to stem the flow of toxic gas? Why do the local people not know that if they try to run away their lungs will fatally fill with methyl ISO-cyanate? Why does no one know that they could survive by putting a wet towel over their faces?
Shrivastava answers some of these questions and looks again at the technical problems. Many poorer countries simply do not have the skills and the infrastructure to cope with potentially dangerous industry. Personnel not accustomed to sophisticated alarm systems will not have the professional skills their American counterparts have. A company that is running an Indian subsidiary at a loss will want to make cuts and some of those cuts will increase the risk to the local community.
Shrivastava deals with each of these issues in turn without getting bogged down in ethical polemics. He does something more useful. He presents a series of proposals that would involve all those who have a stake in modern industry--business, government and the local community--in sharing information and in contingency planning to prevent industrial emergencies.
As a result of the Basel crisis, in which 30 tons of toxic chemicals spilled into the Rhine last November, the U.N. environment program (UNEP) is urging governments to support a similar initiative. UNEP's three-point plan would make governments responsible for notification and assistance in case of chemical and other accidents. It would also alert communities to the potential hazards of industrial processes in their areas and help them prevent or, if a situation requires, deal with them.
"Anatomy of a Crisis" concludes that "had Union Carbide and the (Indian) government showed more foresight, the Bhopal accident might never have occurred."
This book and the UNEP proposal are an appeal to governments to show the foresight to prevent another Bhopal--or another Chernobyl.