THE BURNING HEART OF INDIA

It is the darkest hours before dawn when we board the Bhopal Shatabdi Express at the Delhi Railway Station.  We are seated in the Executive Chair car.  Before the trip is over we will be served mineral water, breakfast, and lunch by a waiter costumed in an orange and red brocade jacket with matching turban.  We are part of the privileged group; the conditions in cars at the other end of the train are much grittier.  We speed southward past the slums of Delhi into the fertile valley of the Yamuna River, which is part of the vast Ganges River system and the food basket of India.  At Mathura the golden sun pierces through the dark mist, a reminder that this is where Lord Krishna was born and lived a mere 5000 years ago. 

The stopping point at Agra is a dividing line of sorts.  The assorted tourists going to the Taj Mahal debark.  We are now the only people of European origin on the train.  As we press southward, our express train avoids the smaller stations.  The English language disappears.  We see only the curly Devanagari script of Hindi on the station signs.  It is unreadable to us. 

I am on a pilgrimage to the burning heart of India, the exact center of the country and the crossing point for the north/south and east/west railroads.  As a chemist by training, a hazardous materials manager by trade, and an environmental consultant by profession, I have come to see with my own eyes the site of the worst industrial accident in the history of mankind. 

Twenty six years ago, a generation’s worth in time and before my own children were born, 42 tons of methyl isocyanate and other toxic gases suffocated the city.  By some estimates 8000 people died a gruesome death on December 3-4, 1984 and 500,000 more people were affected by the gas.  Many people today suffer its lingering effects: lung problems, blindness, loss of stamina, loss of mobility, to name only a few.

The story of Bhopal and the Union Carbide pesticide plant has been told many times.  Engineers dissected it, attorneys parsed it, and writers recreated it.  Children study it in school, journalists make films about it, and artists depict it.  But only those who were there fully understand what happened.  Like all manmade tragedies, the reason for and consequences of the incident need to be told again and again.  For if what really happened in the burning heart of India is not understood by the modern world, it is bound to be repeated again, in one form or another. 

In the midst of death, life persists.

The signs on the fence of the Union Carbide plant voice the opinions of the voiceless: “25 Years Crime, Union Carbide and Dow Chemical”, “Union Carbide You Can’t Hide, We Charge You with Genocide,” “26th Anniversary of the Bhopal Disaster, No More Bhopal, No More Dow Chemical,” and “25 Years Struggle, Justice and Dignity.” As we approach the guard gate, our host speculates on the possibility of a “gathering” should it be discovered that Americans are nearby.  A discussion at the gatehouse takes place. Our host convinces them that a 500 rupee “entrance fee” is not required. Finally the rifle-toting card-playing guards grant us access to the scene of the crime. 

The pesticide production plant is in a state of suspended animation.  Having been shut down since the incident, it is all but abandoned and is undergoing the natural process of decay.  Asbestos pipe lagging, no longer serving its purpose, dangles downward before disintegrating onto the ground.  The asphalt-coated methyl isocyanate tank and source of the toxic gas, removed from its underground location, sits under a small tree.  Vines hoist themselves up the rusty piping. The vegetation that is reclaiming the site reminds us of the persistence of life. 

In the midst of untruth, the truth persists.

The story of the Bhopal tragedy is complicated.  It involves a multinational corporation hoping to profit from a developing “Third World country.”  The story begins with a belief that use of pesticides will increase food production in India thus providing relief to the starving millions.  The production facility in Bhopal was established by Union Carbide to produce carbaryl, an insecticide that is still in common use today.  However, a series of judgment lapses (inaccurate predictions of demand, an inability to understand the real hazards of the chemicals used at the facility, the siting of the production plant in a valley, and its operation in a densely populated area) set the stage for the future disaster.  By 1984, the plant was proving to be unprofitable and operations were beginning to wind down. 

In my readings and conversations with residents of the city, law professors, attorneys, victims of the disaster, and members of the government, I encounter different stories.  The facts of the matter vary depending on the perspective of the source.  What is not disputed is that the incident had its greatest affect on those who are the least able to defend themselves: the poor in the slums adjacent to the facility.  It is clear that victims received minimal and delayed compensation for their injuries and losses: in most, if not all the cases, compensation was not enough to treat their injuries or put food on the table.  It is also clear that organizations and institutions intended for the benefit of the victims failed and continue to fail them at many levels: even today hundreds of tons of toxic waste remain on the property, yet to be removed. 

In every disaster there are stories of heroism, and Bhopal is no exception.  The most notable is the railway station master who by remaining at his post prevented trains from entering the city.  It is estimated that his heroism saved 16,000 lives, but at the expense of his own.  There are also the lesser but no less significant stories of ordinary people coming together, organizing, and “doing what was right,” because the need was there.  During the darkest hours, when the corporation and government were unable to provide assistance, neighbors became the heroes, helping the wounded and injured, assisting the children and orphans, identifying the bodies, if not by name then by heritage and laying the dead to rest in accordance with the proper traditions. 

In the midst of darkness, light persists.

While the environmental dimension of Bhopal tragedy was inexcusable, the legal dimension was even more so.  In the case of Bhopal, the failure of Union Carbide to plan, site, and safely operate a lethally risky facility, and the failure of the legal systems in both the United States and India to advocate for the victims, reinforced in many the belief that the accident was nothing less than genocide.  During the 26-year legal drama that followed the incident, many of those tasked with advocating for the victims failed them in one way or another.

The darkness that underlies this story is the process of moral disengagement that happened at all levels.  Unfortunately it still happens today in corporate boardrooms, governments, and even in our own psyches.  Moral disengagement refers to how people (individually) and organizations (collectively) frame actions to avoid negative consequences.  The famed psychologist Albert Bandura notes that under the right situations even people who are otherwise considerate sometimes participate within frameworks that perpetrate inhumane actions.  As someone who for almost 20 years was employed by a large corporation, I understand this perspective.  The corporate culture protects and rewards compliant employees while punishing those who speak out. 

It seems as if in our modern, attention-deficit, world where communications occur in the form of thoughtless blurbs on social networking sites and political action is slave to the media sound bites, moral disengagement is now an accepted norm.  The problem is that when we fail to question what others tell us, when we fail to act for a greater good, our minds and hearts become poisoned by the convincing rhetoric of others.  We react emotionally without evaluating the source of that reaction; we lash out at those who don’t think like us, replacing harmony and understanding with division and discord. 

So we are challenged, individually and collectively, to recognize the warning signs of moral disengagement in order to avoid perpetrating its existence:

  • Portraying bad conduct as serving socially worthy or moral purposes.
  • Substituting uncomfortable words with good ones in order to make the situation feel more tolerable.
  • Using specific language in order to make the situation look better. 
  • Viewing ones actions as being ordered by others.
  • Establishing systems of deniability, particularly at a corporate level.
  • Splitting up responsibilities between different parties so that no individual can be held accountable.
  • Name calling, inferring sinister motives and dehumanization of the victims, a frequent tactic of talk show pundits.
  • Blaming the victims for bringing the consequences of the harm upon themselves.
  • Construing the harmful effects in such a way that the consequences are minimized, denied, or distorted.

One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of these mechanisms at play in the Bhopal tragedy, or the oil spill in the gulf, or the financial and health care crises in the US, or the scandals and scams of local government, or on television and radio programs, or even in the way we as individuals conduct our daily lives.  Now more than ever we need to change and eradicate this type of behavior, for our own personal benefit and for society as a whole. And it starts by establishing a personal sense of integrity. 

There is orderliness in the universe, there is an unalterable law governing everything.

As we approach the city of Bhopal the train conductor asks why we want to go there.  In fact, many people have asked us that question.  It is not a global city like Delhi, not a symbol of love like the Taj Mahal, not the land of spices like Kerala, nor the mountains of the Himalayas. 

We are, therefore, surprised to discover that modern Bhopal is a bustling community. It shares the ebullience and optimism that is so pervasive throughout India. The population now stands at 2 million, small by Indian standards, and more than double what it was in 1984.  The accident has been a catalyst for many things, including India’s most important environmental legislation. The state is proud of its progressive environmental programs.  The city is proud of its medical and educational institutions.  The citizens are thrilled that Walmart has arrived. Bhopal, nestled in the valleys of the low lying hills, is a city with a heart. As we watch the Indian sun disappear behind the hills we see the city lights reflecting off the lake like a string of pearls, a reminder of its royal past.

Before we leave, we visit a clinic in the railroad slum. I ask the ladies what the future of Bhopal looks like for them. Suddenly, it is obvious that they live the present moment.  Of course, shouldn’t we all?  For the essence of living in this timeless land, is the eternal return, the endless cycle of existence and knowledge; of birth, life, death, and rebirth. The orderliness of the universe is clear to them and life goes on.

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