“Wake up people of Bhopal, you are on the edge of a volcano!”
In September 1982, Bhopali journalist Raj Keswani wrote a terrifying story, the first of a series of articles, for the city’s Jansatta daily. Bhopal was about to be annihilated. “It will take just an hour, at most an hour-and-a-half, for every one of us to die.”
Keswani’s information came from worried staff at the Union Carbide factory, where a worker, Ashraf Khan, had just been killed in a phosgene spill. The first world war gas was used in the production of MIC (methyl-isocyanate), a substance 500 times deadlier than hydrogen cyanide, and so volatile that unless kept in spotless conditions, refrigerated to 0C, it can even react explosively with itself. Cooling it slows reactions, buys time, but MIC is so dangerous that chemical engineers recommend not storing it at all unless absolutely necessary and then only in the tiniest quantities. In Bhopal it was kept in a huge tank, the size of a steam locomotive.
Far from the shining cathedral of science depicted in Union Carbide adverts, the Bhopal factory more closely resembled a farmyard. Built in the 70s to make pesticides for India’s “green revolution”, a series of bad monsoons and crop failures had left it haemorrhaging money.