Several years before the government of India permitted Union Carbide Corporation to set up a pesticide plant in Bhopal in 1975, a Communist Party of India (CPI) MLA in the Madhya Pradesh state legislature, Khan Shakir Ali Khan, warned the House that a chemical plant even on the outskirts of Bhopal was fraught with ‘very high risks’. The threat to the thickly-populated region could not be ignored. But the industry minister of the time brushed aside the caution: “It is a big factory. It is not a brick, which can be shifted from this place to that”.
Law-makers representing the Bharatiya Jana Sangh — predecessor of the Bharatiya Janata Party — were mum, as were ruling Congress MLAs when P C Sethi was the chief minister. Recalling the lone voice of dissent in the State Assembly, L S Herdenia, a senior journalist of Bhopal who bravely covered the gas leak immediately after the methyl isocyanate-phosgene gas leak on the midnight of December 2-3, 1984, wrote in a e-mail to this correspondent that the Khan Shakir Ali Khan Hospital, named after the intrepid communist legislator, treated victims and seriously wounded workers and inhabitants in and around Bhopal free of cost. The then Bhopal MLA questioned the justification of setting up a high-risk plant to manufacture methyl isocyanate-phosgene and made a plea to shift it away from Bhopal.
If the warnings from Shakir Ali, a freedom fighter from the early 1930s, had been heeded, the tragedy that befell tens of thousands of residents in the world’s worst industrial disaster could have been avoided. Sadly, even the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leaders were apparently too engrossed in polemics against the CPI and the ‘Left’ Congressmen to endorse a valid criticism of the decision to locate the UCC project in Bhopal. Of course, there were other Opposition parties such as the Swatantra Party and variants of social democratic parties like the PSP who welcomed the alien investment.
Yet, refreshing to record, the then secretary of environment, MP government, M N Buch was a dissenting voice. ‘In 1973, there was no development plan, only schematic layout. I can categorically state that I did not approve the building plans of Union Carbide,’ he wrote.
But lobbyists and fixers elbowed out the microscopic minority comprising Shakir Ali, Buch and their ilk. The Indira Gandhi government disregarded prevailing norms and permitted the American MNC a 51 per cent stake in the venture, plus the nod for a 100 per cent export-oriented unit. However, all these dreams ended on that fateful midnight.
Shakir Ali Khan was CPI MLA from Bhopal between 1957 and 1972. He was imprisoned in 1934 for publishing a cartoon ridiculing the judiciary in an Urdu newspaper Sabah-o-Watan of which he was the editor. But the administration of the Nawab of Bhopal was forced to release him after 17 days due to public protests. Shakir Ali and his colleagues in the battle for Independence were inflamed by the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh and his comrades and heroism of the communists in the historic Meerut Conspiracy Case. Among those arrested were founders of the CPI like Singaravelu Chettiar, Muzaffar Armed and Sripad Amrit Dange along with P C Joshi who was instrumental in giving the nascent party a national foundation as its general secretary (1935-47) and early organisers among working people such as Gangadhar Adhikari, Philip Spratt, Dharani Goswami and Gopen Chakravarty.
Rightists in those days favoured the royal protectorate under the tutelage of the Raj that helped them set up the Bhopal Hindu Sabha to combat the left-wingers. Some of them joined the Congress, while others were indoctrinated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
The rest is history. Shakir Ali Khan sank into the recycle bin of history. But historical records and State Assembly proceedings remain in place. Octogenarian residents of Bhopal and Indore remember him fondly as an endangered species of politician, one who believed in public service.
Until 1979, the UCC subsidiary imported MIC from the parent company. Manufacture of MIC became risky as, being a little lighter than water but twice as heavy as air, once the compound escapes into the atmosphere it remains close to the ground to do its deadly work. Exactly that happened in December 1984 together with instant damage to eyes, gastro-intestinal and pulmorary-respiratory tracts, causing chronic bronchitis and emphysema, duodenal ulcers, chronic gastritis and even neurological disorders in memory and motor skills.
The management was aware of the risks. In May 1982, an inspection team reported to the top brass in the United States that the Bhopal plant was not safe. On the cards was the idea of selling it off to interested Indian corporates. But that remained on paper. Ironically, Union Carbide had earned appreciation in 1970 as a chemically clean company.