India tries to reassure survivors of Bhopal leak

Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi will be personally involved this week in deciding how the state of Madhya Pradesh should seek compensation from Union Carbide for the victims of the gas leak at the company's central Indian plant.

The decision will be taken after the completion Wednesday or Thursday of an operation to neutralize the 16 remaining tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) stored at the plant in Bhopal by turning them into the pesticide Sevin.

Scientists in charge of the program successfully converted four tons of the deadly MIC Monday, as they had done on Sunday when ''Operation Faith'' was launched.

But despite the project's reassuring name and appeals from the state government that no risk was involved, more than one-quarter of Bhopal's population of 800,000 had fled the city by the weekend, fearful of a recurrence of the Dec. 3 gas leak that claimed more than 2,000 lives.

Doctors at the nearly deserted Hamidia Hospital, the largest in this not terribly affluent industrial city, say that as many as 4,000 people may have died.

In the now deserted alleyways of Jaiprakash shantytown which hugs the highway across from the pesticide plant, a lone policeman with a loudspeaker assured the nearly deserted hovel of wooden shacks and corrugated roofs that ''there is no danger . . . but we will provide you transport if you wish to leave.''

For Jaiprakash, the message came too late.

At least 700 of its 2,000 impoverished dwellers had died in the gas leak. Others had already fled.

No one knew where they had gone. The only sounds breaking the silence came from a pack of dogs, perhaps poisoned by MIC, and a forgotten rooster.

The episode was repeated all over Bhopal as long lines of men, women, and children, in scenes reminiscent of the ''Grapes of Wrath,'' fled the city by whatever means they could afford - the more affluent by plane, train, and bus. The others left on foot, or sitting atop belongings piled high in horse-drawn tongas, or atop auto rickshaws.

As the master of Bhopal's railway station, R. P. Rastogi, said, ''If those fleeing can't get their first choice of tickets, they'll buy tickets to anywhere.''

On a mildewed wall off the platform was a lone election poster of assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi - one of only a handful in this electorally important state capital, where Monday's parliamentary elections are likely to be postponed. Not only has well over a quarter of the population been disrupted, but a flood of resentment is building up against the ruling Congress (I) Party and, in particular, against the state's Congress (I) government, headed by Arjun Singh.

Trying to contain his losses, Singh, a protege of Rajiv Gandhi, announced with a certain flair that to ''prove his faith in Indian technology,'' he would be inside the plant during the entire neutralization process. Not to be outdone, the leaders of the state's main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, also encamped inside, lending almost a carnival air to the second chapter of the tragedy.

There was also the incongruity of American lawyers in three-piece, double-breasted suits, gingerly picking their way through Bhopal's slums looking for potential clients, as Nobel Prize-winner Mother Teresa spread the message - ''Forgive, we must forgive.''

''Forgive, (expletive deleted),'' said the flamboyant San Francisco lawyer Melvin Belli, who has filed a $15 billion damage suit against Union Carbide in the United States. ''This disaster was announced in advance. Twice before the safety valve on the storage tanks failed. And this was a secondhand plant, turned down in Danbury, Conn. (Union Carbide's headquarters), and sent over here.''

Indian scientists, in consultation with American experts, took extraordinary precautions to ensure that no such disaster would occur again during the neutralization process.

Special Army units trained in chemical warfare were posted on the factory's sprawling 72-acre lawn as MI-8 helicopters of the Indian Air Force sprayed water onto jute-cloth screening and tarpaulins, which were spread over vast sections of the pesticide plant. When MIC gas comes into contact with water and caustic soda, it loses its potency.

The city was being patrolled by paramilitary units in hundreds of jeeps, which were in radio contact with a central control room, manned around the clock by military and civilian coordinators.

This time, according to a spokesman for the government of Madhya Pradesh, the plant's safety system and warning alarms were ''100 percent operable.'' Sunday's temporary reopening of the plant follows a week of often bitter dispute between Indian and American scientists on how best to neutralize the remaining gas.

One point, however, on which everyone agreed was that commercial MIC, which is nearly 99 percent pure, will inevitably contain a growing number of increasingly dangerous molecules if it remains in a storage tank too long. There is growing evidence that this could have been the initial catalyst for the disastrous gas leak.

Production of MIC was halted at the Bhopal plant Oct. 22 because of a decline in orders for pesticides. A full shift of the 650-man work force was about to be laid off. The Bhopal plant was losing money, and sales had fallen from $22.4 million in 1982 to $17.2 million in 1983. The curve had been downward for a number of years. Despite a licensed capacity for the production of 5,250 tons of MIC-based pesticides per year, production was down to 1,657 tons by the end of 1983.

Dr. S. V. Varadarajan, who is supervising the neutralization process, was quoted in Monday's Indian Express newspaper as saying that it appeared that at least two tons of water could have entered the MIC storage tank, causing the violent reaction that provoked the leak.

Other scientists in Bhopal are quoted as saying that the water could have entered the stainless-steel storage tank, which was two-thirds underground, either through subsoil sources, through cleaning, or through one of the exit pipes.

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