Less than two weeks after the tragic night when the gases from the pesticide plant at Bhopal had leaked to kill over two thousand people, journalists sitting in a club, close to the factory, found the place swarming with flies and mosquitoes. When asked the secret of their survival, white fresh cases of human poisoning were still being reported, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh replied, "It might take months' of scientific study to find an answer". The incident is symbolic of the prevalent faith in the science and technology of today. Consider the case: A high technology plant storing, utilizing and producing extremely' dangerous materials are set up in the heart of a populous old city, with the scientific promise that" the products of the plant shall kill pests and insects to save men from disease and hunger. The technology fails. The toxic gases leak. And, ironically men die, while mosquitoes and flies seem to be flourishing. Faced with the situation the representative of the people not only refers the matter back to the scientists and technologists, but also gives them unlimited time to find out why they failed so tragically. Notwithstanding the much talked about lack of a scientific temper in the people of India, the faith of a nation in the modern science and technology could perhaps never be any stronger.

In fact, those who found themselves responsible for the building up o£ independent India chose science and technology as the medium through which to approach their task. Consequently, we have generated a large science and technology (S&T) community, the third largest in the world. This community, and the huge scientific, technological and industrial establishment that comes with it have been paid for from the scarce resources of India, they form India's investment in modernity. The builders of India have reposed faith in this community with the hope that the S&T community of India shall bring to us the best fruits of modern S&T arid at the same time sufficiently domesticate this S&T to competently save us from all its inherent dangers.

It is true that the people of India do not understand much of what the modern scientists and technologists do, and how they do it. But that is not because of any special lack of the scientific temper in the Indian people. Not many people anywhere in the world understand the scientific jargon, much less the logic and intricacies of modern S&T. The people of India, of course, do not even understand the language of modern S&T. Like modern law, modern medicine, and modern education etc., modern S&T is also conducted in English, a language alien to most of our people. That the builders of India should repose implicit faith in a community whose ways and methods, and even whose language, the people of India do not understand, may be very unwise. It may be especially unwise for those who represent a people like the Indians, a people who till recently did not even accept the Gods unless they came and lived with them, spoke and behaved like them, and accepted all their norms and limitations. The representatives of such a people have perhaps unwisely put their faith in the S&T community. But that is a separate question.

Whether wisely or unwisely modern India has put its faith in modern S&T. And this puts a great responsibility on the S&T community of India. The important question that arises in the context of the Bhopal tragedy is: Has the S&T community become competent enough to fulfill its responsibility? Has it behaved honorably and responsibly in the face of the faith that has been reposed in it? Now that sufficient time has elapsed since the Bhopal tragedy it is possible to take a judicious view of the role and behavior of the S&T community in this crisis. From the available information, it has to be sadly concluded that the S&T community of India has failed in its responsibilities. Its failures have been multiple. In fact, it seems that both the profession of science and the faith reposed in the Indian S&T community have been betrayed.

The first thing that became obvious with the fatal leak was the total ignorance of the Indian scientists and technologists about what is happening in many of the high technology establishments of the country. Once the leak started, none of the highly trained Indian engineers and technicians in the plant seemed to know what to do about it; the gases simply exhausted themselves. The larger S&T community did not know how much of what was being produced in the plant. If what came out of the plant was only methyl-iso-cyanate (MIC) as the plant personnel insisted, the community did not know what the chemistry of this substance was, what were its toxic effects, what were possible antidotes, and what were the ways to neutralize the toxic substance? All this ignorance was eventually admitted' on behalf of the community: It is possible that some of these admissions of ignorance were made in order to minims the responsibility for the tragedy and to make it look like a natural disaster. However, it became obvious from, the events that followed that the Indian scientists and technologists did not really know much about the ways to deal with the substances that were being used and produced in the Bhopal plants.

The essence of being scientific, as every school text teaches, is in being keenly observant of one's surroundings. A specialized scientific community that is so totally unaware of even the major technological activities in its surroundings betrays both the profession of science and the nation that has given it the mandate to be scientific on its behalf. If Bhopal were an isolated instance of the ignorance of the S&T community that may not have mattered much. But there is absolutely no reason to believe that there are not elsewhere in the country plants with equally dangerous potential, about which the Indian S&T community is similarly ignorant.

While this ignorance of the community can be condoned as an act of omission, what happened next did not have even that saving grace, immediately after the leak, various segments of the S&T community openly engaged in suppressing information, spreading misinformation, and sometimes even telling deliberate lies. This game started with the engineers of the Union Carbide plant at Bhopal. On the fateful night of December 2/3 while people of Bhopal were dying in large numbers, senior engineers of the plant were simply denying that anything at all had leaked from their plant. At 1.45 a.m. that night J. Mukund, the Works Manager, told the Additional District Magistrate, "The gas leak just can't be from my plant. Our technology just can't go wrong." In the morning Dr. L. D. Lova of the plant was' telling tried doctors and journalists around that the gas that leaked was only an irritant, which was neither fatal nor lethal.

As we know these statements by the technical and medical staff of the Company were deliberate lies. The Works Manager could not have been unaware of the possibility of a leak, because earlier his technology had indeed failed and his plant had leaked many times. Similarly, though the rest of the S&T community in India may have been ignorant of the toxic effects of MIC, the Company personnel had access to the Company manuals that informed the employees of the hazards of the chemicals used in the plant. Therefore Dr. Lova, the Company doctor, while passing MC off as a benign material, could not have been unaware of its hazards. True that these lies were told by the employees of a multinational plant. But while justly blaming the multinationals for their greed and callousness towards life in the developing countries we must remember that Mukund and Lova are Indian scientists. They are part of the third largest scientific manpower in the world that we are proud of.

The Company personnel were not the only scientists and technologists who lied and suppressed information. Teams of independent government scientists and a CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) team headed by the Director General of CSIR, Dr,Varadarajan, reached Bhopal in the immediate wake of the disaster. And immediately a campaign to suppress all information on the tragedy was begun, The veil of secrecy that the scientists, hand in hand with other bureaucrats, imposed was so thick' and so blatant that on December 5, the Additional Director General of Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) Dr.S. Sircar, refused to give information on the wind speed, humidity [and temperature conditions in Bhopal on the tragic night because a judicial enquirer was on. When reminded that IMD was a service organization, Dr. Sircar emphatically declared that IMD was not a service organization, and the information would not be given. In fact, it seems the scientists actually started enjoying their new found sense of power. Thus on December 15, Dr. Varadarajan took some journalists around)the plant after prior warning that anybody straying from the charted path in the plant shall be arrested and he personally grappled with a cameraman who tried to go near the tank that had leaked.

In addition to suppressing information there was continuous misinformation emanating from scientific and technical experts. Within a couple of days of the leak the experts started announcing that the air that the people were breathing was absolutely safe, that there was no trace of any toxic material anywhere. A little later Dr. Bhandari, Superintendent of the Hamidia Hospital, was asserting that there were no long-term effects of the gas on the specious observation that the patients his hospital had treated were not returning with any new complications. By December 10, a WHO expert, sent on the request of Government of India, joined Indian medical experts in asserting that there would be no long-term effects of the gas on the kidneys and livers of the victims, that there would be no damage to pregnant women or the for issues they were carrying, that survivors will suffer only minor eye and respiratory problems.

It is clear now that all these statements and many others emanating from eminent scientists were all false. On the second day of the accident no tests could have shown the air of Bhopal to be free from all toxicity and the long-term effects of the gas could not have been predicted within a week of the exposure. In any case, fresh cases of poisoning were being reported till December 24 and previously treated cases with greater complications were returning to the Hamidia Hospital in large numbers.

Ironically, while scientists were telling the public about the absence of all long-term effects, they were also cornering large amounts of public funds to undertake long-term projects to study the effects of the gas. The ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) on December 11 reported its plans of undertaking a major epidemiological survey to see the effect, of the gas on kidneys and immune systems of the victims. Food Toxicological Research Institute, Hyderabad, Institute of Occupational Health, Ahmadabad, Cancer Research Institute, Bombay, Institute of Genetics and Hospital for Genetic Diseases, Hyderabad, all got various projects to study the phenomenon of MIC leak and its effect on human beings. Even foreign scientists, specialists in chemical warfare, arrived on the scene to see whether the gas could be used to kill, efficiently and when their presence was brought to the notice of Mr. Arjun Singh, then Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, he declared that though no fishing around might be allowed, the Government would assist everyone in making enquirers into the subject. He wouldn't have liked to be seen as interfering with the 'scientific' investigation of a rare phenomenon. Yet at the same time he was so keen to keep all information away from the lay public that his government went to the Jabalpur High Court repeatedly to seek permission to destroy samples of the gas that the High Court had insisted must be kept in order to make independent investigation possible.

This campaign of misinformation and suppression of information reached its peak on the question of the presence of phosgene in the leaking gases; and on the question of presence of cyanide in the systems of the poisoning victims. Answers to both questions were vital for the treatment of patients and right from the beginning there were reasonable doubts that both were present. Yet it was decided to deny outright their presence. The Union Carbide insisted that what leaked was nothing but MIC. 'It was MIC, declared Dr. Awashia of [the parent Union Carbide Corporation. And Indian scientists took up the refrain. On December 7 itself IARI (Indian Agricultural Research Institute) was making public results of tests carried out on plant samples, to assert that the gas that leaked was not phosgene and Dr. Varadarajan declared in Bhopal on December 10 that scientists from defense laboratories had found no trace of ' phosgene in Bhopal. Yet on December 21, under intense questioning, Dr. Varadarajan admitted (that there was a small quantity of phosgene in the MIC. Now it was revealed (that its presence was essential for the safe-keeping of MIC, though Dr. Varadarajan also hinted that the phosgene present in the MIC that leaked from Bhopal might have' been more than what was absolutely essential. By January 4 in the Lucknow Science Congress, he was admitting that he and his team had [no available chemical method for quantifying phosgene. This time this admission of lack of preparedness was an excuse for choosing to convert the remaining MIC to the commercially usable pesticide Seven, as the Company had desired, rather than using some other non-commercial mode of neutralization. All this is an example of scientific honesty and commitment to truth of our S & T community.

The case of the possibility of formation of the cyanide compounds in the gas victims' bodies was even f more curious. It seems sodium – thiosulphate is a known antidote for cyanide poisoning. Dr. Awashia of Union Carbide, in his initial message on the line of treatment had suggested the use of this antidote, and at least some doctors in the Hamidia Hospital had used it in the early days of the tragedy even on themselves and had found it effective. But soon it was decided that any connection of MIC with cyanide was not to be suggested; doctors of the Union Carbide and their Indian counterparts in the Government started insisting that MIC could not cause cyanide poisoning, and in an unusual 'unscientific' step, the Director of Madhya Pradesh Health Services issued an official letter on December 11 banning the use of sodium thiosulphate. The ban was lifted only on February 3 when overwhelming evidence of cyanide poisoning in the bodies of the victims could not be any more in the activity of suppressing information was indeed, a diabolically ignored. (Thus the flamboyant participation of the scientists and technologists cynical act) It can be argued that this suppression of information and spreading of misinformation was not directly the responsibility of the scientific community. That it was done under pressure from and on behalf of the political / bureaucratic hierarchy. And it does seem that much of this was not a strictly scientific technological, but a public relations job in which scientists were rather prominently involved. Especially, the daily press briefings of Dr. Varadarajan during the so called 'Operation Faith' were nothing more than this since as far as the technical aspects were involved, he himself had admitted that the whole operation was carried out by the factory staff with the help of American experts. The job of Dr. Varadarajan and his team was perhaps only to devise the faith-raising drama of helicopters spraying water, and wet tents covering the area; and to give authoritative ton-by ton briefings to the press on the MIC neutralization and to repeatedly assert that the whole operation was a Zero-risk affair, as if that term had any scientific meaning.

However, accepting the plea that the scientists indulged in this public relations exercise at the behest of other bosses does not reduce their responsibility. It should be remembered that it is only the scientists who in the modern world claim the role of being the guarantors of truth. The politicians or the bureaucrats have never claimed any such role. In fact the near universal acceptance of Modern science is partly based on the idea that the only commitment of science, and the scientists in their professional capacity, is to truth and to nothing else. This idea may not be entirely correct. Yet by telling blatant lies the scientists of India have degraded the idea of science and have betrayed their profession. What is even more alarming is the possibility that if they have told lies in this case, they may also be telling lies about mush else in the S&T establishments which may be equally hazardous.

Finally, we come to the most intriguing aspect of the behavior of the S&T community during the Bhopal crisis. What was so important about the presence of phosgene in the gases that leaked and about the presence of cyanide compounds in the bodies of the victims that the scientific community should try to suppress this information? One possible explanation is that while a term like MIC was little known to people, phosgene, the dreaded war gas and cyanide's, the dreaded poisons, are better known terms and people would have known how to react to these. Insistence, that there were no cyanide's and no phosgene involved and that what did the killing was some totally unknown substance called MIC, then seems to be an attempt, by the S&T community to control the reactions of the people and to make them dependent on itself for all information.

However it seems that more was involved in this exercise than merely the engineering of the reactions and responses of the people. It seems that phosgene and cyanide compounds being better known are better regulated in law. Presence of these substances enhanced the legal culpability of the Union Carbide, and suppression of information on these' was an attempt to reduce the culpability of the company. If this is the case, then effectively the Indian S&T personnel have colluded with the foreign company and thereby they have lowered the dignity of the S&T profession in India. Even otherwise, by their inability to handle the technical aspects of the situation themselves, by their total reliance on foreign doctors in the treatment of patients, by requesting the company officials to analyze the various samples (even for the sake of investigation into the company's responsibility) by heaving the process of neutralization of the gases to the company management and American experts of the company, and in general by showing their complete inability to tackle' the crisis without foreign help and guidance, the Indian S&T community has dishonored itself. It is only because the Indian scientists and technologists behaved so incompetently that the foreigners acquired the boldness to suggest that it was the involvement of the Indians with the plant that caused the disaster. Wall Street Journal suggested it in mid-January and later in the month, Dr. Brown, an American Noble laureate in chemistry, made the same insulting J reference, while on a visit to India as a guest of the Indian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Now of course the parent American company, in its report, has squarely laid the entire blame on the Indians operating the plant at Bhopal.

It is true that the scientists were not the only ones who behaved in a way that lowered the dignity of their profession. For instance, the Indian government itself panicked at the arrest of Mr. Warren Anderson, the Union Carbide chairman in Bhopal, sought his immediate release, and flew him in a state aircraft to Delhi; and the foreign secretary of India granted audience to the chairman of a multinational that by it callousness had just caused a major disaster. That arrest may or may not have been decent or civilized, as spokesman of the Government and many leading newspapers of the country suggested, but the later panicky behavior was definitely below the dignity of a sovereign government allegedly run by competent professionals. The legal profession also joined in this exhibition of general lack of dignity and self-respect by the various professional groups of- India. While the local lawyers competed with each other in acting as agents of American legal firms, the Advocate General of India himself rushed to the U.S.A. to find ways of seeking Justice from the American courts, instead of attending to the business of getting the culprits to the courts in India.

Thus it seems that the S&T community of India was not the only professional community that during the Bhopal crisis proved itself to be incompetent in handling the crisis without foreign help, and showed a singular lack of professional pride and honor. It seems 'that the failure is shared by the entire professional groups that modern India has evolved. But the failure of the S&T community is the most glaring. This is not only because it was basically the responsibility of the S&t community to avert and to handle disasters of the type that occurred in Bhopal, but also because much more has been expected of the S&T community compared to other professional groups. Indian nation has sought to become a modern, powerful, independent nation through the medium of modern S&T. If after almost four decades of concerted development, the Indian S&T establishment finds, during a technological crisis let loose by a foreign company, that it does not have the know-how and the capability even to ascertain what exactly where the substances that came out of the plant to cause the disaster, that it does not have the confidence to deal with the aftermath of the crisis, and that it has to seek help from the foreign culprits to handle the situation, then we can no longer remain so smug and sure about the basic assumptions regarding modern S&T that have been made in modern India., Intact, the failure of the S&T community seems highly alarming because out of all the modern professional groups and structures that. Independent India sought to develop the science and technology establishment seemed the most logical and essential because of the supposed universality of modern S&T.

Perhaps, the problem is with this idea of the universality of modern S&T. Firmly believing in the universal truth of modern science and universal applicability of modern technology, the builders of modern India have generated an S&T community that finds all its "sources of inspiration and standards of competence placed outside the country Forced to work in fields in which all the data and all the theories get generated abroad and in which the center of activity always lays outside India, the Indian scientists and technologists fail to evolve the confidence to deal with Indian problems, in India with Indian resources. Used to the idea of seeing the foreigners as the leaders of activity in their particular fields of endeavor, the Indian S&T personnel fail to evolve a proper professional pride in their own community. Infect, given the role and behavior of the Indian S&T community during the Bhopal crisis, it seems that the Indian scientists and technologists, working as they largely do with observations made elsewhere and theories proposed and judged by other groups, have even failed to evolve the usual scientific discipline of being keen observers of their surroundings, and of being a community with professional honesty. At the same time, with their foreign orientation, the Indian S&T personnel" seem to have developed callousness towards life in India that is typical of the outsider. What else can explain the phenomenon, that during the discussion on Bhopal in the Lucknow Science Congress, held in the wake of the tragedy, even lay members of the community went about reading inane papers on topics like the survival or otherwise of roses in Bhopal, copying the flamboyant style of their peers.

Of course, there are many amongst Indian scientists and technologists who prove themselves to be extremely competent even by the Western standards. However, these bright ones, having found recognition in a community outside India, quickly get alienated not only from the Indian people, but also from the Indian S&T community. Many of them go abroad, many others become recluses working on esoteric problems that have relevance to some group working abroad and to experiments being done elsewhere, others get frustrated. The leadership of the S&T community in India thus falls in the hands of those who are basically only good managers. In the case of a crisis, these leaders can, as in Bhopal provide the necessary managerial skills, while the actual scientific and technological problems are left to the foreign experts.

How can the situation be remedied? How can India have a S&T community that is confident of itself, and confident of handling the technological problems of India on its own? How can there be an Indian S&T community that is imbued with a healthy pride in itself and is conscious of its professional dignity? This confidence, pride and dignity cannot perhaps be expected from a community that sees itself merely as an extension of the S&T endeavor of the West,a community that is perpetually conscious of being a poor relative of an external group. What is needed is perhaps a scientific and technological endeavor that seriously seeks to establish a genuinely Indian tradition of S&T, a tradition that solves the S&T problems of India through Indian resources, using the Indian genius for science and technology.. Any such Indian tradition of S&T today will, in some sense, have to relate itself to the older Indian S&T traditions. In our obsession with the idea of the universality of modern S&T, we have often denied the existence of any meaningful and valid S&T traditions in the history of India. However, now that the futility of all our efforts at building a dignified and competent S&T community on the basis of alien traditions is becoming increasingly clear we should be willing to undertake a more serious search for our traditions.This perhaps is the most important lesson that needs to be learn from the Bhopal tragedy.

Author: J. K. Bajaj

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