A major worry for the international community has been the danger of Al Qaeda using a chemical weapon to indulge in an act of mass casualty terrorism. Studies have been made of the possible scenarios and how to prevent and counter them. Dealing with a chemical disaster-- deliberately caused by terrorists or other criminal elements or due to the criminal negligence of those producing and storing them for industrial and other purposes-- is now an important component of any national disaster management plan.
In India too, we have a high-powered national disaster management authority and one understands it has prepared different contingency plans to deal with different types of disasters--a chemical disaster being one of them. One would have thought that a detailed case study of the disaster in Bhopal in 1984 due to the leakage of chemical gases from a plant of the Union Carbide would have been the starting point of any such contingency planning.
Do you know what would happen if Al Qaeda manages to get hold of a deadly chemical weapon and uses it to kill people in their hundreds and thousands? People would start dying without knowing what is happening to them. Security and other bureaucrats involved in disaster management would take some time to understand why people are dying and set in motion the drill to deal with situation.
Al Qaeda is not going to announce beforehand that it would be using a chemical weapon. It will use it and let the world realise that it has used it from the initially unexplained deaths.
That is what happened in Bhopal in 1984. People in their hundreds working in the factory, moving around in the town and living in their homes started falling dead without anyone understanding why they are dying. It took sometime for the authorities to realize that the deaths were due to the leakage of gas from the factory and its spread across the town. They did not know what kind of a gas was it and how to protect people from its effect.
No proper study had been made beforehand of the dangers of a leak-- due to negligence or deliberately-caused. There had been no contingency planning to deal with the resulting situation.
It goes to the credit of the authorities of Madhya Pradesh and the government of India and of Rajiv Gandhi, who had just then taken over as the Prime Minister, that without any previous experience of dealing with that kind of situation, they rose to the occasion and did whatever they could to save lives at tremendous risk to themselves. Despite their praise-worthy efforts, over 3500 people died-- as many as during the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US.
In many seminars that I have attended since 9/11 on the dangers of an act of mass casualty terrorism using a chemical weapon, there were references to the Bhopal disaster as a forewarning of what could happen if the terrorists manage to get hold of a deadly chemical weapon and use it. Many of those who made the reference, at the same time, expressed their surprise and disappointment over the fact that the Indian authorities had not documented the details of what happened in Bhopal in 1984, how the situation was dealt with by the authorities, what kind of difficulties they faced and how they got over them.
In fact, according to them, no proper case study of the Bhopal gas disaster has been made to draw lessons for future contingency planning to deal with similar disasters. If this is true, this does not speak well of us and underlines once again our casual attitude in such matters.
Before the officials of Bhopal who dealt with the disaster pass away, their account of the disaster should be documented and a thorough case study done.
It goes to the credit of Rajiv Gandhi that he realized the importance of contingency planning to deal with similar disasters in future and set up a special cell in the Ministry of Home Affairs for this purpose. This cell allegedly stopped functioning after he left office as the PM in 1989. Contingency planning for disaster management started receiving the attention it deserved only after 9/11.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and also Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies