Has the horrific Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984, considered the world's worst industrial disaster that claimed nearly 4,000 lives and left hundreds of thousands with various stages of disability, been all but forgotten? A recent incident would make one think so.
Eye and throat irritation sent several school children to hospitals on May 6 after a reported leak of a toxic chemical from a container truck parked at a state-run customs depot in Tughlaqabad in south Delhi.
This, and the fact the chemical was meant to be delivered to a pesticide company in Sonepat in neighbouring Haryana, seem to be the only confirmed information about this infamous incident that has many unanswered questions. Hopefully these will be answered during the inquiry promptly launched by the Delhi government.
Although India had taken several steps to prevent chemical disasters after the Bhopal tragedy, the Tughlaqabad event does not seem to have stirred officialdom and has disappeared from the media focus.
There has been no official release from any of the government agencies concerned giving details of how, why and when the leak occurred. And whatever news reports on this incident that have appeared, quoting "official sources", are conflicting if not confusing.
There is no confusion, however, about one thing: the name of the culprit chemical, the place of its origin, and its purported use.
Police, officials at the container depot and the Sonepat company -- Crystal Crop Protection Pvt. Ltd. -- have all been quoted as saying the chemical was "2-chloromethyl-5-(chloromethyl) pyridine" and that it was imported from China. It is a key ingredient in the manufacture of the insecticide "imidacloprid." widely used for pest control in agriculture.
Readers of these news reports have, however, been perplexed by contradictory statements by officials on the nature of the substance that spilled, the quantity involved and the manner it had been stored in the container truck.
The Down to Earth journal quoted Deputy Commissioner of Police Romil Baniya as saying the truck had 210 drums of the chemical. He had earlier told IANS that each drum contained 220 litres of the chemical, and that it leaked from four drums.
Some news reports put the number of drums in the container at 80.
But the problem with these statements is the chemical in question is not a liquid to be stored in drums but is a solid powder that is packed in glass vials.
"'2-chloro-5-(chloromethyl) pyridine' is indeed a solid with negligible vapour pressure," P. Balram, a leading biophysicist and former Director of the Indian Institute of Science, told this correspondent. "The main use for this chemical is as a key ingredient in the synthesis of the insecticide, "imidacloprid". This (insecticide) is manufactured and widely supplied in India in barrels as a solution."
The chemical "2-chloro-5-(chloromethyl) pyridine" used in the manufacture of the insecticide and imported from China is also readily available with several suppliers in India.
For instance, Tokyo Chemical Industries, a leading pesticide manufacturer in Japan, according to its website, sells a 5-gram vial of this chemical for Rs 3,200 through its office in Chennai.
As this chemical is obtainable in India itself, what was the need for importing it from China? The company officials did not reply to this question.
There are also some other unknowns in this episode not revealed to the public.
What was the name of the exporting company in China or the mode of transport of the chemical from China to Delhi? One news report, again quoting unnamed sources, said it came all the way by road. Despite reminders seeking confirmation, Ankur Aggarwal, Managing Director of the Sonepat company, did not respond.
If it did not arrive by road, was the chemical transported from China by air or by sea? If so, what is its Indian port of entry and how did the shipment reach the Tughlakabad depot from the port of entry? E-mail requests to Kalyana Rama, Managing Director of the Container Corporation of India, and its General Manager S. Rajgopalan for comments were not answered.
Even the date of arrival of the container truck at the depot remains a mystery.
Reports quoting the officials of the depot had said the container arrived on May 5 and departed around 3 a.m. on May 6. The same reports, however, quoted the workers in the depot as saying that the container was standing in the parking area for three days.
According to various news reports, 400 to 500 students from two schools located about 400 metres from the depot were referred to hospitals for treatment. But information on the number affected among the 2,000 workers in the depot itself and the nearly 7,000 residents of a slum also in the neighborhood of the depot is not available.
The depot officials had also been quoted as saying that the leak from the drums occurred at the exit gate of the depot as the container truck left for Sonepat early morning on May 6.
If this was really so, it should have been a miracle that the truck with four drums leaking a poison did not cause any chemical injury on its way to Sonepat though it must have been on the road for about an hour.