A local journalist and a city administrator had seriously questioned, in recent years, the safety of the pesticide plant that released a cloud of poison here a week ago killing at least 2,000 people, but their efforts were largely belittled and ignored.
Rajkumar Keswani, writing for Hindu papers, published parts of a then-secret Union Carbide Corp. survey that contained the results of a 1982 inspection made by three company engineers and citing specific safety problems at the plant, owned by a subsidiary, Union Carbide India Ltd.
Among the approximately 50 observations made by the inspection team were at least two that coincide almost exactly with a Union Carbide India company official's description of what he said could have caused the deadly leak here last week. Ironically, these portions of the report were not among those written about by Keswani.
At the Danbury, Conn., headquarters of Union Carbide, the 1982 safety survey was distributed to reporters Monday, along with three documents in which, according to company spokesman Tom Failla, Union Carbide India said all the recommended repairs had been made except one that dealt with a valve in an area of the plant not involved in last week's accident.
Failla said the 1982 survey had been made by Union Carbide Corp. as a "contractual service" to Union Carbide India, of which the U.S. parent firm is 50.9 percent owner.
The report identified a number of problems at the plant, Failla said, but inspectors attached a covering letter saying, "No situations involving imminent danger or requiring immediate correction were noted in the course of the survey."
The survey "invited action plans to correct deficiencies," Failla said, and in later reports Union Carbide India said it had taken care of the problems. "We have no reason to believe that what was represented to us by Union Carbide India did not in fact occur," Failla said.
Union Carbide officials in Danbury also stressed that they do not yet know the cause of the accident.
Before Keswani began writing about the pesticide plant, another Bhopal resident, M.N. Buch, warned about it in 1975, before the methyl isocyanate facility was built. Buch, then administrator of the municipal corporation and architect of the city's urban planning program, issued a press release asking Union Carbide to move out of the densely populated city. He was soon transferred to the forestry department.
Keswani, 34, has led a one-man crusade, charging an accident potential at the pesticide plant, since 1982 -- when, he said, a friend working there began telling him of alleged safety hazards.
Writing first in a Hindu weekly, Rapat, and then in Jansatta, a Hindu daily, Keswani battled the business establishment in Bhopal with strident articles bearing such headlines as "Please Save the City," and "Bhopal, City on the Edge of a Volcano."
He warned that the proximity of the plant to a dense population had the potential for a disaster should methyl isocyanate gas escape.
The government and Union Carbide ignored him, he said, and then attacked his articles as being alarmist. He said he stepped up his campaign after a gas leak on Oct. 5, 1982, forced temporary evacuation of some nearby slums.
A few state assemblymen raised questions in the legislature about Keswani's articles but Tara Singh Viyogi, labor minister at the time, denied there were safety hazards and said that a factory worth $25 million "was not like a small stone and could not be moved."
The 1982 report warned the plant management that a pressure relief valve on a poisonous gas storage system might be inadequate for stemming a "runaway reaction" and release of large amounts of toxic materials into the air. "There were several conditions or operations in the unit that presented serious potential for sizable release of toxic material," it said.
It also said it is possible that a methyl isocyanate storage tank would become contaminated with a backwash of water vapors from its connected vent gas scrubber and thereby cause the chemical reaction that would lead to an excessive buildup of pressure in the feed tank.
The two contingencies almost exactly parallel what V.K. Gokhale, managing director of Union Carbide India, and V.K. Kamdar, vice president for agrochemicals, gave in an interview Dec. 5 as plausible explanations of the causes of the uncontrolled discharge of methyl isocyanate two days earlier.