The Bhopal Disaster: an ongoing tragedy

by Saffi Ullah Ahmad

Recent talk surrounding BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico due to corporate negligence has drawn light on the Exxon Valdez disaster and one which devastated one of India’s poorest regions with its effects still very much raw and constantly ignored by the US media. Obama’s anti-BP rhetoric has spurred many of those affected by this disaster to point out Western double standards.

The old plant (Photo: Christian Saltas)

Twenty five years after the world’s biggest industrial disaster, Union Carbide’s old pesticide factory remains untouched, haunting the crowded city of Bhopal, a constant reminder of the region’s darkest night.

On the night of 3 December 1984 the lethal gas methyl isocyanate (MIC) alongside other noxious fumes, engulfed the city of Bhopal and killed thousands. It is thought that the disaster has claimed 25,000 lives thus far, and adversely affected over 500,00. Gross negligence by Union Carbide is widely viewed as the cause of the tragedy.

Earlier last week, after a quarter century of waiting and sloppy, almost reluctant court action, lamentable sentences were passed down to seven Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) officials. Sentences of two years were administered to some of those presiding over the corporation when the tragedy occurred; a small group of incredibly wealthy Indian men, all in their 70’s, one of whom is a billionaire, and none of whom are expected to serve their sentences. In addition to the sentencing, each of the seven men were fined a paltry £1400, an amount which would barely pays for the yearly healthcare of one of the victims, let alone serves as meaningful punishment for this appalling crime.

These convictions are so far the only to have materialised in a case that was opened the day after the tragedy in 1984. Those ultimately responsible for the tragedy, namely the corporation’s CEO and equally negligent Western officials, remain unpunished.

Survivors and campaigners have been outraged, calling last week’s decision an ‘insult’. However, as we are about to see, this is only the most recent of a long history of insults.

‘That night’

In 1969, a pesticide factory was shoddily built by Union Carbide (UC) on the outskirts of Bhopal.

As noted by Indra Sinha, controversially in the late 70s following the acquirement of several licenses, UC executives decided that the First World War gas MIC, an incredibly volatile substance 500 times deadlier than hydrogen cyanide, would be stored on site. MIC was to be used as a cost-effective intermediary for the production of the pesticide Carbaryl, even though other manufacturers had refused to use the substance on the grounds of safety.  Although chemical engineers recommended, if absolutely necessary, that the gas remain stored in the smallest quantities, on this particular site the decision was taken to store the substance in a giant tank. Equally alarmingly is that fact that UC had opted to use previously unproven technology in the Bhopal plant’s MIC unit, and decided not to store the gas at an identical installation in West Virginia.

Following a poor start owing to local farmers not being able to afford their products, UC bosses decided to go on a cost cutting spree which involved the reckless enforced redundancy of maintenance staff, the use of cheaper, often defective materials in repair work, and the disengagement of safety systems such as the MIC unit’s refrigerator (the gas remains more stable when cooled). The few maintenance staff that did remain were expected to understand English safety manuals even though very few had a grasp of the language.

A 1982 safety audit by US engineers noted the filthy condition of the plant, including corroding pipelines and faulty valves, and warned of dangerous toxic release.  As the situation worsened and minor gas leaks began to occur, often injuring and even killing workers, journalists and factory staff began warning locals of a terrible danger. Notably, Raj Keswani wrote a series of articles in which he claimed Bhopal was ‘about to be annihilated’ and begged the region’s Chief Minister, unsuccessfully, to investigate the factory before it became ‘Hitler’s gas chamber’.

On the night of 2 December 1984, following an explosive reaction with water, a deadly stream of gas began to seep out of the Bhopal plant’s MIC tank, as all six safety systems designed to contain such a leak failed. The density of the gas, accompanied by a gentle breeze, ensured it rolled along the ground and gradually enveloped the city. Across the city people were waking up in agony, water streaming from their eyes and noses, coughing violently as the gas attacked eye and lung tissue, as well as the central nervous system. No one quite knew what was happening, just that they should run, in whatever clothes they were wearing. In total panic, locals ran alongside dogs and even cattle, with several people being trampled to death in the ensuing commotion.

People were vomiting uncontrollably, frothing at the mouth, suffering visual impairment, and losing control of their bowels – passing urine as they ran. Others suffered convulsions, writhing uncontrollably in the moments before their end. Not even the unborn were spared; over half of all pregnant women caught up in the commotion suffered spontaneous abortions. An Indian Doctor on the scene famously stated ‘Tonight, the Bhopalis are going through Hiroshima’.

By morning Bhopal resembled a scene from hell. In all, 40 tons of MIC which wreaks havoc upon the human body in the tiniest of proportions, had escaped and thousands of bodies were scattered across the old city — along narrow alley ways, road sides and on lawns. In the days to come, the leaves of trees within roughly 40 square miles of the factory were to turn yellow, wither and drop off. Depending on religious custom, some bodies were to be buried in mass graves, and others burnt on mass pyres. Although the authorities give more conservative figures (around the 3000 mark), others estimate up to 8,000 people died that night and anywhere between 15- 25,000 since the event.

Survivors overwhelmed hospitals in which bewildered junior doctors had no idea what treatments to administer. Many were rubbing their eyes with sewage water to ease the searing pain.

Exacerbating the situation, the officials at UC refused to release extensive information they had gathered following years of internal research on the effects of MIC on the human body, nor the exact make up of the gas, calling them ‘trade secrets’, and fearing a dip in profits. With doctors having no proper treatment protocols to follow, the number of deaths multiplied and excessive amounts of drugs for temporary relief, such as steroids, antibiotics and psychotic drugs became the mainstay of medical care, each often causing their own severe side effects.

Roughly 500,000 were injured through exposure to the gas, which in the absence of winds, lingered in the city for days. Ailments directly linked to the disaster include blindness, respiratory difficulties, a variety of cancers and gynecological problems. Many survivors today cannot walk a few steps without gasping for breath, and others suffer sensory delusions, hearing voices in their heads. In addition to the multitude of medical conditions experienced by the victims, the situation wasn’t at all helped by the central government’s abrupt and unexplained decision to stop all research into the medical effects of the gas cloud in 1994.

The second wave of casualties

Shanu
Adil

Today, instead of leaking gas into the skies, the old UC factory leaks deadly chemicals into the soil and ultimately into the water supply of locals.

Approximately 8,000 tons of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals lie abandoned in the old plant, including mercury, due in large part to a lack of political willpower to enforce the financing of a multimillion dollar cleanup operation. Over two decades of monsoons have washed much of these chemicals in to an underground aquifer which feeds in to wells and boreholes used by locals to extract drinking water.

Having no other water supply, many of the locals have been forced to effectively poison themselves by drinking this contaminated water over the years since the disaster. The chemicals leaking from the old plant have been directly linked to a shocking variety of conditions including: skin problems, aches and pains, headaches, nausea, dizziness, anxiety, constant exhaustion, kidney failure, diabetes, a range of cancers, and tuberculosis. Not only are the original survivors still being punished, but so is a subsequent generation; prior gas exposure to mothers coupled with the consumption of these chemicals has led to thousands of gruesome birth defects, with many newborns barely recognizably human, and widespread growth retardation in children.

Despite the Supreme Court ordering that affected children be afforded health insurance, over 100,000 remain without any, and with the majority of affected families being of low social status or caste, outsiders are often reluctant to help, treating victims as untouchables.

UC likely knew of the dangers of such contamination from as early as 1980, when cattle mysteriously began dying in nearby fields. A subsequent internal study in 1989 confirmed this and UC chose not to share these findings with locals, lest cries for compensation multiply.

French writer Dominique Lapierre, author of Five Past Midnight: The Epic Story of the World’s Deadliest Industrial Disaster, stated: ‘My mouth, my throat, my tongue instantly caught on fire, while my arms and legs suffered an immediate skin rash,’ after trying a glass of contaminated water. Many locals have had to drink this water for over two decades.

Today 10-15 people die every month from toxic exposure related illnesses. The Centre for Rehabilitation Studies in Bhopal reports over 2,000 such deaths in 1997 alone.

As for levels of contamination, a major water and soil study was conducted by Greenpeace in 1999. After testing samples in and around the factory, deadly chemicals were found everywhere, including in hand pumps that gushed out drinking water. In the water, levels of carbon tetrachloride and chloroform were found several hundred times higher than the US Environmental Protection Agency limits. In the soil, levels of mercury were found to be anywhere up to 6 million times higher than those found in uncontaminated soil. Similarly, organochlorides such as the banned pesticide DDT were present throughout the region.

More recent reports include one released in 2009 by the Sambhavna Trust which show a presence of large quantities of the aforementioned chemicals, as well as nickel, chromium, lead and others in vegetables, and even in the breast milk of nursing mothers. As a result of ongoing and horrific birth defects, mothers in the area had become too scared to breast feed their own children.

‘People are ill in the communities. Babies are sick. There are many deformed births. It’s as if they really hate us. As if they’re trying to punish us for protesting when they gassed us before and killed our families.’ These were the words of Sunil Kumar, an orphaned community leader (following the catastrophe), who went on to commit suicide some years ago.

As each monsoon washes more and more chemicals in to the area’s ground water, an ever increasing number of people are becoming sick. According to the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, upwards of 150,000 remain chronically ill and over 50,000 are not able to work.

The court battle

The day after the disaster began one of the longest running prosecutions in India’s history. Within four days of the tragedy, UC’s CEO Warren Anderson was allowed by Indian authorities to fly back — on a government plane — to the US on bail, never to return.

Recognizing a potential easy ride in Indian courts, UC managed to persuade a US court that the case be heard in India. The Manhattan District Court agreed on the provision that UC Corporation agree to abide by the Indian courts’ decision. However, when the Indian courts summoned US executives to answer criminal charges, UC executives were advised by their lawyers to claim Indian courts had no jurisdiction over them. They have been absconding ever since.

In 1989 Rajiv Gandhi’s government came to an out of court settlement with Union Carbide India Limited without consulting survivors, under which $470m — the exact sum UC was afforded by their insurers — would be paid in compensation resolving all outstanding legal issues.

At first glance this figure may appear significant, but after being divided between roughly 550,000 people, and with various administrative problems, it amounted to approximately $500 per victim to cope with a lifetime of misery, or, as Indra Sinha points out, 7p a day. This is the cost of a cup of tea. Prior to this settlement, victims had received $5 per month, and stunningly, even this figure was stingily deducted from the final pay out. Amazingly, UC also failed to take responsibility for the disaster, speaking instead of ‘sabotage’.

Just how derisory this figure was can be seen when we compare it to the pay out after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, where even Alaskan sea otters were afforded more compensation than Bhopal victims, and the recent BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where BP recently set aside a $20 billion fund for victims along the coastline.  Not surprisingly, once news of the UC payout emerged, with investors having expected a much larger sum, their share price went through the roof.

To add to the locals’ problems, this settlement completely ignored environmental damage, despite the ever worsening contamination in the area, and overlooked second and third generation victims. Also, UC’s lawyers saw to it that further court action couldn’t be taken in the US.

In 1994, most probably as a strategy to avoid further liability and in light of threats by Indian courts to seize their assets, UC sold its Indian branch to Eveready Industries India Limited.

UC was then officially purchased by the Dow Chemical Company in 2001, a controversial corporation with a murky history. Whereas Dow was quick to set aside billions for UC asbestos workers in Texas, it immediately denied liability for UC’s doings in Bhopal, stating that the 1989 payment fulfilled their financial responsibility to the disaster.

Having legally acquired all of UC’s assets and liabilities, Dow continues to refuse to clean up the site, administer appropriate compensation or even disclose the composition of the gas leak, despite pleas even by its own shareholders, sending a dangerous message to other corporate giants.

With regard to criminal charges, in 1996 initial charges of culpable homicide were controversially diluted to criminal negligence, reducing potential maximum jail sentences of UC officials from ten years to two, explaining the recently administered sentences.

UC and Dow have been aided along the way not just by the underdeveloped tort law framework in India and the clogged legal system, but also corrupt beaurocrats and potentially even judges. Indian officials and politicians, most notably those from the BJP, are also known to have taken money from Dow, often going on to claim on public platforms that there is no water contamination in Bhopal. The prospect of Dow bringing more business to India has made officials even more reluctant to administer justice to the Bhopalis. With regard to Anderson, the Bhopal Medical Appeal believes that ‘neither the American nor the Indian government seem interested in disturbing him with an extradition.’

In light of the central governments ongoing lack of action, in 2004 campaigners for a clean water supply successfully petitioned the Supreme Court of India, which ordered the piping of safe water into affected communities. When this didn’t happen, several mothers took their damaged children to government offices in protest, only to meet severe hostility including a beating with police sticks. Many police officers wept as they carried out their orders. In a related instance in 2009, survivors chained themselves to railings outside government offices only to receive a similar response.

The ongoing campaign

In one of the few success stories of this saga, after a successful appeal for money, campaigners managed to establish a small hospital, the aptly named Sambhavna (‘possibility’) clinic in 1996, which has since treated victims of both the initial disaster and the subsequent contamination with what little it can, free of charge. The clinic, however, in the absence of information of the effects of gas and chemical exposure, provides an often limited service, and waiting lists for treatment (i.e. kidney dialysis) are sometimes so long that patients die while waiting. Donations to the clinic can be provided here.

Survivors are now campaigning for, amongst other things, the immediate extradition of Warren Anderson and 8 other US executives so that they may stand trial in the courts from which they have been absconding since 1992. They are also campaigning for just compensation for the gas and contamination victims, the release of medical information to help treat victims, and the cleanup of the factory site and contaminated water supplies. Campaign websites include www.bhopal.org and ­­­­­www.bhopal.net .

Survivors have stated that the Prime Minister, who is in charge of the Central Bureau of Investigation, is ultimately responsible for the incompetence of the prosecuting agency thus far. It should also be noted that with the Indian government’s complete failure to exert pressure on the US government for the extradition of Anderson, he is currently living the good life in the Hamptons, Long Island, where he is said to enjoy the occasional spot of golf on private ranges.

A separate campaign also aims to bring down Dow entirely, and emphasises that administering justice isn’t exactly one of the corporation’s strong points. Although a visit to Dow’s website informs us of their ethos of ‘working together to make every day Earth day’ and takes us through eco friendly initiatives emphasizing their sensitivity, Dow is still the corporation that provided the Napalm with which the US military burned Vietnamese farmers alive; that helped make the bombs that were unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; that made the gas with which Saddam massacred Kurdish villagers; that advertises and sells dangerous chemicals in the developing world that are banned in the West, and that has in the past indulged in what can only be described as dangerous human experimentation. During the Vietnam era, a US army spokesman once said of Dow ‘we sure are pleased with those backroom boys at Dow. The original product wasn’t so hot — if the gooks were quick they could scrape it off. So the boys started adding polystyrene — now it sticks like shit to a blanket. But if the gooks jumped under water it stopped burning, so they started adding white phosphorous to make it burn better. It’ll burn under water now. And just one drop is enough; it’ll keep burning right down to the bone so they die anyway from phosphorous poisoning’. More information can be found here.

The effects of the BP oil spill will remain with us for years to come and Obama’s anger is understandable as is the media’s onslaught on figures such as James Hayward. This however makes the deafening silence of the US government and media on the issue of Bhopal all the more shameful, and only adds to the criticism that Western lives are considered more precious.

*Shanu and Adil source site images: http://galleries.bhopal.org/main.php?g2_itemId=30

12 thoughts on “The Bhopal Disaster: an ongoing tragedy”

  1. I attempted to string together information from various articles, websites and book snippets chronologically to provide a rough overview of the disaster and current problems without making it too long.

    If anyone wants to read further in to it, there are some great pieces on campaign websites and in the Independent and Guardian, including the beautifully written work of Indira Sinha which helped me a lot (mentioned twice in the piece).

    Books on the issue include Amnesty’s illustrated ‘Clouds of Injustice’, ‘The Bhopal Reader’ by Satinath Sarangi and Lapierres ‘Five Past Midnight’.

    1. Hi,
      Its really brilliantly researched, I just want your help in this regards.
      I want to know of any suicide attempts by victims of Bhopal tragedy.If there are any can you provide me the approximate figure?

      if you know this please provide me the information.

      Sameer

  2. A brilliant article – well written, well researched and eye opening. The prevalent double standards of our Western governments [aided by the compliance of the victim’s governments] is no new story. But that renders these cases no less utterly shocking. May those UC criminals be brought to the justice the victims deserve to see administered.

  3. Very insightful article into a topic I was until now not very well informed of.

    Beautifully written, very moving and well researched.

    Keep it up.

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