by Jaya Graves
A cloud of poisonous gas drifted out of a factory in the middle of a busy town in India. By the morning of December 3rd 1984, thousands of people were dead. Others were terribly maimed and affected for the rest of their lives.
This town was Bhopal. The gas was caused by the leakage of large amounts of water into a tank that contained 42 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) – a chemical used to make pesticides. MIC is highly toxic when mixed with water. It raised the pressure in the tank to a level it was not designed to withstand and resulted in the poisonous gas 500 times more toxic than cyanide.
Inevitably it caused great panic as people woke up to a burning in their lungs. Poor people died in dreadful ways. Over 4,000 poor people them. (Wikipedia puts the figure at 8,000 deaths with 500,000 exposed to the gas). It was estimated that 120,000 people would need remedial care for the rest of their lives. However, the children born to the Bhopali are born maimed, disabled, ill and diseased so this estimated figure continues to grow.
The initial horror was intense. Here is how one survivor describes it, ‘It felt like somebody had filled our bodies up with red chillies, our eyes tears coming out, noses were watering, we had froth in our mouths. The coughing was so bad that people were writhing in pain.’
Some of you will remember the iconic picture of a child’s face with a hand brushing away the dust from it taken by photographer Raghu Rai. As the sun rose on streets full of dead people, Raghu found himself in a graveyard where a man was burying his young daughter. The father had covered the tiny body but then, unable to bear parting from her, brushed the earth away for one last look.
The wells and stand-pipes used by the Bhopali were badly contaminated by the chemicals but in a country where water is scarce, people have no choice but to use what’s available. Often sick and disabled, the logistics of making a long journey to another area, or even to another well is inconceivable. The site of the closed factory is a toxic hotspot, with concentrations of carcinogenic chemicals and heavy metals. Chemicals continue to seep into the water supplies. But the Bhopali have no choice but to drink, wash and cook with this water every day.
Dominic Lapierre and Javier Moro, authors of the book, ‘Five Past Midnight in Bhopal’, claim that between 16,000 and 30,000 people were killed initially. (Higher than the official numbers). According to the book, (which uses the technique of the non-fiction novel rather than straight reporting or research) the reason the death toll is so variable is because most of the victims were among the very poorest in the country. Whole families were killed, leaving nobody behind to report their deaths.
To experience what survivors had to endure when drinking the polluted water, Lapierre actually drank a glass of it. Here’s what she says of the experience‘ I wanted to reckon the aggressiveness of this pollution by drinking half a glass of the water of one of those wells. My mouth, my throat, my tongue instantly got on fire, while my arms and legs suffered an immediate skin rash. This was the simple manifestation of what men, women and children have to endure daily, some eighteen years after the tragedy.’
Other research says that on the night of the disaster, six safety measures designed to prevent a leak were malfunctioning, shut down or inadequate. The refrigeration unit was turned off to save $40 a day.
Medical staff were unprepared for the thousands of casualties. Doctors and hospitals were not informed of proper treatment methods for MIC gas inhalation. They were told to simply supply cough medicine and eye drops to their patients.
The gases caused immediate visible damage to the trees. In a few days, all the leaves fell off. Animals began to die and 2,000 bloated animal carcasses had to be disposed of. On December 16, two more tanks were emptied of MIC.
Formal statements were issued that air, water, vegetation and foodstuffs were safe within the city. At the same time, people were told that poultry was unaffected, but were warned not to consume fish.
This factory belonged to the Union Carbide Corporation. Warren Anderson was it’s CEO and Chairman at the time On Dec 7th he and two Indian executives were arrested by the Madhya Pradesh Police at Bhopal Airport and taken to Union Carbide house. A case of culpable homicide was filed against them. However, they were released on a bail of $2,100 and flown out to Delhi. Some journalists say this happened after a phone call from the US government. Anderson jumped bail and returned to the States.
The Indian government charged him and several other executives with negligent homicide in 1989, but Anderson has never been extradited from the U.S. to stand trial.
Union Carbide in Court
Litigation has continued unabated since the disaster. Survivors and sufferers have filed injury cases against the Company and Anderson in India as well as in the USA.
1989: In 1989 the Supreme Court of India directed a final settlement of all Bhopal litigation for the amount of $470 million, to be paid by March 31, 1989. Both the Government of India and Union Carbide accepted the court’s direction. The Bhopali do not.
In 1999 Bhopal survivors filed a suit in the U.S. courts against Union Carbide, asking that Union Carbide be held responsible for violations of international human rights law and for the clean up of the environmental contamination in Bhopal. The outcome is still pending.
In 2001 Dow Chemical purchased Union Carbide and took over its assets and liabilities. It has been held liable for Union Carbide sites in the United State and accepted accountability. But it has consistently refused to take any responsibility for the contamination of Bhopal.
On 7 June 2010, seven former employees of the Union Carbide subsidiary, all Indian nationals and several in their ‘70s, were convicted of causing death by negligence. Each was sentenced to two years imprisonment and fined Rs.1 lakh (US$2,124; €1,776).The original charge was manslaughter. All were released on bail shortly after the verdict. The Bhopali dismissed this verdict as, ‘a joke’.
In 2011, an attempt by campaigners to reopen the case aimed at getting stronger penalties for the convicted men was turned down by the Indian Supreme Court. Though disappointed, activists have vowed to fight on.
Recently, it has been alleged that the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre (BMHRC) has allowed drug companies to conduct trials of new drugs on survivors of the disaster without their knowledge, permission or proper monitoring. Hazra Bee an activist and survivor is waiting for an answer to a petition she filed to the government on this issue.
Some lesser known facts
As early as the seventies there were several deaths caused by leakages in the factory.
In 1980 cattle in fields nearby began dying. Suspicions about leakages increased. UCC denied responsibility but paid compensation to the animals’ owners.
After 1984, the factory was shut but UCC failed to remove the stocks of lethal pesticides or to clean up the site.
The 1989 judgment on compensation was made on the basis that peoples’ injuries would not be permanent or generational and that environmental pollution would clear. None of these assumptions has proven to be the case. It is believed that UCC knew this would be the case.
The Bhopal Medical Appeal, has said this, ‘Union Carbide’s US managers were aware of the danger of groundwater pollution from their factory in Bhopal. This is what Rashida Bi the leader of one of the survivors’ organisations says, ‘As early as 1972, they had discussed various proposals to stop it happening – but they ignored all of them. Instead, knowing the dangers, they okayed the dumping thousands of tons of solid and liquid chemical wastes in and outside the factory. They knew it would poison our water and our daily lives and they did it anyway.’
After the initial horror the people of Bhopal have been active in their own survival and campaign for justice. They have struggled to have redress and ‘compensation’. Help from corporate, government or official international body has been minimal but here is a committed group of campaigners and supporters in India and internationally.
In 1989, community activism and the Bhopal media led to a secret investigation by Union Carbide on Bhopal. The company found that soil and water within the site were massively contaminated. Even so they refused to do anything to clean or compensate the people.
It was Bhopali community action that put Union Carbide in the dock in 1999. The outcome of this is still pending.
An International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal has also been established.
In the UK the Bhopal Medical Appeal raises awareness and funds and uses it resources carefully preferring to send most of what it raises to the clinics it supports. A committed team of volunteers supports their work.
Bhopali action and refusal to succumb to corporate power is an inspiration to communities in other parts of the world. For example, two Bhopali activists to support a community in West Virginia when a Bayer plant (that stored MIC) exploded there (see You Tube – A Second Bhopal Disaster).
The tragedy that is Bhopal does not go away. People still struggle with disease and pain with courage and determination.
Children are born sick. Their ailments include cancerous tumours, lung and kidney disease, blindness and physical disfigurements
The environment remains poisonous. ‘Rocks’, called carbaryl (used in the gas that caused the disaster) lie exposed outside the factory. They are highly combustible and can burst into flames. When this happens they release the same toxic gas that leaked in 1984. In recent years there have been two major fires here.
Drops of mercury still lie on the ground and the water is contaminated.
India and America continue a, seemingly, amicable wrangling where no-one is brought to justice and no proper ‘compensation’ is offered.
Dow Chemicals, that took over Union Carbide trades in India under various guises but any proposed increase to their presence creates a huge backlash among he survivors, the media and campaigners.
For the Bhopali there has been neither reconciliation, redress nor justice. And ‘compensation’ in the face of such a calamity seems an absurd notion.
Many questions remain unanswered.
Journalists have asked why Anderson was able to leave India so easily. What information might he have been able to give the Indian police had he remained in their custody? About safety regulations? Double standards? Corporate ‘arrangements’. Double dealing? Bribery? Corruption? These are questions about the lack of accountability by corporate companies and governments; about corporate culpability in different parts of the world; about collusion between governments.
Such questions are important, not only for the Bhopali, but for wherever such factories exist. Safety legislation needs to be vigorous because another Bhopal could already be in the making.
Union Carbide was initially offered a site outside the town for the MIC unit. However they owned a pesticide factory in the middle of town which they insisted on using because it was convenient for the railway station. Why was it built in the middle of a residential area?
Though the population grew there were no evacuation plans for the neighboring communities in case of an emergency. Why?
A difficult question may haunt some of us. Our way of way of life is dependent on toxic material, whether they are chemical, oil, energy or a range of other substances. Is this kind of disaster then inevitable?
It is not for nothing that Bhopal has been called the nuclear disaster of the chemical industry.
Its effects have been as long lasting.
A single outcome of this tragedy that offers hope for future sufferers are the models of care that have developed in the wake of Bhopal. One is the Sambhavana Clinic that provides healing, deep caring and palliative care with minimal resources. Treatment is free and uses traditional Indian (Ayurvedic) medicine as well as Western medicine. Healing gardens based on Ayurvedic principles and a beautiful care centre have been developed. Patients become actively involved in their own treatment and are encouraged to take medicinal plants home. The Chingari Rehabilitation Centre was founded by prize money made to a victim of the leak. They provide rehabilitation and therapy for victims and in particular, the children of survivors. Both organisations focus on healing the spirit as well as the body.
A model of care has emerged that integrates traditional (ancient) systems of medicine with Western medicine; recognises that to heal a wounded person care is needed on every level; that the spiritual is as important as the physical and psychological. Many people believe that such a model would be universally beneficial and is the kind of healing to which the future should aspire. Bhopal has given us this gift. It is not a requiem. Its people are survivors, generous in their grief, formidable in their determination.
Genesis of a new resistance, they are an affirmation and anthem of what is indomitable in the human spirit.
Resources and Information
Five Past Midnight in Bhopal: The Epic Story of the World’s Deadliest Industrial Disaster by Dominic Lapierre and Javier Moro.
Surviving Bhopal: oral testimonies: Suroopa Muckerjee- a book based on the oral testimonies, largely from women, and material collated and kept indigenous sites. It portrays the survivors as active and involved in a struggle for justice.
Bhopal: The inside story – T.R Chouhan
The internet has many sites available. These are some:
The Bhopal Medical Centre (Registered Charity No 1117526)
The Bhopal Information Centre (the Union Carbide view)