My wife, Deepa, was in Bhopal thirty years ago when the industrial disaster hit. She was only eleven years old at the time.
“In the middle of the night, my brother woke up coughing violently,” she wrote in a column some years ago. “We all were confused, since the room was filled with an acrid yellowish-white mist that swirled in through open windows and crept in under the doors into our bedroom.”
“Within a few minutes, my brother started vomiting,” she added. “Our eyes were burning. We splashed water on them, but that didn't help much. We were having difficulty breathing.”
Deepa spent the night in a neighbor’s basement apartment, along with her brother and grandmother, who was taking care of her. (Her parents were out of town.)
“I saw people with immensely swollen eyes, which were dripping constantly,” Deepa remembered. “They told us of their stampede to escape the gas.”
“The next morning, all of us in Bhopal awoke to horror and death,” Deepa recalled. “Bodies and animal carcasses lay on sidewalks, streets and railway platforms, and in huts and houses.”
One of my wife’s friends was also there.
“My house was on a hill, and the direction of the wind was not toward my house, so we didn’t feel anything,” Anil Rajani, Deepa’s classmate, remembers. “In the morning, when I got up I saw people running toward [the town of] Indore, as my house is on Indore road.”
A relative of Rajani’s was one of the victims.
“He was living in old Bhopal, and had inhaled the gas,” Rajani says. “He started having kidney problems, and after some time he died.”
A large number of people fled the city.
“In the morning there was this news that the gas would leak again, and so panic set into the entire city,” Rajani says. “My family decided that all the young ones and my grandparents would leave Bhopal. We rushed out of Bhopal and came back after twenty days.”
The gas leak at the pesticide factory owned by Union Carbide, a U.S. multinational, killed thousands in a single night, of December 2-3, 1984, and has taken the lives of more than 20,000 people over the past three decades in this central Indian city, making it the world’s worst industrial disaster. Hundreds of thousands were affected.
Union Carbide’s lax safety precautions made the disaster almost inevitable. An affidavit by Edward Munoz, former managing director of Union Carbide India, revealed that the company’s decision to store the deadly methyl isocyanate gas in massive tanks was the reason for the catastrophe. Crucial safety systems were switched off. Executives in the United States were responsible for their subsidiary and were informed about much of the cost-cutting.
Union Carbide’s indefensible conduct continued after the disaster. Astonishingly, it refused to reveal the precise makeup of the leak even as thousand lay dead or dying.
“Union Carbide used trade secrecy as a prerogative to withhold information on the exact composition of the leaked gases,” write Indian environmentalists Sunita Narain and Chandra Bhushan. “Though it was known that methyl isocyanate, when it reacts with water at high temperatures, it can release as many as 300 highly toxic chemicals, research was carried out only to check the toxicity of pure methyl isocyanate—that also on animals.”
Union Carbide grudgingly paid out $470 million to the victims, a woefully insufficient amount. The company’s CEO at the time, Warren Anderson, was arrested during a visit to India and charged with manslaughter in the days following the accident. He was released on bail and died a fugitive from justice just a couple of months ago. Anderson spent much of his time in Florida, where Progressive writer Kirk Nielsen tracked him down and wrote about it for The Progressive. The U.S. government wasn’t willing to apprehend or extradite him, and the Indian government, worried about “alienating” foreign investment, didn’t push too hard.
Back in 2001, Dow Chemical purchased Union Carbide, adding one more layer of deniability. Dow claims that Union Carbide did all it could, and that Dow is not responsible because it didn’t own the company at the time of the disaster. But in buying up Union Carbide, Dow Chemical assumed all of Union Carbide’s liabilities, as well as its assets. Indian courts have issued several summonses for Dow, and Dow has ignored all of them.
A new poll conducted by YouGov for Amnesty International shows 82 percent of Indians and almost two-thirds (62 percent) of Americans feel that the company should face justice in Indian courts.
“The Dow Chemical Company is once again thumbing its nose at the tens of thousands of victims and survivors of India’s worst industrial disaster,” said Shailesh Rai, program director of Amnesty International India. “Sadly, this appalling lack of responsibility is what we’ve come to expect after years of Dow’s denials.”
One unsolved issue has been the cleanup of the factory site.
“For fifteen years till the disaster, Union Carbide dumped process wastes, by-products, solvents, sub-standard products, wastes from machinery and polluted water at dump sites inside and outside the plant,” write Narain and Bhushan. “Another 350 tons of waste has been kept in a leaking shed at the site. These wastes are still lying at the site, polluting soil and groundwater.”
The poisoning of Bhopal continues.
“New victims of the Bhopal disaster are born every day, and suffer lifelong from adverse health impacts,” U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights and toxic waste Baskut Tuncak said recently.
Union Carbide’s sins are the subject of a new movie starring Martin Sheen, Kal Penn, and Mischa Barton called Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain.
“If we run business in a developing country, we behave as if we are doing them a favor,” Sheen, who plays Carbide CEO Anderson, recently told The Hindu newspaper. “This sense of cultural superiority has proved detrimental for us many times, including Bhopal.”
“Conglomerates like Shell and Chevron are still calling the shots,” he added. “And the biggest loss in this profit-led policy is moral responsibility. It was shed in Bhopal, and it is still being done.”
Bhopal resident Rajani wants action—now.
“It has been thirty years, and still justice is delayed,” he says.
Not only have the original victims never been compensated, the criminal behavior that killed and maimed then is still going on today.
Image credit: AP