Bhopal disaster has no parallel in human history

Feature story - December 3, 2002
It all began 18 years ago during the night of 2 December 1984 when 40 tonnes of lethal gases leaked from Union Carbide Corporation's pesticide factory in Bhopal, India. People just did not know what had hit them. There was no warning. Before anyone could realize the full impact of the disaster an area of about 40 square kilometres, with a resident population of over half a million, was engulfed in dense clouds of poison.

Burial of an unknown child. This unknown child has become the icon of the world's worst industrial disaster, caused by the US multinational chemical company, Union Carbide.

People woke up coughing, gasping for breath, their eyes burning. Many fell dead as they ran. Others succumbed at the hospitals where doctors were overwhelmed by the numbers and lacked information on the nature of the poisoning. By the third day of the disaster, an estimated 8,000 people had died from direct exposure to the gases and a further 500,000 were injured. Today, the number of deaths stands at 20,000.

When I look back at Bhopal, the images that come to mind are of sick people dying by the minute. Bodies piled-up over one another and loaded in pick-up vans to be taken to the cremation and burial grounds. Rows of mass graves. Funeral pyres burning against a backdrop of the setting sun. The carcasses of animals littering deserted streets. Unlocked houses waiting for their residents to return. Ordinary people too stunned to explain their pain. There was an atmosphere of fear overloaded by the stench of death. These are the lingering images of the first few days.

Chaos and confusion was part of the disaster from the beginning. Swaraj Puri was the district superintendent of police of Bhopal at the time. "I was not present when the tragedy of Indian partition took place in 1947. But I have heard the stories about people simply running away from their homes in panic to save their lives. The scene I saw in Bhopal rivaled that scenario of panic and chaos."

"The air was thick with the gas. I reached the plant, in spite of the fact that almost everyone was running in the reverse direction. When I reached the factory, I inquired what was the stuff that was leaking out and what was the antidote. This was around twelve at night. But they did not tell me anything. It was around three in the morning before someone from the factory came to tell me at the police station that the substance that had leaked out was methyl isocyanate (MIC). I wrote these words on a torn sheet from the daily case diary - roznamcha - and I still preserve that piece of paper as a souvenir."

The crisis that burst onto Bhopal that night had begun developing in the afternoon. During a routine maintenance operation an error by maintenance workers led to a sudden and catastrophic inflow of water into the storage tank that held the MIC, an unstable and extremely dangerous compound.

But the very storage of such large quantities of MIC is questionable. "MIC is an 'intermediate chemical', and everyone knows that its storage is quite a risky proposition. So no one really manufactures large quantities of this stuff and stores it for a long time," says Shakeel Quereshi, who was in charge of the shift that night and is the one accused in the on-going criminal case in Indian courts. Says Quereshi, "The company was almost over-confident in the handling of this explosive stuff and never really bothered about these difficulties."

In fact, the company was having problems marketing the pesticide and had tried to cut costs by reducing safety measures. During the routine maintenance that sparked the disaster, vital safety systems at the pesticide plant were either malfunctioning or turned off.

Despite taking more than three hours to inform police of the nature of the problem the factory management had enough time to shift all its workers to safety. "One reason why nobody from the factory died was because they were all told to run in the opposite direction away from the city, and also to keep their eyes wet with cloth dipped in water," says Quereshi. But the company did nothing to warn the residents of the impending disaster. As deadly substances including Methyl isocyanate, hydrogen cyanide and other toxic gases escaped from a tank, the people of Bhopal were not given the most basic advice - to not panic and stay indoors, and that keeping their eyes moist would offer them some protection.

To add insult to injury, the corporation quickly determined to save its skin by playing down the magnitude and impact of the disaster. Days after the disaster Union Carbide's director of health, safety and environmental affairs, Jackson B. Browning, was still describing the gas as "nothing more than a potent tear gas".

The company continued with the same approach even after it became known that thousands had died in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and many more had been rendered sick for a life time. "Even today, no one knows the right kind of treatment that has to be offered to someone who inhales MIC gas," says Dr Satpathy who works at the Hamida hospital, the only state hospital operating on the night of the disaster. "As the company that has been handling this dangerous stuff for decades, it is the responsibility of Union Carbide to advise the people in general and the medical community in particular about the line of treatment for someone who is exposed to MIC. But we do not have any official information from the company on this subject."

Dr Satpathy has performed more than 20,000 autopsies on victims of the gas leak. "From the autopsies of the people who have died in the aftermath of the gas leak we have discovered at least 27 harmful chemicals which could only have come from the gas inhaled by them. But there is no information about the processes that could have led to the presence of these chemicals."

Information from corporate research including those carried out at the Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, US, in 1963 and 1970 remain 'trade secrets'.

If this was the beginning of a disaster, the years that have followed have been much worse as the tragedy has meant a slow but definite grind to a hastened death for most of the survivors. Their lungs remain impaired. Their capacity to work has diminished. They have received a pittance as compensation.

Since the disaster, the victims have been languishing under its adverse socio-economic impacts, while Union Carbide, and its Indian subsidiary Union Carbide India Ltd have been the least affected by it. The entire liability was settled for $470m - peanuts compared to the $5 billion so far paid in punitive damages by oil giant Exxon for the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989.

Although Exxon fought local claims in the courts - and is still fighting to reduce the amount of punitive damages - the money already paid far exceeds anything offered in the Bhopal case. Not a single person died as a direct result of the Alaska accident, whereas over 20,000 persons have died in the aftermath of Bhopal. To make the comparison worse, Exxon paid $940 for cleaning each oil contaminated sea otter. In Bhopal, human victims damaged for life each received an average compensation of $500, barely enough to cover rudimentary medical expenses for five years.

This is despite the fact that the company started putting aside money after the tragedy in order to pay this bill. Some $250m was set aside in the year of the disaster and $50m was added annually for the next five years. After paying their meager compensation Union Carbide washed its hands of the affair and no longer has any contact with the community. It abandoned its Bhopal plant leaving a cocktail of dangerous chemicals strewn around the site.

While Exxon has several other responsibilities and costs towards the improvement of the environment, Union Carbide has simply walked away. Within a few years, it shed its name by merging with the multinational Dow Chemical. This is now the world's largest chemical combine that continues to benefit from the assets of Union Carbide but refuses to be accountable for its earlier negligence. Sam Smolik, Dow Vice-President for environment, health and safety has been quoted as saying "...in 1984, the terrible tragedy in Bhopal occurred which served as a wake up call to all of us in industry...." But the people of Bhopal have seen nothing of this apparent reform.

Years after the event, Bhopal remains the worst chemical disaster in human history. The initial impact has certainly gone away, but for years I have witnessed the 're-victimization' of more than half a million survivors. They are victims through no fault of their own, but are now treated with contempt. It is as if they are blamed for being the victims of that gas leak. Whether it is the process of getting interim relief, cash compensation from the claims courts or even treatment at the government hospitals, the sensitivity and care needed to handle traumatized victims has been missing all along.

Their pain has been redoubled by the fact that the perpetrators of the disaster have been let off cheaply. They have never been held fully accountable for the civil and criminal offence they committed.

Initially, the tragedy provoked a strong upsurge of popular anger. The people wanted Warren Anderson, the chairman of Union Carbide to be imprisoned for this crime. Anderson did come to Bhopal for a brief period, but was treated as an important visiting dignitary rather than as the head of an operation guilty of a major crime against humanity. He was actually given an airlift from the company's air-conditioned research and development center overlooking the magnificent Bhopal lake. It is common knowledge in Bhopal that this glass-house was often used by the then chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Arjun Singh, for conducting his official business away from the public gaze.

The hard reality is that, in spite of the existence of an extradition treaty with the United States, the Indian law enforcement agencies have not been able to find Anderson, who is now a proclaimed absconder and wanted by Interpol.

The man who was Chairman of the Union Carbide India Limited at the time of the disaster was also treated with honour. In 2002 he was listed for one of the top civilian honours by the Indian government. He chose to turn down the honour but the fact it was offered only fuels the victims' anger and their feeling of helplessness.

Despite Dow's claim to be a corporate "good neighbour", calls from the victims of Bhopal for proper compensation, rehabilitation and clean up of the toxic site have been ignored. Like victims of most tragedies the people of Bhopal hoped that with the passage of time their scars would heal but this has not been the case. Justice remains more elusive than ever for the victims of the Bhopal disaster.

==Anil Sharma

Anil Sharma is a Bhopal-based senior journalist who has covered the tragedy and its aftermath for several news papers in India. The above text is taken from the Greenpeace book of Raghu Rai photographs: Exposure, portrait of a corporate crime.

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