Skulls discarded after research at the Hamidia Hospital in Bhopal. Medical experts believe that the gas inhaled by the people of Bhopal may have affected the brain.
This feature was reserached and written by Lisa McDonald, a
When I was first asked to cover this story I was hesitant. I
wondered why, twenty years later, anyone would be interested in
rehashing an industrial disaster story. The more I researched the
details of the event however, and the plight of its survivors, the
more I realized just how important it still is today.
This 3rd of December, it will have been 20 years since the leak
at the Union Carbide pesticide factory killed so many thousands.
And the death toll continues to rise. In Bhopal, India, there will
be no holiday sentiment this December. People will be marching and
making speeches. They will be gathering in the streets, holding
hands and weeping for the loss of loved ones. They will be angry
and demanding justice. But most of all, people will be remembering.
They will be remembering a night that is impossible to forget.
The night of the apocalypse
was just after midnight, December 3rd, 1984. The night sky was
clear and blessed by stars. Hundreds had gathered for the Sunday
evening mushaira in the Spices Square. This was a traditional night
dedicated to song and poetry long celebrated in Bhopal. The crowd
listened intently as the Urdu poets sang of suffering and joy, of
life and death, and of the soul eternal. Elsewhere, marriage
ceremonies were taking place in all four corners of the city. The
bars and restaurants were filled with music and the sounds of
celebration. It was a night of festivities, a night to rejoice.
In contrast to this, trouble was brewing at the Union Carbide
Corporation's pesticide plant just hundreds of yards away. The air
inside the factory was charged with panic and fear. It had come to
the attention of the under-trained staff that there was a
potentially catastrophic leak in one of the tanks. This tank was
holding up to 42 tons of lethal gases. Within minutes, a tremendous
explosive reaction would cause a deadly hurricane of gases to spill
out over the city of Bhopal. Its population of over half a million
people would be subjected to one of the most horrific events in the
history of industrial disasters. The apocalypse had begun.
deadly gases slipped unnoticed through the open windows and doors
of the city. For the many that were sound asleep in bed, the poison
that they breathed in as they slept ensured that they would never
wake again. The late-night revelers however, had the misfortune to
be conscious when the terror hit. But even by the time they had
caught sight of that enormous poisonous cloud moving towards them,
it was already too late. The busy restaurants and cafes, the
squares and parks - they had all just minutes before been filled
with the sounds of poetry, music and laughter - now they were
suddenly silent. Frighteningly silent. The enemy had infiltrated,
and quickly stifled the cries of its victims. The gases had floated
in like a ghost on the evening breeze, immediately constricting
people's throats and choking their lungs to the point of bursting.
Their bodies contorted and writhed in pain, their pupils were
swollen and burning. What was this evil that had descended upon
them? No one knew. Most died before they could even reach their
homes or hospitals. Those who did manage to make it to a hospital
died there. The dead and dying were everywhere! There were not
enough doctors, and no one from Union Carbide would give any
information on the nature of the toxins concerned, making treatment
impossible anyway. The unspeakable was happening!
By the third day, an estimated 8000 people had died from direct
toxic exposure; another 500,000 people had been injured. Twenty
years later, conservative figures are that at least 20,000 people
have died as a result of this disaster. There is now a third
generation of victims - the children of parents born after the gas
leak - who also suffers from life-threatening abnormalities. They
suffer from acute breathlessness, brain damage, menstrual chaos,
loss of immunity, cancer and tuberculosis. But far from receiving
sympathy or assistance from those responsible, the survivors are
still struggling for even the most basic medical aid, let alone
economic and social support. The legacy of disaster continues.
Who's to blame?
Researching the Bhopal story was a real eye-opener. To be
honest, I knew very little about the tragedy before I started
writing about it. The stories and photographs I was provided with
depicted a horror far beyond anything I had ever imagined. Most
nights, after working on the story, I would sneak into my five-year
old daughter's bedroom and be thankful for how lucky I am. Watching
her sleeping there, safe in her bed, I could not stop the tears
from falling, my heart from breaking. All of those parents who
watched their children take a last tortured breath. All of those
innocent people who continue to suffer. It's inconceivable. How
could this have happened?
To begin with, even the storage of these huge volumes of lethal
gases in such a densely populated area was in contravention of
normal company policy. The plant was erected nonetheless, ignoring
the massive protests of the local community. Although Union
Carbide's signature trademark was a green triangle inscribed with
the words 'safety first', safety precautions were ironically almost
non-existent in the Bhopal plant. Considering the volatility of the
substances involved, the choice of Union Carbide to cut costs in
the safety department was criminal. Especially when you consider
that this multimillion dollar company saved a measly US$50 a day by
Corporate lies and double standards
The safety standards for the Bhopal plant were dangerously lax
in comparison to that of the other Union Carbide factories in
Europe and America. Critical equipment in the factory was in
disrepair. The staff was too small and nowhere near sufficiently
trained in safety procedures. There was not even a disaster
management plan for the surrounding city! This was an accident
waiting to happen! It's appalling to consider how easily this
nightmare could have been avoided.
These discrepancies in safety precautions would never have been
tolerated in the West. Sadly enough, these are double standards
that are not uncommon behavior for multinational corporations. In
order to promote investment from big multinationals into poorer
countries, many international health and labor standards are either
reduced or missing altogether. This grants the major industrial
players leeway to exploit people and environment for profit. Just
like in the Bhopal case, the poorest and most vulnerable are always
This behaviour suggests that human life in the more
underprivileged areas of the world is of less value than human life
elsewhere! Warren Anderson, Union Carbide chairman at the time,
knowingly put a city of half a million innocent people into a
potentially deadly situation for personal profit. This action is a
crime against humanity and environment.
The icing on the corporate crime cake is the manner in which
Union Carbide reacted to the disaster in the moments, days and
years afterwards. It took a company spokesperson almost three hours
after the leak had occurred to make any official comment regarding
the accident. Information was withheld regarding the details of the
nature of the gases, as this was considered to go against company
policy. The Union Carbide health and safety officials even went so
far as to downplay the disaster when they described the gas as
'nothing more than a potent tear gas'. The company continued with
this approach even after it became apparent that thousands had died
from exposure immediately following the disaster, and that tens of
thousands more would be injured for life.
Union Carbide eventually shed its bad name by merging with
another multinational bully, Dow Chemical. Together, they managed
to wash their hands of the tragedy, leaving behind them a wake of
human suffering and a toxic environmental wasteland. Dow Chemical
refuses to be held accountable for Union Carbide's negligence as
the company no longer officially 'exists'. They are now the world's
leading chemical company.
The long and winding road to compensation
The Indian government and Union Carbide agreed on a shameless
compensation of US$470 million. The money remained in India's bank
and was only released this July to the survivors following a
Supreme Court decision. The amount decided upon for compensation
however, was not nearly enough to cover even the basic medical
costs of the survivors over a five-year period. And what of the new
generation of victims? Those whose parents were babies at the time
of the leak. And the continued contamination of the earth and
water? The old Union Carbide plant has yet to be cleaned up. It's
been left as it was on the day of the disaster, a veritable
chemical cocktail. There are an estimated 5000 tons of toxic waste
laying strewn about the site, blowing up into the air and
penetrating into the earth and water supply. Despite all of this,
those responsible remain evasive. In fact, once the meager
compensation had been paid, Union Carbide up and left Bhopal with
its tail between its legs, never to return again.
But the people never gave up. How could they? They had already
lost everything - family, friends, health and happiness. Many
grassroots movements were formed in Bhopal and around the world.
They were demanding justice; they were demanding to be heard.
The will of the people may be strong, but they remain helpless
in the face of the giant multinational who betrayed them. Until the
old Union Carbide site is cleaned up the death toll will continue
to rise - for many generations to come. Mr Jaber, who lost both his
father and brother in the accident, had this to say: "the
compensation to the victims of the World Trade Center and cleanup
of the site was done within a year; we are still waiting for both
even after almost two decades." The injustice is overwhelming.
Rashida Bee lost her family and her health in the leak, she
comments: "this money should have come much, much earlier as people
are wracked with illness from the leak". Until Union Carbide's new
proprietor, Dow Chemical, is held responsible and liable for proper
compensation, and economic and social rehabilitation in Bhopal,
there is no justice meted. Unless Dow Chemical is forced to clean
up the toxic site, which continues to poison the environment, the
number of victims will continue to mount. This story is far from
over. The people of Bhopal cannot, and should not be forgotten.
Hope for the future
The victims of this tragedy, and their international support
groups, continue to strive for justice. They believe that this is
not the final judgment on Bhopal and are determined not to give up.
The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB) has decided
on having "hope" and "rebuilding" as their motto for this 20th
anniversary of the gas disaster. They hope for a safer world - a
world with no more Bhopals! And we should join them in this