Nightmare in Bhopal

Feature story - 3 December, 2004
This December 3rd marks the 20th anniversary of the world's worst industrial disaster. Twenty years later, the legacy of tragedy continues. This is a story of the struggle of ordinary people asserting their basic human rights in the face of the power and greed of a giant multinational corporation.

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 freelance journalist.

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

It 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.

The 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 doing so.

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 the victims.

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 hope.