- Dr. Nakka Sai Bhaskar Reddy

On the night of December 2nd -3rd, 1984, 40 tons of methyl isocyanate, hydrogen cyanide, mono-methyl amine and other lethal gases began spewing from Union Carbide Corporation’s pesticide factory in Bhopal, India. Gases escaped from the Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, invaded nearby communities and brought an agonizing, choking death to 8000 people. Nobody outside the factory was warned because the safety siren was turned off. Not until the gas was upon them in their beds, searing their eyes, filling their mouths and lungs, did the communities of Bhopal know of their danger. Thousands collapsed on the roads, their lungs burning as if rubbed raw with chilies. Some choked on their own vomit. Others were trampled by cows, run over by trucks. People lost control of their bodies and ran with urine and faeces flowing down their legs. When dawn broke over the city, thousands of bodies lay in heaps in the streets.

Medical consequences

Gas circulated through the blood streams of victims, carrying toxins and causing damage to the eyes, lungs, kidneys, liver, intestines, muscles, brain and reproductive and immune systems.

Studies by the ICMR showed that the no. of people with exposure related symptoms actually increased between 1987 and 1991.

Some 43% of the women from the severely affected communities who were pregnant at the time of the disaster aborted. Study of growth and development of children whose mothers were exposed to the gases during pregnancy revealed that the majority of children had delayed gross motor and language sector development. Studies have also presented evidence of chromosomal damage. A survey of psychiatric morbidity found that nearly 40% of those exposed suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.

Half a million others were exposed of which 120,000 to 150,000 continue to be chronically ill today and need urgent medical attention. With an estimated 10-15 people continuing to die each month the number of deaths to date is put at close to 20,000. At the time Union Carbide maintained that the gas formed from Methyl Iso Cyanate, was not toxic and exposure brought only temporary discomfort.

Livelihoods

Over 70% of the exposed population were people earning subsistence wages. An estimated 50,000 are in need of alternative jobs because they can no longer do the physically demanding work that they did before. Less than 100 people affected by the gas have found regular employment under govt. economic rehabilitation schemes. Unable to carry on with physically demanding jobs, families have become economically devastated.

Peanuts compensation

As the 20th anniversary of the tragedy approaches, survivors are gaining ground in their demand for financial and environmental compensation.

In l985 the Indian Government sued Union Carbide for 3.3 billion dollars and in l989 settled for a mere 470 million. This money, later deposited with RBI, has now swelled up to Rs 1,503 crore. In a major relief, the Supreme Court asked the government to distribute Rs 1,503 crore among the victims of Bhopal gas tragedy which claimed 15,000 lives and injured five lakh people about 20 years ago. Although Union Carbide claimed this was “a lot of money for India,” it actually amounts to less per victim than the Indian railroad pays its employees for loss of life or injury. For Union Carbide, the settlement cost 43 cents per share. In the community right opposite the factory, 91% of settlement survivors received Rs 25,000 (US $552) as compensation. Stockholders were delighted at the settlement and share value surged, but many Indian families had to sell all their resources and go into debt to cover medical costs for lifelong illnesses.

Union Carbide’s actions violated international human rights law, environmental law, and international criminal law, and the plaintiffs sought to hold the corporation accountable for these violations.

How could it happen?

The immediate causes of the disaster are related to a cost-cutting drive initiated by Union Carbide Corporation. The moves directed at enhancing profits included reducing the number of personnel; lowering minimal training for operatives from 6 months to 15 days; use of low quality construction material and day labour; cutting down on vital safety measures and the adoption of hazardous operating procedures.

More than 15 years later UC have not yet explained why the factory was of flawed design, subject to reckless cost-cutting, stored highly unsafe quantities of lethal chemicals and operated devoid of any adequate safety systems or emergency procedures.

20 YEARS AFTER AND STILL ALIVE

Nearly 20 years after an accident at a Union Carbide chemical plant killed thousands here, there are signs that a second tragedy is in the making. New environmental studies indicate that tons of toxic material dumped at the old plant has now seeped into the groundwater, affecting a new generation of Bhopal citizens.

But there are still thousands of tons of toxic waste on the abandoned and dilapidated site, lying in piles exposed to the weather, the BBC claimed.

The BBC team found pools of mercury lying on the ground, skips full of poisonous material and in some sheds, chemical waste in bags that was still highly dangerous.

The BBC reporter said, “In one building on the site, the atmosphere was so poisonous I could barely breathe.”

When it rains – especially in the monsoon season – rainwater washes these chemicals into puddles, streams and eventually into the ground water, the reporter said.

“Unsurprisingly the wells have become contaminated. But people drink from them all the same. Those who do, complain of a pattern of symptoms, including pains in the stomach, headaches, anaemia, and gynaecological problems,” the report said.

Although they know the water is unclean, they say they have no other source to drink from.

In 2001, Michigan-based chemical corporation Dow Chemical purchased Union Carbide, thereby acquiring its assets and liabilities. However Dow Chemical has steadfastly refused to clean up the site, provide safe drinking water, compensate the victims, or disclose information about the health effects of the leaked gases, which doctors could use to properly treat the victims.

Today the people of Bhopal are not only suffering from the initial disaster, but also from the years of pollution that Union Carbide left behind. Although the Government lease stipulated that the land be returned in its original condition, the corporation did nothing to clean up the site.

The Indian government – long criticized for its lax regulation of Union Carbide and reluctance to pursue legal claims – now says it’s ready to hold parent company Dow Chemical liable for the ground contamination.

In the meantime, government inaction on water contamination may be affecting untold thousands who were seemingly left untouched by the poisonous gas accident of Dec. 3, 1984.

Contamination levels in soil and water samples at the plant were more than 10 times higher than in surrounding areas, indicating that the plant was the source of the contamination. Mercury and lead contamination have even found their way into samples of breast milk.

There is one more cruel twist. Back in 1984, the wind direction carried the methyl isocyanate gas toward the south. But now, the contaminated groundwater is heading north, carrying the poisons to a completely new population.

“Our state pollution control board in December filed a report that confirms that there is contamination of the groundwater, and we will give this to the Supreme Court to settle,” says Babu Lal Gaur, state minister for rehabilitation of the Bhopal gas victims, in an interview with the Monitor

Although nearly 20 years have passed, the gas-affected people of Bhopal continue to wage one of the longest running campaigns against a multinational corporation UCIL.

Bhopal is widely considered as the “Hiroshima of the chemical industry.” Despite the horror of “that night” and the chemical terror that its survivors have endured, the people of Bhopal continue their struggle for justice, for corporate accountability, and for their basic human right to an environment free of chemical poisons. Their struggle is an important one for us all, because without accountability corporate behavior will never change, and because until corporations like Dow-Carbide are held accountable, all of us, throughout the world, are living in the next Bhopal.

In 1987, a Bhopal District Court charged Union Carbide officials, including the then CEO Warren Anderson, with culpable homicide, grievous assault and other serious offences. In 1992, a warrant was issued for Anderson’s arrest. All efforts to extradite Warren Anderson have proved futile. He was last sighted by a British newspaper on Long Islands, living a peaceful life and playing golf.

Let there not be any more such disasters in any part of the world and let there be life and peace on earth.

References:

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Photos: Pablo Bartholomew – Photographer / Photojournalist