35 Years of Bhopal

The leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal happened on the night of 2–3 December 1984. This factory, the consequence of an expanding market during India’s ‘Green Revolution’, was built to produce a pesticide called Sevin, to tackle pests and thereby try to increase harvests.

What happened ‘that night’ in 1984 caused the deaths of thousands of people and the ongoing suffering of thousands more. For survivors affected in Bhopal, ‘that night’ has never ended. In addition, the poisoning of the local water supply has continued for more than thirty-five years, adding to the sickness, the suffering and the sense of injustice.

So, as this shameful thirty-fifth anniversary comes round, here are thirty-five steps through the history of this disaster.

I    High Hopes (and economies with the truth)

1. 1975: taking advantage of the State of Emergency in India, Union Carbide manage to get a license to manufacture the highly toxic, volatile chemical MIC (methyl-isocyanate) within the new city boundaries. The plant is not built to Western standards and huge quantities of MIC, a component of the pesticide, will be stored on its site – something that would not be done in the West.

2. 1977: start of pesticide production in Bhopal.

3. 1981: plant worker dies of phosgene poisoning.

4. 1982: detailed safety audit by US team finds thirty major hazards in factory. Management do nothing. The plant’s doctor resigns after her warnings of the dangers are ignored. Local journalist Rajesh Keswani warns that Bhopal is sitting on a time-bomb. No one listens.

5. 1983: the plant is making a loss, rather than the hoped-for profits. The original well-qualified engineers have left one by one – the plant deteriorates and is grossly understaffed. The chief safety engineer resigns.

Safety systems are all under repair or out of commission – and the gas unstoppable.

II    ‘That night’, 2–3 December 1984

6. US bosses wash their hands of the plant, hoping to cut their losses and sell it. Economies and neglect of the preceding months mean the plant is in a perilous state and no longer operating. Very few staff on site. But those tanks of poisonous MIC are still there . . . During routine cleaning around midnight, impurities including metal particles from corroded pipes are carried through the system by water washing and pressure failures and act as catalyzing agents. Water backs up into storage tanks of MIC causing an exothermic (heat-releasing) reaction. Pressure builds, causing gas to burst out.

7. Gas blows in a fog towards densely populated slums. Mass panic – streets full of people trying to escape. By morning the streets are littered with the dead and dying. Nearby Hamidia hospital is overwhelmed.

8. Local medics are given no information about the nature of the leaks or their likely effects. Carbide’s US doctor first advises treatment with sodium thiosulphate, then retracts the advice. Weeks later medical studies proved its efficacy, but health officials connected to the company continue to thwart its broad administration.

9. CEO of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, flies to Bhopal, and is arrested but unlawfully released – he was charged with offences that were unbailable - following a call from Ronald Reagan to Rajiv Gandhi. He flees back to the USA within twenty-four hours, never to return. He goes into hiding.

10. Evening skies full of cremation fires for days afterwards. Satinath Sarangi, a young engineering student, arrives in Bhopal to help. He has never left, and has devoted his life to assisting in Bhopal.

III    Callousness, lies and compensation – the construction of a legal rabbit warren

11. Soon after the gas leak, American lawyers and ambulance-chasers descend on Bhopal. People with burned eyes who can barely see and can’t read English are persuaded to sign forms signing away 40 percent of any compensation to them in legal fees. False promises abound. Union Carbide goes into full-swing PR, claiming that the leak was probably just tear gas, of limited damage and that victims will recover.

12. The Indian government and Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh also show callous neglect of the suffering. Help comes from the local community, and from Indian and international volunteers and donors.

13. Communities of survivors give each other mutual support – and find themselves on a steep learning curve regarding the politics of government and corporations.

14. The beginning of a long, nightmarish road of legal battles and protests begins. 1989: Indian government settles compensation deal with Union Carbide – there is no consultation with the victims. On settlement, Union Carbide share values soar.

15. The settlement, of $470 million, which works out at between $300 and $500 per person, is utterly inadequate. Some survivors have been defrauded by officials and left destitute.

IV    Women of Bhopal – ‘angrier and wiser’

16. Much of the campaigning in Bhopal has been sustained by women, showing enormous strength and determination for justice. Since the disaster, divisions between Hindus and Muslims have become an irrelevance – what is most important is helping each other.

17. In the summer of 1989, seventy-five gas-affected women, twelve men and thirty children walked 500 miles to Delhi to see the Prime Minister (their story follows these pages). Many women were involved but two of those who led the march were Rashida Bi and Champa Devi Shukla.

18. Children did not count in the calculations for compensation and there was no help for those born with problems from the water poisoning.

19. In 2004, Rashida Bi and Champa Devi Shukla won the International Goldman Environmental Prize for environmental activists. All the prize money, $125,000, was used to found the Chingari Trust, a clinic which especially treats the children affected by the toxins of Bhopal.

20. 2006: a group of women once again walk the 500 miles to Delhi to protest about their poisoned water supply and demand that the owners of the site – since 2001, Dow Chemical – be brought to trial. Also in 2008, women and children take part in protests against the Prime Minister, and some are beaten and imprisoned. The Prime Minister finally meets survivors and promises an ‘empowered commission’ on Bhopal, but the promise was never fulfilled.

V    More callousness, lies, court cases – and the Bhopal Medical Appeal

21. By the 1990s, mired in lawsuits, Union Carbide closes down channels of communication which would assist with medical treatment and understanding of the relevant toxicology. Successive governments in India also ignore pleas for an independent commission to assess long-term effects of poisoning.

22. The labyrinthine legal circus continues while Bhopalis seek more just compensation. A succession of legal hearings takes place in India but no one from Union Carbide attends, repeatedly absconding from justice.

23. 1994: an international commission is formed to assess health problems of Bhopal survivors. Their report:

‘. . . publicly and clearly condemns Union Carbide and reiterates its full liability not only for responsibility for the deadly gas leak, but for the confounding role of its behaviour with respect to timely and effective application of medical measures since the accident.’

24. Hospital care in the city is often too far from many people’s homes and usually out of reach of their pockets.

25. In 1994 an appeal published in Britain on the tenth anniversary of the gas leak on behalf of survivors brings in a flood of concern and money. With that, the Bhopal Medical Appeal is born and eighteen months later the Sambhavna Clinic is founded to give free treatment to survivors. It has developed into a place not just of healing and support but of research and excellence of practice.

VI    Mercury for breakfast – the second poisoning of Bhopal

26. 1977: In the absence of waste treatment facilities, Union Carbide builds evaporation ponds as cheaply as possible. From 1981 cattle start to die close to these ponds containing waste from the plant. Tube-wells have to be abandoned because the water smells and tastes so bad. Union Carbide denies any responsibility.

27. 1984: after the gas disaster the plant is locked down, leaving tons of toxic waste on the site. Poor residents living near the factory wall club together to build hand pumps for their water, but what comes out is oily and stinking and makes people sick.

28. 1989: Union Carbide do secret tests on the soil and water. 100 per cent of fish placed in the water die straight away. Soil and water found to be contaminated with cocktail of toxins. Union Carbide decide, on reflection, to keep this information to themselves and urge local officials to crack down on activists trying to highlight the potential danger to local families.

29. Many children are being born in the area close to the factory with cerebral palsy, deafness, eye problems, withered and malformed limbs, profound intellectual disability, blindness, cleft lips and palates and missing features. A whole host of other conditions are found in children including cancers and thyroid conditions.

30. 1999: Greenpeace test water on the Bhopal site and declare it a ‘global toxic hotspot’. Water pumps in this area of Bhopal are tied shut and water piped in from elsewhere but the supply is irregular and hardly ever sufficient.

VII    Dow Chemical greenwashes the 2012 Olympics – the present day in the legal rabbit warren

31. In 2001 another industry giant, Dow Chemical, merges with Union Carbide. Dow claims Bhopal site not their liability but that of Eveready India – formerly Union Carbide India Ltd. A policy is adopted of ‘don’t mention Union Carbide’. The Bhopal site has never been cleared and ownership passed round like a scalding potato ever since – it is currently in the hands of the state of Madhya Pradesh.

32. Summer 2002: amid continuing litigation, an international hunger strike takes place during the Indian government’s attempt to reduce charges against Warren Anderson, Union Carbide’s CEO in 1984. Dow Chemical continues to describe any kind of help for Bhopal as ‘unkind to shareholders’. Local Bhopalis, helped by Greenpeace, attempt to start clearing the site. They are prevented and beaten up by police.

33. 2010: in a twenty-three-year-old criminal trial, Indian officials of Union Carbide India are found guilty, fined about £1,150, sentenced to two years in jail and immediately released on bail. The accused from the USA do not appear and the judge orders proceedings against them to be continued.

34. In 2012 Dow Chemical invest in an advertising wrap at the London Olympic stadium to promote their environmental credentials. Protestors against this hypocrisy stage a ‘die-in’ for Bhopal at the stadium before the games open. In Bhopal effigies are burned of Sebastian Coe, chair of the Olympic Committee, for sanctioning Dow’s advertising.

35. 2017: Dow Chemical merges with DuPont, another giant of the chemical industry. In April 2019 the joint companies split further into different sections – one effect of this, is a further distancing of themselves from Union Carbide and evasion of their lasting responsibility to the gas- and water-affected people of Bhopal.

Never before except in Hitler’s gas chambers have so many people died at one time by exposure to industrial chemicals.

‘Never before’ wrote the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, in 1990, ‘have so many victimized people struggled for so many years for justice, accountability and the right to a dignified, disease-free life.’

That was written twenty-nine years ago. They are still waiting.

How you can help

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Arrange a film screening

Raise awareness of the injustice that is happening in Bhopal

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Send a letter to Dow Inc.

Get the message to those who could help to make a change