December 1984

When I arrived in Bhopal soon after the disaster, I was rather unprepared. Rushing to the city from the small town four hours away where I worked in an NGO, I had very little information (the news on the government-run radio station had drastically downplayed the tragedy), almost no local contacts and only a hundred-odd rupees in my pocket. I had along a few changes of clothes, because I didn't think I'd be staying in the city for much more than a week, helping out with emergency relief.

The previous day, in the early hours of 3 December 1984, 40 tonnes of toxic methyl isocynate (MIC) and other lethal gases were accidentally released from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal that manufactured the pesticide Sevin. Later investigation pointed to water having entered and raising the temperature inside the storage tanks, thus leading to the deadly gas bursting from tanks that were not designed to manage under such pressure. The magnitude of the disaster was not fully known at the time; indeed, some of the impact is still coming to light 25 years later.

The day after the gas leak, the train to Bhopal was nearly empty, and the few on it seemed to have no knowledge of what had really happened at their destination. Yet as soon as I walked out of the railway station, I could see thousands of people in utter pain – their eyes swollen, tears streaming down their cheeks, huddled together with family and friends. I saw some attempting to walk with unsteady steps, before falling down – whether unconscious or dead, I didn't try to figure out. The railway station was just 1.5 kilometres from the Union Carbide plant, all of which was surrounded by densely populated communities that were badly affected by the leak.

The enormity of the pain all around, and my helplessness to offer any kind of assistance, was numbing. I just stood at the station exit and stared. My head and hands finally began to work again when I saw hundreds of people helping the victims. Young and old, mostly men, from various social and religious organisations and many more unaffiliated, were busy caring for the survivors. A bus stop just outside the railway station had become a medical relief camp, where survivors could get milk, fruit, water and words of comfort.

Medical supplies were limited to eye drops and antacids to deal with the burning sensation in the eyes and stomach, and tablets for breathlessness. Knowing that these were of little help, however, most of the volunteers in the area were focused on carrying survivors to passing vehicles, to be taken to the nearby Hamidia Hospital. I joined them for a while, and then decided to continue into one of the neighbourhoods near the station. There, I found the situation to be much worse. Open a door at random, and you were apt to see an entire family sprawled on the floor – some unconscious, some groaning, only a few able to talk. I went back to the main street and soon had more than 50 volunteers join me in carrying people from their homes, lifting them into passing vehicles. Not one of the drivers of these cars, trucks or autorickshaws refused to take the victims to the hospital; there was always room for another survivor.

The evening sky on my first day in Bhopal was lit up by the mass cremation pyres that I was told had been burning non-stop since the previous day. I met a man whose hands were covered with blisters. He lived next to a Muslim graveyard. Not knowing what else to do, he didn't stop digging mass graves for three days and three nights, unmindful of what the work was doing to his unpractised hands. I must have been in a similar state of mind. It was only several days later that I began to make some sense amidst the chaos and uncertainty: Is the water safe to drink? Is the food okay to eat? Many mothers died, many aborted as they ran, but what of the unborn babies who had no place to escape to from the poison clouds, were they okay? And I found things to do amidst the millions that needed to be urgently done.

No faith
Through chance encounters and word-of-mouth I met with local students, activists and social and political workers, as well as volunteers like myself who had come to Bhopal from elsewhere. Overnight, an organisation committed to the people's struggle for rehabilitation and justice was formed. Three individuals – an activist scientist, a lawyer and the chief functionary of a left political party – were chosen to lead the new group, which almost automatically began to attract victims into its fold.

Several other newly formed organisations were active in distributing relief material, carrying out preliminary medical research and running emergency clinics. Despite this good and crucial work, however, internecine conflicts were already becoming palpable, as ideological differences and personality clashes between the leaders prevented a coordinated response. Our organisation focused on mobilising survivors to demand their rights to health care and rehabilitation, collecting, generating and disseminating medical information, and garnering national and international support.

Soon after, we heard that a German toxicologist had arrived in Bhopal with 10,000 ampoules of sodium thiosulphate, which when administered intravenously assisted in the excretion of toxins ingested during the gas leak and thus provided relief. Yet while the ampoules were quickly distributed among government officials and the people they knew, the director of health services, apparently apprehensive of possible side effects, had passed an edict against administering it to common survivors. Yet our own research, with much help from scientist friends, showed that there were no side effects, and that sodium thiosulphate could indeed be effective in removing poisons circulating in the bloodstream – thus saving lives of thousands, especially unborn babies.

But there was no room for scientific debate in the heated environment, or in the face of vested interests. Union Carbide did not want the sodium thiosulphate to be administered and the after-effects monitored, because that would establish that the gases had injured not just the eyes and lungs (as the corporation wanted people to believe) but almost all the organs, by getting into the bloodstream. Those of us who managed to administer sodium thiosulphate through clinics we set up were arrested. In those first years, medical issues in Bhopal were deeply political.

Meanwhile, the dumping of dead bodies by the local authorities, in their effort to downplay the effects of the disaster, quickly became common knowledge. The combination of factors – inadequate safety systems, poor maintenance of the plant, as well as faulty design and practices – all pointed to criminal negligence on the part of Union Carbide and its management. But the release on bail of Warren Anderson, then the chairman of Union Carbide, who visited Bhopal four days after the disaster, followed by his being escorted out of Bhopal under tight security the same day, was confirmation that the government was colluding with the corporation.

We were also unsuccessful in stopping Operation Faith, the state government's plan, less than two weeks after the disaster, to allow Union Carbide to manufacture pesticides from the chemicals left behind in the leaking tank. Our attempts along these lines included highlighting the testimony of scientists detailing how methyl isocynate, the raw material used to manufacture the pesticide, could be neutralised safely with caustic soda. However, we were just a few people, and government officials had more faith in Union Carbide's science. So we helplessly watched thousands and thousands of people leave their homes, fleeing again from the city before the factory was restarted. A number of survivor activists we had befriended stayed behind with us to guard their neighbourhood from thieves, including policemen, who had begun to steal things from abandoned homes. Sitting around log fires through the night, armed with wet rags for possible emergency use, we shared stories and ruminated in clichés about life, death and the meaning of it all.

Operation Faith was started with much fanfare. As pesticide production resumed in the factory, a government helicopter sprayed water from the sky, jute screens were placed above the factory walls and water tankers sprayed water along major streets. Survivors commented that the jute screens would not even stop bidi smoke, let alone any leaking gases, and wondered whether the gases would follow the wet roads. Another drama was also on display at that time. On the road leading to the factory, workers from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and other Hindu fundamentalist organisations marched alongside a truck in which a havan (the burning of wood, incense and ghee) was being performed, claiming that it would purify the poisoned air. We successfully stopped this procession before it could reach anywhere near the factory.

Ironically, the same government that announced Operation Faith by stating there was no cause for panic simultaneously mobilised buses from throughout the state to carry people away. Meanwhile, the government move that had dispersed the people who were beginning to organise was not entirely successful. Our first mass mobilisations began in the relief camps set up in another part of the city for those driven out of their homes. The camps were places where people from different neighbourhoods came together and shared their suffering and anger towards both Union Carbide and the uncaring government of Madhya Pradesh. Here, people talked about the 'big picture', the plunder and pillage for profit and the government's collusion with corporations. They also discussed the many ways that the common people could change this, ranging from exposure of their crimes to linking up with other victimised communities to fight legal and extra-legal battles.

Basti education
It was interesting to see how the disaster and its aftermath quickly became a crash course in politics related to corporations and governments, confirming and elaborating long-held wisdoms and convictions. The role of governments and their attitude towards common citizens, self-serving politicians, factory management that did not care about workers and other people's lives, the poor being forced to fight for their rights – such issues were suddenly being discussed on every street corner of Bhopal. As such, when supplies to the camps were suddenly cut off and the camps were wound up within a week of the disaster, we marched with several hundred survivors demanding that Governor K M Chandy request urgent help from the central government. Instead of additional help, however, there came orders to close down the relief camps because, ostensibly, Operation Faith was over and the government thought that people should now go back to their own homes.

As the first few weeks went by, there remained little doubt that, left to its own devices, the Madhya Pradesh government would continue to neglect survivors, and also that it would take far more than a few hundred people marching on the Bhopal seat of power to have it respond. Meanwhile, Union Carbide was in full swing with its public-relations campaign. Senior corporate officials were busy telling the world's media that the leaked gases were similar to a potent tear gas, and thus unlikely to cause lasting damage. Medical professionals were flown in to Bhopal by the corporation – not to help with the treatment of those exposed, but rather to endorse the corporate view in press conferences. It was not just the magnitude and complexity of the unfolding disaster that was overwhelming; dealing with Union Carbide's deceit and denial was equally challenging.

Then there were the American lawyers who began to descend on Bhopal. Through local agents, they began getting survivors to sign retainer forms – forms that many could hardly see through swollen eyes, let alone read the English-language fine print that promised up to 40 percent of any eventual compensation money to individual lawyers, as fees. As competition grew among these lawyers, they began doling out blankets and then cash to entice their new clients, all promising millions of dollars in eventual compensation.

With so much going on, and so much to be vigilant about, there was little time to ponder my own future plans. Questions as to whether, how and how long to stay on in Bhopal never entered my mind. Thanks to donations from local, national and international supporters, the volunteers had places to sleep and adequate meals; but we spent most of our time in the bastis, in the communities of survivors we had by then befriended. Perhaps this sounds odd, but amidst all the sadness these evenings were quite enjoyable, with people occasionally singing songs, playing music and sharing stories full of rare humour.

Kaarbaaid condemnation
During the third week in Bhopal, we began preparations for a march to Chief Minister Arjun Singh's house. We decided to have it on the 3 January 1985, a month after the disaster, which we would observe as Dhikaar Divas (Condemnation Day). This would be an opportunity to publicly challenge the state government's criminal neglect of the survivors, and to demand that it make arrangements for immediate health care and relief for survivors suffering from eye problems, respiratory difficulties, immune and neurological disorders, cardiac problems, lung injury and female reproductive difficulties. As we moved from house to house, from one neighbourhood to the next, we found that the local people did not need much convincing – it was only desperate health problems that would stop most of them from joining the rally.

The march began with a few hundred people near the now-closed Union Carbide factory. As we proceeded, more and more groups of people holding hand-scrawled banners and chanting slogans joined the march. By the time we had covered half the distance (four km) in about two hours, the march had swelled to over 10,000 people. Our procession was far from orderly – people were everywhere and traffic stood still. There were so many slogans being chanted by so many groups that it wasn't possible to hear any one in particular; but what was clear was that these cries came from deep-seated anger and despair. People kept joining in waves, such that by the time we walked up the hill to the chief minister's palatial, heavily guarded house, there were over 15,000 survivors in attendance – far too many for the police to handle.

Once we arrived, we sought a meeting with the chief minister, which was not granted. So, after consulting the many community leaders who had been active in organising the march, we decided to sit on a dharna outside the chief minister's residence until he agreed to meet us. People determined enough to face any eventuality cheered the decision, and thousands of voices asserted that we would not move until the chief minister agreed to our demands.

Thus began one of my most memorable weeks in Bhopal. Among the rocks and bushes on the hillside outside of the chief minister's residence, people found places to sit in small groups. Soon, some began to look for wood and to light small fires, and teams were sent to bring food. In the bastis, women breathless and choking more than usual with the fumes from wood stoves were making chapattis, not just for their own families but for strangers as well. Families with so little to give were caring for orphaned children who had joined the dharna. Truck drivers were helping to transport food, firewood and groups of people from the shanties – slipping away from their delivery runs, unbeknownst to the vehicle owners. Children found new friends to play with, and together they would chant the slogans they had begun to learn: "Dolaar kee chaal ne, zahar gholaa Bhopaal mein" (Greed for dollars spews poison over Bhopal) and "Kaarbaaid ke khunee panje tod do marod do" (Carbide has blood on its hands. Break them! Destroy them!). A few volunteer doctors were tending to the sick, and there was always a team ready to carry people to the hospital.

Before nightfall, electricians from among the marchers had rigged up connections to the streetlights, which would power loudspeakers used for announcements regarding logistics and updates on the ongoing negotiations with the chief minister and bureaucrats working closely with him. Soon, the loudspeakers also became central for people speaking out. Breathless poets recited poems of dignity and courage; women who had rarely left their thresholds or showed their faces to strangers articulated their anger against a foreign company and a complicit state government.

Indeed, the entire area around the chief minister's house was transformed, and I was happy to find the time to absorb this magic. It became a place of bustling human activity, intense communication and, most of all, a powerful assertion of the collective spirit of survival and cooperation. By the third day of our dharna, the state government began to give way. Arjun Singh initially agreed to a meeting with a delegation of the leaders, but this proved unacceptable to the mass, who insisted that he speak to all of them. Finally he relented and appeared before the survivors, several thousand of whom were invited into his residence. Of course, he did not agree to all of their demands, but survivors were more confident than before that the government could be made to listen to them. After the week-long siege, we had to fight other battles.

Contamination and community
Thus began my long involvement with the survivors of the Bhopal gas leak. In early-1986, I left the Zahreeli Gas Kand Sangharsh Morcha (Poisonous Gas Disaster Struggle Committee) and founded the Bhopal Group for Information and Action. Given the intensely political nature of health issues, it was some time before we could set up the Sambhavna Trust, but this was finally done in 1995 with individual donations, tasked with providing treatment to survivors and also conducting medical research.

But today the issues still remain; the tragedy is still being played out. Besides respiratory problems, organ failure and major disaster-related injuries, the next and future generations are bearing the brunt of genetic malformations. On a day-to-day basis, contaminated water and toxins are being leached into the soil from the abandoned factory, and thus are a continuing nightmare for survivors. As such, there is no easing off from campaigning for the clean-up of the factory, where sacks of dangerous chemicals continue to be stacked. Yet while the government of Madhya Pradesh and Dow Chemical squabble over who is responsible, the groundwater continues to be poisoned.

There are larger issues in play here, as well. Along with raising issues of the gas leak and specific demands against Dow Chemicals and the Indian government, we have campaigned for corporate accountability, punishing corporate crime, public access to information on industrial activity, inherently unsafe technologies and products, and regulation of corporate activities. I can't remember exactly when it was, but some time in that week of dharna I decided to be part of this community of suffering, sharing and hope. Not once in the last 25 years have I ever regretted that decision.

~ Sathyu Sarangi is a metallurgical engineer who founded the Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA), and is founder trustee of the Sambhavna Trust.

In those apocalyptic moments no one knew what was happening. People simply started dying in the most hideous ways. Some vomited uncontrollably, went into convulsions and fell dead. Others choked to death, drowning in their own body fluids. Many died in the stampedes through narrow gullies where street lamps burned a dim brown through clouds of gas. The force of the human torrent wrenched children's hands from their parents' grasp. Families were whirled apart. The poison cloud was so dense and searing that people were reduced to near blindness. As they gasped for breath its effects grew ever more suffocating. The gases burned the tissues of their eyes and lungs and attacked their nervous systems. People lost control of their bodies. Urine and faeces ran down their legs. Women lost their unborn children as they ran, their wombs spontaneously opening in bloody abortion. 
– From the 'Bhopal Medical Appeal', 1994
In the early hours of 2-3 December 1984, the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal accidentally spewed forth tonnes of toxic methyl-isocyanate (MIC) gas. In what has been described as the 'Hiroshima of the chemical industry', thousands died and hundreds of thousands were injured. The after-effects continue to date, with future generations bearing the burden of genetic malformations and contaminated groundwater. The paltry compensation, and denial of accountability by Dow Chemical (the corporation that now owns UCC), represents one of the greatest travesties of justice. Below is a brief re-cap of the accident and its deadly aftermath.
1969: The Union Carbide India, Limited (UCIL) factory is established in Bhopal; 50.9 percent owned by Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) and the rest by various Indian investors, including public-sector financial institutions. It produces the pesticide carbaryl (brand-name: Sevin).
1979: A methyl-isocyanate production plant is added to the site.
2-3 Dec 1984: Twenty-seven tonnes of methyl isocyanate are accidentally released at midnight. The six safety systems designed to contain such a leak are all non-operational, thus allowing the gas to spread throughout the city of Bhopal. The MIC tank alarms have not worked for the previous four years.
Half a million people are exposed to the gas. Between 8000 and10,000 people die within the first few days, and 20,000 die over the following 25 years as a result of their exposure. Today, more than 120,000 people still suffer from ailments caused by the accident and the subsequent pollution at the plant site. The causes of deaths are choking, circulatory collapse, lung collapse, cerebral oedema, kidney and liver damage. The stillbirth rate thereafter increases by up to 300 percent, and neonatal mortality rate by 200 percent.
16 Dec 1984: Tanks 611 and 619 at the plant are emptied of the remaining MIC as part of Operation Faith, leading to a mass exodus from Bhopal.
1985: The government of India passes the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, enabling the government to represent all victims in or outside India.
1989: A settlement is reached under which UCC agrees to pay USD 470 million (the insurance sum, plus interest) in a full and final settlement of its civil and criminal liabilities – an agreement for which the survivors had not been consulted. The compensation amounts to about USD 500 per affected person – barely five years worth of medical bills. In 1991, the Supreme Court is to uphold the settlement and dismiss activist petitions.
1991: A local court in Bhopal charges Warren Anderson, Union Carbide's CEO at the time of the disaster, with manslaughter. If tried in India and convicted, he faces a maximum of ten years in prison. However Anderson, who has been declared a fugitive, has never stood trial before an Indian court.
1993: The US Supreme Court dismisses an appeal of the decision of the lower federal courts, thus closing the doors for victims of the Bhopal disaster from seeking damages in a US court.
1998: The Supreme Court of India directs UCC, which had wanted to sell its shares in UCIL, to finance a 500-bed hospital for the medical care of the survivors. Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre is subsequently inaugurated the same year, obliged to give free care to survivors for eight years.
1999: Greenpeace reports that soil and water in and around the plant are contaminated by organochlorines and heavy metals. A February 2002 study subsequently finds mercury, lead and organochlorines in the breast milk of women living near the plant. The children of gas-affected women are subject to a frightening array of debilitating illnesses, including retardation, gruesome birth defects and reproductive disorders.
1999: A civil case against UCC is filed in US court, seeking a comprehensive clean-up of the contaminated site and the properties around the factory, as well as compensation and medical monitoring for those poisoned by Union Carbide's chemical waste.
2001: Dow Chemical purchases 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 the composition of the gas leak – information that doctors could use to properly treat the victims. Dow sets aside USD 2.2 billion to pay off former Union Carbide asbestos workers in Texas, but has consistently maintained that it is not liable for the Bhopal accident.
2004: The Supreme Court of India orders the Indian government to release any remaining settlement funds to victims. The fund is believed to amount to USD 500 million after earning interest "from money remaining after all claims had been paid".
2004: On the 20th anniversary of the disaster, a man claiming to be a Dow representative is interviewed on the BBC. Immediately after he states that the company has agreed to clean up the site and compensate those harmed in the incident, Dow's share price falls 4.2 percent in 23 minutes – a loss of USD 2 billion in market value. (The 'representative' is actually a member of the activist prankster group, The Yes Men.)
Current concerns: About 50,000 Bhopalis cannot work due to their injuries. About 200,000 children were exposed to the gases, and medical relief remains a major concern: for people born since the disaster who suffer from gas- and water-poisoning, for adequate compensation for past medical bills and loss of livelihood, and for clean-up of the factory, which continues to poison nearby land and drinking-water supplies.
– Editors
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Himal Southasian