A torchlight rally commemorating the Bhopal gas tragedy.
Flickr / Colin Toogood, Bhopal Medical Appeal
A torchlight rally commemorating the Bhopal gas tragedy. Flickr / Colin Toogood, Bhopal Medical Appeal

Bhopal: Three decades of struggle

Survivor-activists of the 1984 Union Carbide industrial disaster continue their fight for justice.
A torchlight rally commemorating the Bhopal gas tragedy.<br /><a title="Bhopal: Three decades of struggle" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/bhopalmedicalappeal/12221359203" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Flickr / Colin Toogood, Bhopal Medical Appeal</a>
A torchlight rally commemorating the Bhopal gas tragedy.
Flickr / Colin Toogood, Bhopal Medical Appeal

On 15 November, Premlata Chaudhary, along with four other women, broke her protest fast at Delhi's Jantar Mantar, after being assured by the Union Minister of Chemicals and Fertilisers that the government will increase compensation for the survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy. The issue of compensation, however, represents just one of the many historical wrongs that Bhopal survivors have had to endure.

Chaudhary was among the thousands in Bhopal whose life was profoundly impacted by the release of methyl isocyanate into the air on the intervening night of 2 and 3 December 1984 from Union Carbide's pesticides factory. She still suffers from its ill-effects thirty years on. Her family members were also badly affected. One of her sons died some years later after suffering from convulsions, and her husband, an engine driver, had to give up work as he suffered from breathlessness. The fate of her mother who was visiting her on that night is unknown as she is still missing.

In another form of protest, 67-year-old Chaudhary, along with other survivor-activists, had chained herself to the gates of the Dow Chemical office in Mumbai on 17 October. Dow Chemical bought 100 percent of the assets of Union Carbide Ltd in 2001, but it denies responsibility for Carbide's liabilities. Chaudhary's health condition was doubly impacted: not only did she inhale the deadly gas, but she had also been drinking poisoned water for many years. Like many of Bhopal's communities, she is a victim of the 'second tragedy' – the contamination of ground water by the leaching of toxic chemical waste that was dumped at the abandoned factory site, which Dow Chemical has refused to clean up.

What they said in the papers was absolutely wrong. What could I have done? I was a government servant. Those who have survived are like the living dead.

Ironically, even as Chaudhary and others were protesting against Dow Chemical in Mumbai, they were unaware that former CEO of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, had died a few weeks earlier in his luxurious US home where he had avoided the public limelight. Anderson, facing criminal charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, was declared an absconder for his refusal to come to the Bhopal sessions court despite several court orders.

The manner in which Anderson died at the age of 92 with blatant disregard for the law – the US refused to extradite him and India showed minimal will to press for it – is reflective of the way justice has been denied to thousands who died in the disaster and the thousands of survivors who continue to struggle. As Chaudhary puts it, "Union Carbide's poisons have killed people in my family in direct and indirect ways. What I find most distressing is the way our own government does everything to help American corporations but does not pay attention to our worsening plight."

On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the world's worst industrial disaster, Chaudhary and other survivor-activists, through their protests and campaigns, will remind India and the world of the active complicity of multinationals, the US government, the Indian government and the state of Madhya Pradesh in the denial of justice.

One of their chief demands is for the Indian government to reconsider the 1989 settlement that it made with Union Carbide without the consent or approval of survivors. This settlement of USD 470 million, they say, is a grossly inadequate figure for those affected, with the compensation amount of USD 500 per person extremely meagre. They are demanding that a pending curative petition filed in the Supreme Court be based on realistic and scientific data that can then determine a more just sum as compensation.

Memory against forgetting
What happened on the night of 2 and 3 December after most of the plant's precautionary measures and safety systems failed to function and when, without warning, poisonous gases were released to swaddle the city? Those who survived and witnessed the nightmare speak of people collapsing and dying in agonising ways. Some vomited uncontrollably, developed violent convulsions and died, drowning perhaps in their own body fluids. Some died in stampedes in the narrow gullies of the crowded settlements as people ran in panic, gasping. The Bhopal Medical Appeal in 1994 speaks of how the 'human torrent' tore apart children from their parents even when they were holding hands.

What is the total figure of those who died so savagely that night and in the days that followed? There can be no definitive answer as entire families and communities perished and countless unnamed victims were hastily buried in mass graves or cremated on huge pyres. Corpses were taken in Indian Army vehicles and dumped in forests or rivers or transported to other places for mass burial. It is possible, however, to make an estimate based on anecdotal evidence and data of hospital records and the funeral shrouds sold in the days following the disaster.

Such evidence tears to shreds Union Carbide's initial claim of 3800 deaths, which is based on the Madhya Pradesh government's estimate. For the various advocacy groups involved, a conservative estimate puts the death toll at 8000 people, but the figure could well be closer to 20,000. This informs the ongoing fight for justice by organisations like the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha, Bhopal Group for Information and Action, Bhopal Gas Peedit Nirashrit Pensionbhogi Sangharsh Morcha and Children Against Dow-Carbide.

These groups refer to the testimony of municipal worker Mohammed Karim who lifted dead bodies on 3 December and for the next few days. Karim, who used to drive a waste disposal truck that was also used to pick up unclaimed bodies from the mortuary, states that during that time, thousands of bodies were picked up. In each grave at least three or four bodies were placed together. Many were burnt unidentified.

This task was carried out over the next few days. "We would fit 120 bodies in one truck and this we would fill and empty five times a day. There were eight trucks on duty."  This would translate into 4800 bodies a day.

"At least 15,000-20,000 people died in those first few days. What they said in the papers was absolutely wrong. What could I have done? I was a government servant…" Karim added, "Those who have survived are like the living dead." His lungs were affected and he also suffers from vertigo.

The term 'living dead' is illustrative of another serious miscarriage of justice. The way in which the death toll and injury figures that formed the basis for the oft-criticised 1989 settlement did not factor in people who continued to die in Bhopal because of negative health effects related to that night. As cited by the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB), according to the 1998 annual report of the Centre for Rehabilitation Studies (part of the Madhya Pradesh government's Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation Department), "the mortality rate among the exposed community in 1997 was 6.70/1000, whereas in the unexposed community it was 5.37/1000, producing a figure of 665 deaths above the mortality rate in the exposed community – or approximately 50 gas related deaths per month."

The complex web related to the numbers of those affected by the gas disaster, the criminal responsibility of Union Carbide for ignoring safeguards and cutting corners in its factory leading to a case against Anderson and the company, and the issue of civil compensation needed to be thrashed out over the years following the disaster. But here the Indian government played a less than honourable role. In March 1985, through the passage of the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, it arrogated itself as the sole power to represent the victims in the civil litigation against Union Carbide, thereby effectively debarring survivors from bringing cases against the multinational.

A torchlight rally commemorating the Bhopal gas tragedy. Flickr / Colin Toogood, Bhopal Medical Appeal
A torchlight rally commemorating the Bhopal gas tragedy. Flickr / Colin Toogood, Bhopal Medical Appeal

Union Carbide, for its part, contested the legitimacy of the courts before which it was required to appear and threatened to summon survivors on an individual basis instead of allowing for a class action suit. In 1989, without consulting the survivors, the Indian government arrived at a settlement with Union Carbide that would provide compensation of just INR 1 lakh for every death and INR 25,000 for lifelong injury. There were also problems with the unscientific classification of injuries with a large majority being placed in the temporary injury category.

The settlement also shamelessly capitulated to Union Carbide’s demand that criminal cases against its officials be extinguished. In response, the Bhopal survivors filed lawsuits to overturn the settlement, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled that it, and the amount offered, would stand. However, the Court reinstated criminal charges against Anderson, Union Carbide and other officials.

The crimes of Union Carbide began even before the disaster. In a factory that manufactured pesticides under the banner of a ‘greener and better India’, safety standards were reduced as a result of cost-cutting exercises.

While the survivors are disappointed about the fact that they failed to bring the prime accused Anderson to court, they are hopeful the battle against the multinationals will continue. The Bhopal district court on 12 November issued a summons to Dow Chemical asking it to explain why it is not making Union Carbide appear in the cases against the company. Dow Chemical, however, has also consistently refused to appear in court.

‘Second tragedy’
Meanwhile, over the years another ‘ongoing disaster’ has been silently and insidiously unfolding. The air and the groundwater in the areas around the factory site have been polluted by the vats of pesticide and toxic waste that were not properly disposed of in the factory’s premises. These have severely impacted the health of the communities that live in the factory’s vicinity.

The carcinogenicity and neurotoxicity of the contaminants have the potential to cause organ damage, and are especially harmful to children and foetuses. Numerous studies show how 50,000 people who have been drinking contaminated water in the area have suffered damage to the liver, kidneys, lungs and brain and suffered from various types of cancer. Children with severe deformities have been born to parents who drank the water.

Union Carbide carried out its own investigation in 1989 in a study titled “Presence of Toxic Ingredients in Soil/Water Samples Inside Plant Premises”, but kept under wraps the results that showed toxicity. It deliberately shut its eyes and let people consume contaminated water.

The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) of Nagpur, an expert member of the special task force convened by Madhya Pradesh politicians to work on the issue of contamination at the Bhopal plant site, also initially went along with this farce. It reported that the solar evaporation ponds outside the factory walls had not contaminated soil and groundwater. Buried inside its report, however, was the caveat that some organic compounds in the samples could not be identified and hence the sediment in these solar evaporation ponds cannot be ruled as non-hazardous. In actuality, NEERI had left out nine chemicals.

Carbide set up an independent firm – Arthur D Little – to review the NEERI draft. Interestingly this firm advised against assessing the water as “suitable for drinking purposes”. It also warned that the poison plume in the groundwater could spread faster than anyone feared.

State Research Laboratory tests and Greenpeace’s 1999 report helped to expose the perfidy and lies even as more and more people continued to suffer from various diseases. Greenpeace identified widespread contamination, including of groundwater, with concentrations of carcinogenic chemicals and heavy metals like mercury.

More recently, in 2009, Bhopal Medical Appeal and the Sambhavna Trust Clinic published its report indicating that water from a hand pump in one of Bhopal’s settlement, Atal Ayub Nagar, was dangerously contaminated with carbon tetrachloride. Also, the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research (IITR) submitted an interim report in 2012 before the Supreme Court saying that the groundwater around the factory was contaminated, and nitrate levels were higher than permissible levels for drinking water.

Communities living in the factory’s vicinity are now getting piped water brought from a considerable distance following Supreme Court directives telling the Madhya Pradesh government to provide clean drinking water, but for those who drank the water for so many years the damage has already been done. Even lactating mothers’ milk has been found to contain traces of pesticides.

Corporate accountability
Chaudhary and other survivor-activists protested at the Dow Chemical offices to pressure them to provide compensation for victims of this second tragedy. In a remarkable exercise of gross insensitivity and sheer travesty of justice, Dow Chemical actually filed its fourth lawsuit against Bhopal activists earlier this year. In 2002, Dow sued activists who had demonstrated at the company’s Mumbai office, claiming USD 10,000 in compensation for “loss of work”.

A more heartening aspect of the struggle has been the growing solidarity worldwide for the survivors, and the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB) has presented the Bhopal disaster as a prism through which broader issues of corporate accountability, globalisation, environmental justice, global standards of safety and human rights can be examined.

Upendra Baxi, legal luminary and one of India’s pre-eminent thinkers, notes in his book The Future of Human Rights how in the 20th century it is not just the sovereign state that perpetuates serious human-rights violations. He sounds a warning against the way massive organisations of global capitalism manifested in the form of transnational/multinational corporations have demonstrated “a remarkable resilience to legitimate grave and continuing violations of human rights as people in Bhopal know and tell us”.

Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action notes, “In its timing and in the composition of the principal actors… Bhopal is a window to what lies at the end of Globalisation.” Bhopal epitomises the utter failure of international agencies and legal systems to meet the challenges of a globalised world, where the protection of health, human rights and the environment depends upon the possibility of holding corporations fully accountable for their crimes and malfeasance.

The crimes of Union Carbide began even before the disaster. In a factory that manufactured pesticides under the banner of a ‘greener and better India’, safety standards were reduced as a result of cost-cutting exercises. Subsequently, Carbide showed flagrant disregard for its legal responsibility with Anderson and other officials refusing to obey summons before the Bhopal court.

The civil settlement with the Indian government displays blatant disrespect for the survivors’ suffering. The amount is far below international compensation standards – even less than those set by Indian railways for accidents. It awarded survivors the equivalent of a few cents per day – the cost of a cup of tea – for a lifetime of unimaginable difficulty. People with incapacitating injuries were brushed away as having suffered temporary ailments. And no consideration was made for the next generation, the children of gas-affected Bhopal survivors born with infirmities or physical deformities.

Rashida Bi, a prominent activist survivor and trade unionist who has lost five members of her family in the aftermath of the Bhopal disaster, sums up the struggle for justice and its ramifications for a new jurisprudence and human solidarity which can transcend the contemporary global corporate hegemony. She says, “We are aware that the day we succeed in holding Dow Chemical liable for the continuing disaster in Bhopal it will be good news for ordinary people all over the world. From that day chemical corporations will think twice before producing and peddling poisons and putting profits before the lives and health of people.”

~ Freny Manecksha is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.

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